August 27, 2020 

‘If we don’t fight it, who’s going to fight it?’ Cheryl Reeve discusses Lynx, WNBA refusal to play

Minnesota, early in the fight, keeps leading

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WNBA players chose not to play Wednesday night’s slate of games and instead came together to call for racial justice and bring awareness to the recent police shooting of Jacob Blake. Photo credit: WNBA Twitter account.

Cheryl Reeve has witnessed plenty of moments of greatness displayed by her WNBA players over the last decade. But the historic moment Reeve’s players shared on Wednesday went beyond setting league records or winning Finals titles. It was about much more than basketball.

The WNBA postponed all three of the league’s games that were scheduled to be played on Wednesday night — a distinction that, it should be noted, came after players and coaches decided not to play the night’s slate of games to unify against racial injustice.

“What we know is that despite being here in the bubble and the great work that we’re doing that things haven’t changed very much outside of the bubble,” Reeve said. “The depth of the pain that our players, coaches all of us are feeling is indescribable. I told our players how proud I was of them. It takes a great deal of courage to take the steps like these that we feel are necessary.

“Something has to change. Something has to change. ‘Not one more’ is how we feel.”

Earlier in the day, the Milwaukee Bucks boycotted their playoff game against the Orlando Magic to protest the police shooting of Jacob Blake who was shot in the back seven times by Kenosha police officers Sunday night. Three hours later, WNBA players knelt, locked arms and raised fists during the playing of the national anthem. This time, basketball didn’t follow the protest.

“This is a centuries — not a century — a centuries-long problem in our nation, and I am proud of this generation that they are committed that things must change,” Reeve said.

The WNBA and its players’ union dedicated its 2020 season to the Black Lives Matter movement and the #SayHerName campaign in July and have carried out multiple initiatives ever since. But on Wednesday they collectively put their careers on hold to plead for change.

“Black people are not here just for your entertainment,” Reeve said. “Athletes … when they decide — and I think we’re here — we’ve had enough. And now maybe white owners that have a hard time with a player kneeling … maybe if you don’t have us at all, maybe if it really hits you where it hurts, you’ll listen. But isn’t that sad? That might be the only way that you make progress is if the billionaires don’t make their billions off of Black athletes. These are all things that are on our minds.

“It’s heavy. It’s really heavy. I don’t know how we could have played a game. I don’t know how we could have played a game. Even tomorrow. So this is hard. This is hard being here. Whether we’re here in the bubble or in our respective markets, this is a pivotal time in our nation’s history. It has to stop.”

Reeve said she thinks “it’s a form of oppression that we have to give up our jobs” in her opening statement but stressed that players’ concerns aren’t about money or the future of their league right now.

“Using our voices as athletes, we’re going to get hit in the pocketbook. That sucks,” Reeve said. “But you can’t have change with people like us sitting there and accepting it. It takes courage and it takes sacrifice. Many before us have done it. Many before us. I am proud of this generation of women in the WNBA who don’t fear people who want to take this away from us and say, ‘You spoke up too much. We’re going to take your league away from you.’ We’re unafraid of that.”

Instead, players are afraid for their and their family members’ lives.

“I honestly think the only concern they have is for their family members and the daily walk out the front door,” Reeve said. “I told the team I said, ‘I have a young son. I don’t have to have the same conversations, and that makes me ill.’”

The anguish and raw emotions filling the bubble were exposed when Reeve began to speak about her young son Oliver and Odyssey Sims’s four-month-old son Jaiden.

“The conversations I’m having with Oliver Harrison Knox-Reeve are,” and here, Reeve paused for a full 20 seconds, then continued. “And for Odyssey’s Jaiden, I want them to grow up in a different world. And I want them to be a part of the change. They don’t know anything different. This is such learned behavior. It takes a lot to have so much hate on your heart. You have to work really hard to have disregard for another’s life. It’s just unfathomable. It just … it has to change.”

In that moment, Reeve’s message couldn’t be more clear: basketball is not the priority.

“You know what (players) don’t care about? Playing basketball,” Reeve said. “That’s the first and foremost. They don’t care about playing basketball. That’s the takeaway for everyone to write because the ones who have their minds on basketball don’t get it. They don’t get it.”

Reeve said she is a “low person on the totem pole” when it comes to making decisions on whether or not the remainder of the 2020 season is played out but shared her appreciation for the league, commissioner Cathy Engelbert and those who will be front and center when deciding the future of the season.

“We appreciate very much the support that we get from our league,” Reeve said. “We appreciate that very much. I know that the NBA feels the same about their leadership in regard to social justice and criminal justice reform.

“When you’re putting business ahead of lives, you’re going to get it wrong every single time. I do think (NBA commissioner) Adam Silver and the WNBA and in this case Cathy Engelbert, I do think they understand it. The number of times that Cathy Engelbert is saying, ‘I support you and your decision,’ OK, it’s not easy for her job. It takes courage for her to stand there and go, ‘I’m going to lose this much money tonight by not playing these games. We’re going to suffer here, suffer here.’ But it isn’t about money.”

When Reeve ponders the exhausting question of “what’s next?” she isn’t thinking about what her next paycheck will look like or when her team’s next game will come. The resiliency she’s seen in WNBA players assures her that there’s a larger fight that’s still worth fighting for.

“We have to think of the next thing,” Reeve said. “We cannot stop. The fight is worth fighting. If we don’t fight it, who’s going to fight it?”

But before the fight can continue and gain traction, Reeve believes the league’s demands need more direction and specificity.

“It’s one thing to tweet, to wear shirts, to kneel,” Reeve said. “I believe it’s time to get more pointed. What are the roots of the problems? We have to educate ourselves on what the root of the problem is, and then we have to be laser-focused on how we make change and we have to educate others of what that means. When you say ‘vote,’ what do we mean by that? It’s a very generic idea: go vote, your voice matters. Yes, but be specific. Who’re you voting for and why? And also ask yourselves why we have two old, white men as the only choice to lead this country. It’s not working folks. It’s not working. We need a change.”

Reeve isn’t trying to completely remove white men from the conversation. She’s asking for a reallocation of say and power that adequately represents our diverse country.

“I know Oliver is going to grow up to be a white man, and my dad was a white man, and my brothers were white men and (Lynx basketball communications manager) Aaron Freeman’s a white man,” Reeve said. “I just think we need diversity of thought. I don’t want to exclude white men. But what we’re seeing in our nation’s history, white men have gotten it wrong many, many times. We need to elect more people that are not white men,” Reeve said. “Facts. And we’re getting there, right? I think we’ve seen it every election cycle we’re seeing more women, we’re seeing more people of color. But, just like we see in corporations, there’s a limit to how high we’ll promote these people. We’ll let them be a part of it to make our numbers look good, but the actual leaders and decision-makers, that’s where we’ve got to get to. That’s what I think it’s going to take for a change.”

The road ahead is unpaved and sure to present more deflating days. But the impending exhaustion and feelings of hopelessness won’t defeat her commitment to building a better future for Oliver and Jaiden’s generation. Nor will it displace the pride she has for her players who stood for Philando Castile in 2016 and for those who say Breonna Taylor’s name in 2020.

“I said this before that when we put ‘Black Lives Matter’ on a shirt in 2016, the reaction for so many people including some in our organization was, ‘You cannot put Black Lives Matter,’ and now Black Lives Matter is being painted on streets at the urging of city leaders,” Reeve said. “It’s changed so much that way, and I think that so many of the unaffected white people are starting to see and really understand the systemic racism, the inequities. We’re all kind of going, ‘How do we change this once and for all?’ So I think we have far more attention around it and more people listening than ever before. And that’s encouraging.”

Written by Katie Davidson

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