September 24, 2020 

“It’s our turn to pick up the baton”

Players and coaches around the WNBA mourn Ruth Bader Ginsburg

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The Las Vegas Aces honor the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg before game one of the 2020 Semi-finals. Photo via the Las Vegas Aces’ twitter account.

On Saturday, Minnesota Lynx head coach Cheryl Reeve noted that 2020 has been “pretty darn unkind”. One crusading icon for change spent some time discussing another, one with a significant impact on women’s sports: Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

“I’m not a crier over these sorts of things, typically,” Reeve said. But she did shed tears over the passing of former Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. “This person represented so much for so many people.”

Seattle Storm guard Alysha Clark acknowledged who and what Ginsburg inspired, explaining to reporters on Saturday that the Supreme Court Justice provided women and girls of all ages with an example, enabling them “to speak up, to be bold and not be afraid.”

“I think that is something that’s going to be beautiful moving forward,” she said while putting her hand over her chest. “And that’s where I’m going to put my hope, it’s that as women, and as minorities, that we’re going to take that the lessons we learned from her while she was here and continue in this fight.”

On Sunday, Justice Ginsburg was honored before the first playoff game of the 2020 WNBA semifinals. Before tipoff, players of the Las Vegas Aces and the Connecticut Sun had their backs turned toward the camera and instead faced the same display board that had honored Black women on behalf of the #SayHerName Campaign earlier this season.

The display included a photo of Ginsburg along with one of her quotes which read:

“I want to be remembered as someone who used whatever talent she had to do the very best of her ability…And to help repair tears in her society, to make things a little better through the use of whatever ability she has.”

That resonated in a league that decided to have its season, using their talents to help “repair tears” in this country and around the world.

The legacy that Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg leaves is enormous, initially a bit debilitating to accept. For players and coaches within the WNBA like Reeve and Clark, emotions pinballed.

Rage. Gloom. Bitterness.

The heavy thoughts and feelings, however, didn’t deter the collective from realizing the next step. They understand and accept their place within Ginsburg’s legacy where they will keep her torch and trail blazed, but also will wear her dissent collar when necessary.

Minnesota Lynx guard Rachel Banham acknowledged how not only “awesome” RBG was for women’s rights, but Justice Ginsburg “was just so powerful.”

How much did RBG fight for women in sport? For decades, before Ginsburg was even a Justice. Billie Jean King was the first female athlete to make $100,000 in 1973, but there was one problem: King couldn’t manage her earnings without a signature from her husband. Horrifying, isn’t it? A year later, The Equal Credit Opportunity Act abolished that practice. Without Ginsburg, there was no ECOA.

Banham remarked that something she and her team must continue to do is put “women on the same stage as men,” fighting for equality just like RGB. But Justice Ginsburg also fought to put men on the same stage as women and made sure they had access to the same benefits.

In 1973, Ginsburg won the case Frontiero v. Richardson in front of the Supreme Court, proving that the Air Force couldn’t provide health benefits for only wives of service members, but for husbands of those serving as well. RBG fought not only for women’s rights, but for equal opportunity across genders.

The WNBA recognized her life and accomplishments. So why was the NBA missing in action? As Rachel Nichols pointed out on Monday’s episode of The Jump, that same unity around Justice Ginsburg was missing.

“I don’t necessarily think there’s anything willful,” Reeve said on the decision from the NBA. “But the fact that it wouldn’t be thought of as being important if that makes sense. I think it’s a massive oversight and unacceptable because there’s not an oversight as it pertains to other figures that have passed [that] they’ve honored.”

Reeve didn’t find that the lack of attention toward Ginsburg sent any signals, but rather she thought it was a “massive miss.”

MVP A’ja Wilson agreed with Reeve that it’s difficult to make assumptions about the NBA without their reasoning. Wilson prefers to stick to what she and her peers can control rather than litigating the issue.

“But the biggest thing is that we can just focus on us and just know that we can do whatever we can do to make the voice in her legacy continue,” she said.

Identifying with RBG, the “Voice of Reason”

Justice Ginsburg didn’t only represent evolving equality for all people, but she broke societal expectations as well. Lindsay Crouse noted that in a world that “still loves to separate jocks from nerds,” RBG proved that dichotomy to be foolish. She embraced her own athleticism by doing squats in the Supreme Court gym while also nerding out over court cases and decisions. “You can be smart, powerful and strong all at once,” Crouse wrote.

That sounds familiar too. While these players weren’t in practice or playing in a game, what were some of them engaging in instead? Zoom calls with social justice activists. Strategizing how to get out the vote. Organizing a league-wide vigil. These were just some of the activities and projects that players took on in addition to being athletes this summer.

Wilson was influenced by RBG’s courage and her fight, inspiring the All-Star to be a leading voice in her own communities. She tried to draw a comparison with Ginsburg, using the term “tiny giant” to describe her. But then the Aces forward remembered that she and her peers are mostly over 6’ tall while Justice Ginsburg was 5’1.

“When they say tiny giant that is her, we’re not tiny, but we’re all giants in our own way,” she told reporters on Tuesday. “And I think that’s the biggest impact that she’s made on me. It’s just continue to fight and continue to use my voice.”

Napheesa Collier mentioned that she applauded the late Supreme Court Justice for being involved in fighting for equality when it wasn’t trendy, drawing more similarities between Ginsburg and the WNBA.

“She fought when it was not popular, especially as popular as it is today which is really hard to do,” she said on Saturday. “And she kind of paved the way for that so I think that we try to follow in her footsteps, especially now trying to take the torch from her and keep going.”

Seattle Storm head coach Gary Kloppenburg called Justice Ginsburg a “voice of reason” as he acknowledged that she was a leader of not only women, but minorities and folks within the LGBTQ+ community. Kloppenburg knew that her passing would be difficult for players not only on the Storm, but for players across the league to grieve for that very reason. Sue Bird walked off the bus on Tuesday before the Storm’s first playoff game wearing an RGB themed face covering to honor the late Supreme Court Justice.

Ginsburg laid a road map for the activists, organizers, and even future lawyers of the league. Her legacy reminds players and coaches that the road to change is a marathon rather than a sprint. It’s a journey rather than a year-long battle. Connecticut Sun guard Natisha Hiedeman acknowledged this, admitting that RBG created sustainable change by moving “one step at a time” and “one day at a time” toward an end goal.

A Promise to The Notorious RBG

Screenshot of Cheryl Reeve from Saturday reflecting on the passing of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. (Courtesy of NBA Content Network.)

For Reeve, Ruth Bader Ginsburg was someone who she thought was going to last forever. “Someone like her should last forever,” she said. Thinking about the consequences of her death “jolted” Reeve. Her voice quivered and she paused and put her head down. After a five-second pause, she picked her head up and looked right in the web camera still teary-eyed.

“I’m empowered. I feel committed to do even more in her honor.”

Clark too was rattled by what was next for the Supreme Court. “It’s a little nerve-wracking…moving forward and trying to…she laid the foundation,” she told reporters on Saturday.

Besides not having another Justice confirmed to the highest court in her place before the November election, both Reeve and Clark know what Justice Ginsburg would want from the WNBA collective.

“She fought the good fight and now it’s our turn to pick up where she left off and as Swin Cash tweeted yesterday, it’s our turn to pick up the baton and finish this race.”

Written by Jackie Powell

Jackie Powell covers the New York Liberty and runs social media and engagement strategy for The Next. She also has covered women's basketball for Bleacher Report and her work has appeared in Sports Illustrated, Harper's Bazaar and SLAM. She also self identifies as a Lady Gaga stan, is a connoisseur of pop music and is a mental health advocate.

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