By most measurements, 2020 is going to be the biggest and best year ever for the WNBA. As the league celebrates its 24th season, for the first time due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the women are playing at the same time as the men. They have their own bubble at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida, where the abbreviated 22-game season began Saturday. More than half of their games are being nationally televised on ABC, ESPN, ESPN 2 or the CBS Sports Network.
The league is also coming off a new collective bargaining agreement that guaranteed at minimum six-figure salaries for all its players, including both base salary and incentives. It marked a significant pay increase for many women who’ve had to play two seasons, one overseas, to make ends meet.
They even welcomed both a new commissioner, Cathy Engelbert, and a new star in Sabrina Ionescu, reputed to be a superb ball handler and shooter. Last Saturday’s New York Times devoted half of its sports section to the WNBA. Most importantly, the WNBA, a league featuring an approximately 70 percent Black women’s playing base, announced this season was devoted to social justice issues. Most prominent among them was the “Say My Name” movement, an effort to publicly cite the names of Black women killed by police.
But that’s also part of what’s become a problem. Atlanta Dream co-owner Kelly Loeffler, a junior senator from Georgia, as well as a hardcore right-winger and Trump supporter, directly opposes the league’s social justice effort, and in particular the decision to have players wearing the names of Black women killed by police on the backs of their jerseys.
“I think a lot of people feel that they may not have a place,” Loeffler told ESPN last week. “They may feel excluded from this sport and other sports that make them feel like American values aren’t at the core of what we’re doing here.” Loeffler wrote a letter to WNBA commissioner Engelbert expressing her objections.
“The statement, ‘Black lives matter,’ is very different than the organization Black Lives Matter,” Loeffler said. “I think we all agree the life of every African American is important. There’s no room for racism in this country, and we have to root it out where it exists. But there’s a political organization called Black Lives Matter that I think is very important to make the distinction between their aim and where we are as a country at this moment. The Black Lives Matter political organization advocates things like defunding and abolishing the police, abolishing our military, emptying our prisons, destroying the nuclear family. It promotes violence and antisemitism. To me, this is not what our league stands for.”
For the record, Black Lives Matter has NO official policies and is a decentralized movement with individual chapters operating autonomously nationwide. Loeffler has long been a thorn in the league’s side, someone many players are unhappy with, and whose involvement they’d love to see end. But Loeffler has publicly said she’s not going to sell her team and won’t be forced out or silenced.
This will be a situation to watch in the coming weeks, because WNBA players are not going to stop publicly supporting either Black Lives Matter or the Say Her Name movements. What the league does, if anything, in response to Loeffler, and what she may do it Atlanta Dream players participate in these actions, will be closely monitored.