August 5, 2020 

The Liberty show, rather than tell, on social justice

How New York became Liberty Loud as a new normal

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PALMETTO, FL – AUGUST 2: The New York Liberty honor Breonna Taylor prior to a game against the Phoenix Mercury on August 2, 2020 at Feld Entertainment Center in Palmetto, Florida. Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images.

Layshia Clarendon had their head down. The Liberty had just lost their fourth in a row to the Phoenix Mercury, getting blown out in the final quarter and falling 96-67. Now Clarendon had to answer the media’s questions about the loss. The veteran point guard was tired physically and emotionally, and rightfully so. Facing reporters was the last thing Clarendon probably wanted to do.

But when she was reminded that their head coach Walt Hopkins and the entire staff had worn the words BLACK TRANS LIVES MATTER across their chests that afternoon, the 2017 All-Star picked their head up and grinned, and for a moment forgot about the embarrassment that is accompanied by a blowout loss.

Clarendon explained how the shirts came to be. In addition to the league-wide shooting shirts, the Liberty as a team decided to design two of their own. According to Clarendon, there was team discussion determining why they wanted a shirt that read: BLACK TRANS LIVES MATTER and why that idea is important. Every player and every staff member has these shirts that are specific to the New York Liberty.

“So seeing the staff wearing them especially united, especially the Black trans shirts, meant a lot to me,” she said. “It means a lot to me. So that was really nice to see. I wish we could have also gotten a win.”

The entire basketball operations staff including Hopkins, and assistants Shelly Patterson, Kelly Raimon and Dustin Gray have not only coordinated for each game, but have consistently worn a shirt that makes this organization’s message loud and clear.

This is significant simply because of the fact that not all teams are doing this. Not all staffs have openly and consistently supported the intersectional elements to the fight against racial injustice.

For Hopkins, the thinking behind the consistency was to show support in a way that was organic rather than performative.

“We didn’t want to just have one week where we called attention to these issues, and we didn’t want it to be something that faded into the background where it was kind of a token ‘hey, we care’ for one game,” Hopkins told reporters after practice on Tuesday. “It’s not to say that there’d be anything wrong with people doing that, we just decided as a staff that we wanted to keep it going, so that was how we landed on that.”

On July 24, the day before New York’s first regular-season game, GM Jonathan Kolb addressed reporters. But before discussing basketball, Kolb had a request and a reminder for everyone covering and paying attention to the New York Liberty during the 2020 season. He reminded reporters that this season is especially about “more than than the game” of basketball, and the players’ decision to wear Breonna Taylor’s name next to their own was “painfully beautiful.”

“And so while I know there’s going to be an abundance of storylines to cover this season that relates to on the court, I just really hope that we collectively can continue to shine the spotlight on the ongoing injustice as it relates to Breonna Taylor and her family, and that we all continue to keep our feet on the proverbial gas when it comes to continuing to say her name,” he said.

Kolb was asked to provide some insight into how the Liberty are going to engage with its Brooklyn and New York communities on topics related to social justice while far away in the Bradenton Wubble. He reminded folks of how the Barclays Center’s became a hub for the protests that took place in late May through June, and how that symbolism aligns with the intention of the entire organization.

“We’ll continue to do that and part of that is to continue to have this type of a conversation and not just to rely on an Instagram post or a comment from a month or two ago, but to continue this conversation,” he said. “I think you can count on the New York Liberty to do that.“

The next day, the team released a short public service announcement retelling Breonna Taylor’s story. All-Star Kia Nurse recounted the intense emotions that surrounded filming the video, telling reporters that it “was an extremely tough video to film.” Nurse believes that the short film will only increase awareness while using national broadcasts to do so.

“It’s something that as a unified voice in the league and as a unified voice of the New York Liberty, that was something that we really wanted to put forward, that we are demanding justice for Breonna Taylor and her case,” Nurse said. “And really understanding that there are a lot of people, a lot of names, a lot of hashtags that go, you know, not as much in the spotlight or not as known about or not fought as hard for.”

The united front that the Liberty delegation exhibits every game down in Bradenton, Florida is a result of a commitment across the entire organization to present as unified. Rookie wing Jocelyn Willoughby explained how newly-minted CEO Keia Clarke was behind the scenes before the 2020 season was even announced to make sure that all players and staff new and old were learning and engaged on matters pertaining to racial inequality. Clarke coordinated and moderated “team and organizational discussions,” which felt “reassuring” for Willoughby.

Clarke has also joined the league’s Social Justice Council, a group of players, league officials, team leaders, and a “subset of advisors” that is spearheading and leading how the WNBA educates, amplifies and acts in response to social injustice around the world. As one of two franchise leaders chosen to represent on the Council, Clarke hopes to provide expertise as to how the Liberty franchise has developed some of their social justice programming in New York’s “Unity Platform,” which was formed in response to the league-wide protests in 2016.

“I was ready and willing to lend my voice and New York’s experience to this conversation and these conversations for the greater good of the league,” Clarke told The Next.

But how will the creation of the Social Justice Council impact the Liberty’s already formed Unity Platform? Clarke believes the two entities will have a “symbiotic relationship,” making it clear that one doesn’t halt or prevent the other from doing the important work in this space. And after the first few Zoom calls that she’s had with the members of the Council, this is a group that will “provide for a clearer alignment of values” leaguewide.

Layshia Clarendon #7 of the New York Liberty speaks about the “Say Her Name” campaign and asked for a moment of silence for 26 seconds prior to the game against the Seattle Storm on July 25, 2020 at Feld Entertainment Center in Palmetto, Florida. Photo by Stephen Gosling/NBAEvia Getty Images.

“This Council, I think for the very first time is a collaboration for all of these parts coming together… providing an opportunity for strength in numbers,” Clarke said.

She has noted in her years overseeing the Liberty’s Unity platform that players have been calling for more education not only from an academic lens, but from a practical one as well. After leaving the Zoom call that the Social Justice Council hosted alongside Kimberlé Crenshaw of the African American Policy Forum and WNBPA Board of Advocates member Stacy Abrams, Clarke felt as though the Council is providing resources that the women of the WNBA hadn’t previously had access to.

Before opening tipoff on July 25, Clarke and the Liberty announced that the franchise will be donating $25,000 to the African American Policy Forum and the #SayHerName campaign. The Liberty CEO hopes that actions such as the PSA featuring the players, the team donation, and the consistency from the staff and the players will only invite fans and partners into the movement.

“Education is certainly a part of it and is the lead, amplification is a part of it,” she said. “Economic activism is a part of it. And not just on the part of the players and the league and teams, but how fans show up and how partners show up in this space. We want to open that up and we want people to lock arms with us and become a part of this movement.”

On the business and the basketball side, there is consensus: the Liberty aren’t going to stop. This isn’t a one-season type venture.

“All movements, anything you are fighting for, it never happens overnight,” Clarke said. “So I think the task and the challenge that we are accepting is huge, it’s monumental. It can’t be solved in the snap of a finger, and I think we would all acknowledge that. It has to be long-lasting, it has to be long term for it to have real impact, but more importantly in order to be authentic.”

And players are on board, including rookie Sabrina Ionescu, who is looking forward to getting to see and engage with the New York community when it’s safe to. Ionescu believes that this is something that the Liberty will continue to be a part of regardless of the performative popularity that exists surrounding racial injustice on social media.

“It’s something that we want to live by through the way that we play and through the platform that we have as an organization,” she said. “So hopefully this is a starting point to many more different things that we continue to help on, whether it’s in New York or whether it’s around the world or in our country today.”

After practice on Tuesday, Kiah Stokes was asked about the decision and commitment from the organization to wear a shirt that said: BLACK TRANS LIVES MATTER on national television.

“I think it’s rare,” she said. “Who has a coach who wears ‘black trans lives matter’ to a game? I think it’s powerful and it tries to send a message.”

Stokes is proud to be a part of a program that across the board is on the same page and believes in the spirit and potential for equality. She believes that the consistency from the staff brings a lot of attention to the movement and the message.

“I’m just glad to be part of a program and part of the team and can say,” as Stokes points to her right, “You know? That’s my coach.’”

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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