August 21, 2023 

Elizabeth Williams and the power of voice

Williams: 'Just be true to yourself'

In recent years, WNBA players have been at the forefront of social justice movements in sports.

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In 2016, after the killing of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, four Minnesota Lynx players wore black and white shirts that read, “Change starts with us — Justice & accountability.” Since 2020, Black Lives Matter decals have been added to all WNBA courts. In 2020, four Atlanta Dream and Phoenix Mercury players, including current Sky player Elizabeth Williams, appeared on national television wearing black shirts with an all-caps message written in a white font that read VOTE WARNOCK. Senator Warnock won his runoff election against incumbent Kelly Loeffler, co-owner of the Atlanta Dream, and became Georgia’s first Black senator. His victory also secured Democrat control of the U.S. Senate.

Leader on and off the court

The Chicago Sky enter this week on a five-game losing streak and a game and a half back of the Sparks for the league’s eighth and final playoff spot. The recent string of losses marks the third time this season that the Sky have had a losing streak of four or more games. Despite an up-and-down year filled with injuries and a major midseason coaching and general manager change, Williams is currently playing her best basketball of the season. Having over 30 games under her belt with her new teammates has helped as she acknowledges, “We played a lot of games, that’s a big part of it…and I just feel like I’m learning everybody.”

During this stretch, Williams scored double figures in four of her last five games, including two double-doubles. She just completed a game where she was tied with Courtney Williams for the game-high in assists with six. At times, the Sky have initiated the offense through her. This year, Elizabeth Williams has been asked to do a little of everything and has stuffed the stat sheet while averaging 9.5 points, 5.7 rebounds, 2.5 assists, 1.5 blocks and 1.2 steals. In addition to being one of three Sky players to play every game this season, she leads the team in total blocks and offensive rebounds. Who knows where the Sky would be this season without her?

But Williams’ impact extends far beyond the court — and she knows it. The first labor union comprised of professional women’s athletes, the Women’s National Basketball Players Association (WNBPA), handles the negotiation of collective bargaining agreements. In December, Williams was elected to her third term on the WNBPA Executive Committee as Secretary. This season, Williams has spoken up about multiple issues, including WNBA travel and the treatment of teammates by visiting announcers.

The Virginia Beach native who graduated from Duke is now in her ninth WNBA season, and throughout the years, Williams has found her political voice. She notes that it didn’t happen immediately: “Coming in, I didn’t really know anything about unions or any of that kind of work, but I’m really glad I got into it.”

When asked what events were most impactful regarding her political journey, Williams took us back to her meaningful time in Atlanta in 2020 and the Senate election. “I would 100% say my time in Atlanta and the experience with previous owners and eventually helping with Warnock’s election. I think that was game-changing for our team, for the state of Georgia, and honestly kind of the state of the U.S. political climate. And so I don’t think anything can really compare to how all that went down and being able to find my voice in that.”

Advice for young players

Upon arriving at the WNBA, observing the older players was key in Williams’ political development.

“I didn’t throw myself in the fire. I was just kind of observing and seeing how everything was going, but then, even while saying true to myself, I wanted to push myself a little bit and speak up a little more and learn from those kind of older players, and people that were more experienced on what they’re doing.”

Williams credits veteran teammates for urging her to be more vocal. She recalls, “In Atlanta, specifically, my first couple of years Layshia [Clarendon] was super vocal. And you know the role that Nneka [Ogwumike] plays as union president, and then even thinking about back to 2016 that New York team, Tina Charles, and when they wore the black T-shirts — there were just so many players that I can name.”

Elizabeth Williams reads a statement on behalf of WNBA players regarding the cancellation of games that day after the shooting of Jacob Blake.

Now, as a veteran, Williams’ advice for young players trying to find their voice in today’s climate is simple: “Just be true to yourself….I think I found a balance of being who I am, but also expanding and not being afraid to push myself a little bit, and speaking up about things that are important.”

Williams acknowledges how far the league has come in a short time and the role that younger voices will play in shaping the league’s future. “I think the younger players [are not] afraid to speak up, whereas when we were first coming in, like, we don’t want to say anything — and I think that’s just the era of this younger generation speaking up about things that are important and being unafraid. And that’s great, like — I think that’s so important in moving our league forward and making sure that the younger voices are heard.”

Williams continues to teach other WNBA players to use their voices. Sky teammate Dana Evans credits Elizabeth for teaching her about the importance of action. When Evans first entered the league, she was shocked at the salary numbers, “But now, being in the league, and kind of understanding more, and learning from Elizabeth a lot — I know that we are taking action. I feel like we’re heading [in] the right direction for sure.” As a WNBA veteran, Williams is vital in educating younger athletes about taking action.

WNBA political future

It’s becoming increasingly clear that the next action for WNBA players revolves around chartered flights for travel to games. During the pregame media availability for the Sky and Mercury game on July 30, Williams used the time to talk about travel in the WNBA.

“The league needs to work with the union to address the issue with real resources and a real plan. And that’s what I’m here to discuss. The league rules prohibiting WNBA teams from using charter travel need to be eliminated. The current rules are bad for the W brand and, more importantly, a real threat to our health and safety.”

She continued, “Investing in women’s sports is good business.” When you invest in the WNBA and its athletes, you aren’t simply investing in a sport — you are investing in a movement. Throughout her career, Williams has found her political voice and has become one of the most fearless organizers of political action the WNBA offers. A feat that didn’t happen overnight or without the guidance of veteran teammates along the way.

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Williams is leading the way for future WNBA players to thrive, and she’s doing it all with a level of grace and humility that is unmatched. A soft-spoken WNBA veteran, when Williams speaks, people listen. She not only has the respect of her teammates but the entire league.

“[Elizabeth] is a staple,” teammate Courtney Williams said, “Not only for our team but for this league. I tell her all the time, ‘When you talk, people listen.’ There are a lot of things this league could do better. We just have to keep moving in the right direction. So, whatever she says, I stand with her.”

This sentiment extends to William’s younger teammates as well. Dana Evans, who is in her third WNBA season and was in college when the 2020 Warnock campaign went down, when asked what makes Williams so impactful responded, “I think she’s a great leader, for sure. She’s a great person. She helps us a lot. We are always running [to her] when we have a question so she’s very helpful in that way. I’m just blessed to have her as a teammate, and to continue to learn from her, and ask her many questions.”

The WNBA is at the forefront of the intersection between sports and politics due largely in part to the WNBPA and athletes like Williams. Here’s to hoping the league continues to embrace social justice issues as the investments roll in.

Written by Monique Newton

Monique Newton is a Ph.D. Candidate in Political Science at Northwestern University. She covers the Chicago Sky for The Next and has lived in Chicago since 2019. An Oberlin College graduate, Monique is a 2x Division III National Track and Field Champion.

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