July 7, 2020 

Sparked by the Australian Opals, Basketball Australia rolls out new social justice initiatives

Liz Cambage told her Opals teammates she didn’t feel supported. So they boycotted practice—and got tangible results.

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The Australian women’s national basketball team, commonly known as the Opals, recently returned to training in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Concurrently, the team, and Basketball Australia as a whole, has also been grappling with racism and other social justice issues that have inspired conversations around the world.

According to Opals and Phoenix Mercury head coach Sandy Brondello, the conversations in Australia are very similar to those in the United States, where protests began after Minneapolis police killed George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, on May 25.

“There’s a lot of ignorant people out there [who] are not educated on the Black history,” Brondello told The Next. “I think it needs to be more taught in the schools, but it starts with ourselves, this generation now. We need to talk about it more. … We need to [teach] our children to choose love over hate.”

Phoenix Mercury and Australia head coach Sandy Brondello watches the on-court action during a WNBA game between the Mercury and the Connecticut Sun on July 12, 2019. Photo credit: Chris Poss

Opals and Las Vegas Aces star Liz Cambage participated in protests in Australia, and in early June she posted an emotional video on social media sharing some of her own experiences with racism and exhorting Australians to own up to their country’s history.

“How dare people say Black Lives Matter,” Cambage said in the video. “How f—ing dare you people say that when we have the darkest, most twisted, most disgusting past when it comes to Indigenous Australians and the treatment of Indigenous Australians.”

She added, “Until I see more diversity and more inclusion in this country, you do not care about black lives. … Check out of America, Australia, because we have s— we need to sort right here. We have blood on our hands, we have blood on our hands and we need to fix it.”

On June 14, in response to “recent events in the United States,” Basketball Australia announced that it had created a Reconciliation Action Plan. Details about the plan are scarce, but Basketball Australia declared in its announcement that basketball “is a sport for all” and that the organization “is committed to eliminating racism and discrimination in all its forms.” The announcement also cited the statistic that 437 Aboriginal people in Australia have died in police custody since 1991, yet no officers have faced consequences.

Brondello could not provide specifics about the plan, but she said that these conversations were “necessary” for the Opals to have. When asked how she would characterize Basketball Australia’s past treatment of players of color, based on her experiences as both a former Opals player and the current head coach, Brondello declined to comment and expressed a desire to “focus on what we’re doing now.” However, Cambage recently told Gold Coast Bulletin that the Opals “have had racial issues, public and behind closed doors.”

The most public of those incidents occurred in 2016, one year before Brondello became the team’s head coach. Then-Opals player Alice Kunek wore blackface to an end-of-season party for the Melbourne Boomers, and photos were published on social media and in the press. (The Boomers are part of the Women’s National Basketball League (WNBL), which is run by Basketball Australia.) The Boomers and Basketball Australia both accepted Kunek’s public apology, but some, including Australia’s race discrimination commissioner and Cambage’s manager, wanted Basketball Australia to take further action.

More recently, Nate Jawai, the only active Indigenous player in the men’s NBL, urged the league to make “a much greater effort” to support and promote Indigenous Australians and other players of color. “We need to know the NBL cares and has our backs,” he added.

Las Vegas Aces and Australia star Liz Cambage stands at half court in a game against the Washington Mystics on July 13, 2019. Photo credit: Domenic Allegra

That sentiment was strikingly similar to the one Cambage expressed on June 17, when she texted her teammates saying she did not feel supported by Basketball Australia because it had not made a public statement since Floyd’s death. (The Reconciliation Action Plan had been announced on Basketball Australia’s website but not promoted on social media yet.) The Opals players decided as a group to push for changes from Basketball Australia.

“I dropped the bomb, switched my phone off and two hours later the girls were boycotting practice in the morning,” Cambage told Gold Coast Bulletin. “… I was very moved, very inspired and very emotional, especially with our team history.”

The players notified Brondello, who lives in Phoenix year-round, in advance that they would boycott practice, and Brondello told them that she was supportive. Multiple players announced the boycott on social media; in a since-deleted post, Cambage wrote, “We as an Opals playing group stand in support of our Black and Indigenous players and will not be training until we see support and change from our sporting organisation @basketballaus!! We say enough is enough!! #blacklivesmatter.”

The Opals skipped practice on June 18 and met with Basketball Australia the following day “to discuss our shared belief on the important role our sport can play in eradicating racism, discrimination and injustice,” according to a statement by the organization. The statement also included a commitment from both sides to “engage, listen, and be a vehicle for change.”

Brondello believes that the boycott made a difference, even though it was short-lived. “It was just one day of practice [missed], but we [have] certainly come together, we’ve aligned,” Brondello said.

One early result of that alignment is Basketball Australia’s new RISE UP initiative, which aims to promote the Opals’ team values of Respect (combating) Injustice, Standards, Equality, Unity, and Peace. To kick off the initiative, the Opals released a five-minute video in which players publicly committed to educating themselves and taking action against racism and social injustice.

Brondello called RISE UP “a step in the right direction” and said that the players’ video sent “a very impactful, very strong message” about the need for change. RISE UP will begin with digital and social media campaigns, and Brondello said that the organization would announce new player-driven efforts on a weekly basis. She also praised Basketball Australia CEO Jerril Rechter, who took over the position in March 2019, for her efforts and said, “I appreciate what [Basketball Australia is] trying to do to help this movement, and the players spoke out, they listened, and they … took action. And that’s all you can ask … we’ve got to keep asking.”

Cambage and several of her teammates declined or were unavailable to comment for this story, but the creation of RISE UP clearly means a lot to Cambage.

“For the first time in my life this isn’t me pushing this agenda; it is my sisters, my teammates, and Basketball Australia,” she told Australia’s 7 News. Opals captain Jenna O’Hea said, “I’m proud to be trying to make change … [Cambage has] been fighting for this for a long time and we should have stood by her sooner.”

Minnesota Lynx head coach Cheryl Reeve, who is also a Team USA assistant coach, praised the Opals for taking a stand.

“These things take courage,” she told The Next, citing the power dynamics inherent in the relationship between players and their country’s top athletic organization. “… If you continue to accept things, then things aren’t going to change. And so there’s that recognition. You get to a certain point in life where you don’t fear retribution. You just know—some people call them ‘aha moments’—that this is what motivates you to then turn your attention to something else, to make meaningful change. And that’s what it takes, to be really honest with you. … And we’re rooting for them to bring about the change that’s necessary.”

One other change that Cambage would like to see is the inclusion of the Indigenous flag on the Opals’ uniforms. Brondello had not heard about that idea but said she would support it, if FIBA regulations for team uniforms allow it.

On Monday, Brondello and the Phoenix Mercury flew to Florida for the WNBA season, which will be held at a single “clean site” rather than in teams’ home cities due to the coronavirus pandemic. Brondello will continue to communicate regularly with Basketball Australia and the Opals, and she is also looking forward to opportunities during the WNBA season to push for social justice.

“Players have a really strong voice, but I want to use my voice where possible as well, too, because I coach in the WNBA, [where] most of our players are Black athletes,” Brondello said. “That’s never been an issue, it should never be an issue, and we’ll keep supporting them. And, hopefully, the change will happen.”

WNBA players have been speaking out against racial and social injustice for several years, and change has begun with Basketball Australia and the Opals. The full impacts of Basketball Australia’s Reconciliation Action Plan and RISE UP initiative remain to be seen, but it’s significant that women’s basketball players in Australia as well as the United States are increasingly harnessing their individual and collective voices. Their message is simple but powerful: Black lives matter, equality is overdue, and we want to be the change.

Written by Jenn Hatfield

Jenn Hatfield has been a contributor to The Next since December 2018 and is currently the site's managing editor, Washington Mystics beat reporter and Ivy League beat reporter. (She also writes the "Family Rivalries" series for The Next.) Her work has also appeared at FiveThirtyEight, Her Hoop Stats and FanSided.

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