September 18, 2020
WNBA names every player winner of Community Assist Award
League recognizes collective social justice efforts
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PALMETTO, FL- JULY 25: The Indiana Fever and the Washington Mystics honor Breonna Taylor prior to a game on July 25, 2020 at Feld Entertainment Center in Palmetto, Florida. (NBA Content Network)
For the majority of WNBA players, making social justice the centerpiece of their 2020 season was a non-negotiable.
In fact, it’s highly unlikely they would have played this season if they were unable to use it to highlight the #SayHerName campaign and the issue of Black women being killed by law enforcement.
But with a commitment from the League to dedicate the season to social justice, they began.
“As diverse as we may be — whether we are straight or gay in the League, black, white or brown — whatever our differences may be, I think this was the thing that was really clear to all of us and that we had to speak up about,” said Chicago Sky’s Sydney Colson.
“For a lot of us it was a non-negotiable.”
So in a season unlike any other, the players used their collective voices to take a stand and push forth social justice activism, with specific efforts to spotlight and raise awareness of Black women who have been victims of police brutality.
As a result of their efforts and for the first time ever, the WNBA has named all the WNBA players as the recipients of the 2020 season-long WNBA Community Assist Award presented by State Farm® for their continued commitment, leadership and collaborative efforts to promote racial equality and create systemic change.
The WNBA Cares Community Assist Award was previously awarded to one player each month of the season, traditionally recognizing an individual who best reflected the WNBA’s passion for making a difference in the community.
The players are being recognized for their collective passion and dedication to social justice and working as a unified community to bring awareness to and fight against systemic racism.
As part of the award, the WNBA and State Farm will donate $50,000 to the African American Policy Forum, in recognition of the WNBA players’ commitment to the WNBA Justice Movement and the #SayHerName campaign, while bringing awareness to inequality and systemic racism, lifting up marginalized communities, and pushing for change.
“Black women’s leadership in sports has often been unwritten as soon as they do it,” said Professor Kimberle Crenshaw, founder of the AAPF and the creator of the #SayHerName initiative.
“The WNBA players are standing collectively to make their leadership obvious, apparent and uncompromised. These players are not going to allow their voices to be muted.
“They will not allow the issues they are talking about to be forgotten. This is a new moment in the history of racial justice and in the history of athletes speaking for racial justice.”
Player Activism and League Support
It’s almost natural for social justice activism to be part of who they are as players, Colson said, because they’ve spent most of their lives as athletes with microphones in their faces and the opportunities to speak to young kids and to large audiences.
“In that way I feel like that it helped some of us to find our voices and to find the courage to speak out against things. We’re competitive so we’re not going to be silent,” she said. “It was huge to come into this season and be with almost 140 other women who were committed to the same things.”
Colson, who is also a member of the league’s Social Justice Council, charged with helping lead efforts on behalf of all WNBA players to address important social issues, shared what brought all the players together with this commitment.
“We didn’t always maybe have the same idea of how to approach what we wanted to do, but because we knew the end goal, then we knew we could all get on board with what we were trying to do.”
Las Vegas Aces star A’ja Wilson, also a member of the Social Justice Council, knew the players were determined to play this season for something bigger than themselves.
“You take the basketball ability away, you take the uniform away — we are Black women. When we got the call to be a part of the council I did not hesitate at all because I knew I wanted to be a voice for the voiceless; that’s what our council is.
“It hits home,” Wilson said of the realities of racial injustice. “Yeah, it could be my dad or my brother or my boyfriend but it could also be me, or my mom or any of us, and when it hits raw like that, I think that’s what makes you want to fight and that’s what our council is about.”
With the entire nation engulfed in Black Lives Matter protests and social unrest after the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor this summer, the league began preparing for an unprecedented season.
League officials and the Women’s National Basketball Players Association (WNBPA) created a new platform, the WNBA Justice Movement, which aims to amplify the voices and leadership of WNBA players in the social justice space. It also created the Social Justice Council to spearhead these efforts.
Additionally, the league and player’s union also partnered with the AAPF, which created the #SayHerName campaign, to bring awareness to Black women. Players wore #SayHerName t-shirts during practice and games and used their post-game media sessions to call out the names of Black women victims of police brutality including Taylor and Sandra Bland.
Bethany Donovan, WNBA head of league operations, said there was never any doubt that the league would stand behind its players.
“When we were approaching the 2020 season, we were thinking about how to operate a season in a single site during a Covid 19 crisis,” Donovan said. “But then we had to stop and process all that — certainly I was feeling, players were feeling — frustration, hopelessness, rage, fear, all of the complexities of things that come with what people were experiencing in our society.
This prompted the league to ask and answer several questions on how best to approach the season.
“There were safety and health protocols to consider but we also had to consider the fact that we were dealing with a crisis around systemic racism and it was important for us to think about how to be a vessel for players to do what they’ve always done – speak out.
“This (activism) has been the fabric of the league for a long time,” Donovan said. “We have always authentically stood in our values and part of that is players have always used their platforms to talk about societal issues that matter to them and they do it vocally.
They created the Social Justice Council, Donovan said, to have a bigger impact in the social justice space.
“We wanted players, the League, the Union and teams to come together in a cohort with incredible advisers like Professor Crenshaw and stand up for something much bigger than this League and this game and really try to make an impact.
“It’s a steady fight,” Donovan continued. “It’s a day-by-day thing. We certainly have been focused on it for the 2020 season and it’s something that we will continue to do. It doesn’t stop and it won’t stop.”
PALMETTO, FL- JULY 25: Team members of the New York Liberty honoring the memory of Breonna Taylor prior to the game against the Seattle Storm on July 25, 2020 at Feld Entertainment Center in Palmetto, Florida. (NBA Content Network)
Crenshaw, also an adviser to the WNBA’s Social Justice Council, coined the term “say her name” with the express intention of elevating the stories of forgotten Black women who have been killed by police.
“Say her name quite literally was a demand for recognition and to address the loss of the loss, namely families losing Black women to violence, and then losing the memory of that loss,” Crenshaw explained. “People don’t demand justice for them because they don’t know about what happened to them.
“Our effort is to lift up the fact that Black women are also vulnerable to police brutality. Their families suffer from both the loss and failure to recognize this and their children are left behind. They cry no less for their mothers than they do for their fathers.”
SayHerName is very much like Black Lives Matter, Crenshaw said, and just as important.
“There’s always been a recognition that police brutality has been an unfortunate reality for many African Americans but sometimes, something happens that galvanizes all of that energy into a demand for justice.
“How proud I am to be standing with and witnessing Black women athletes stepping into not only leadership — but stepping into leadership as Black women for Black women, telling their stories and demanding justice for Black women.
Wilson is also proud of what the league has done this season but knows the work is just beginning.
“At this point, we know change doesn’t happen overnight but – especially for the Black woman — her voice has to be heard,” Wilson said.
“We tend to get swept underneath the rug; no matter what we do, they always find something to say. Now it’s us saying ‘hey, we’re not going anywhere and we’re going to stand up for what we believe in.’”