August 15, 2023
In Commissioner’s Cup race, the New York Liberty have been winning for women’s health
'I know that it's not just about us'
BROOKLYN — New York Liberty center Jonquel Jones didn’t realize that a potential Commissioner’s Cup Championship win against their budding rivals the Las Vegas Aces on Tuesday night could be the first bit of hardware won in franchise history.
No, this isn’t a WNBA championship quite yet, but rather a one game championship game that rewards teams who won the most games within their coastal conference during the first half of the season along with a $500,000 prize pool.
“I really didn’t think about it but once you guys said that it kind of put it into perspective a little bit more,” Jones said about the Cup. “So I think that’d be cool to be able to have that firsthand in a New York Liberty jersey and then also Callen-Lorde.”
Callen-Lorde. What’s Callen-Lorde? Callen-Lorde is a New York City clinic network that provides the NYC LGBTQIA+ community with health care and health care resources regardless of their ability to pay. Callen-Lorde has locations in Chelsea, the Bronx and in Brooklyn—a mile away from the Barclays Center—and conducts in house research, education services and public outreach advocacy as it works to assert its organizational value that healthcare shouldn’t be a privilege. It’s a human right.
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The Commissioner’s Cup has become a vehicle that helps the WNBA and the WNBPA’s in their social justice agenda. For the second straight year, franchises chose a nonprofit that will receive the prize pool accumulated from designated Commissioner’s Cup games in addition to even more money as a result of the championship game. As it stands, the Liberty have raised $15,500 for Callen-Lorde following winning 7 of their 10 Cup games. New York can win at least another $5,000 or at most another $10,000 for their nonprofit. The difference of course between donating a total of $20,500 versus $25,500 comes from a victory on Tuesday night.
“After we win the Commissioner’s Cup, fingers crossed, it gives us extra incentive to just play a little bit harder,” Jones said. “And I know that it’s not just about us.”
While the Liberty know that they are playing for more than just their own pockets, that extra motivation is personal. In years past, the WNBA’s social justice programing around Commissioner’s Cup time was about a diverse range of sociopolitical issues. In 2021 (the Cup’s first year), the advocacy agenda was quite broad. Players were engaging in PSAs for the COVID-19 vaccine and wearing T-Shirts that supported voting rights in America. The social justice council, which consists of players, league employees and team front office members established a broad set of pillars which included LGBTQIA+ advocacy, racial justice and voting rights and public health.
Last season with the midterm elections on the horizon, the focus was on the racial justice and voting rights pillar. A lot of WNBA franchises chose to give their Commissioner’s Cup money to local ACLU chapters and others gave to nonprofits focused on racial justice. The Liberty gave their earnings to A Little Piece of Light, an organization that works to help women, girls and nonbinary folks who are impacted by trauma from the criminal justice system.
Following the Supreme Court’s repeal of Roe v. Wade and all of the repercussions felt over a year later, focusing this year’s social justice portfolio on women’s health made sense. When the United States mourned the one year anniversary of when Roe was repealed in late June, Breanna Stewart was thinking about it too, especially as a mother of a toddler with another child on the way.
“I think that reproductive freedom is a human right,” she said on June 25. “And abortion is healthcare and the ability to kind of choose and do what we as women need to do for our bodies should be what’s seen as most important. I think that it’s crazy that it’s been a year since Roe v. Wade has been overturned and hopefully, you know, we’ll continue to fight to make sure that we do get the freedom and the rights of our own body back because it’s crazy that is in someone else’s hands right now.”
So, why is this year much more personal for players? With the focus on health, that happens by design. Without having adequate physical health, how would any of the WNBA’s players be able to do what they do best? Health is very much so wealth for professional athletes. Making sure their bodies are well enough and able to perform is paramount to creating the best on court product.
“For any of us, it’s our careers,” center Stefanie Dolson said. “So whether it’s an injury or losing weight, gaining weight, being in the best shape, what you put in your body and the medical staff and care that you can get is important to us because it’s our job. We need that to perform at our best.”
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And in addition to providing primary care, dental services, hormone therapy for trans folks, HIV services and insurance navigation for clients, Callen-Lorde also has a behavior health clinic and programming that the Liberty’s donations will be going toward.
But this also isn’t just about the physical aspect for WNBA players. For Liberty guard Jocelyn Willoughby, she thinks about health more holistically. And in addition to providing primary care, dental services, hormone therapy for trans folks, HIV services and insurance navigation for clients and much more, Callen-Lorde also has a behavior health clinic and programming that the Liberty’s donations will be going toward
Willoughby thinks about how mental, emotional and spiritual health are also means for being at your best. And sufficient health determines how a person can function and gain opportunities.
“When I think of wealth, I think of the generational aspect of it, or the fact that as an individual, your health affects those around you,” she told The Next. “And I think it’s a lifestyle in many ways, and when you have a healthy lifestyle something you can pass onto others in your community and your family, and maybe generations down the line. But it also determines so much of your day to day well-being and opportunities. How well you’re functioning, how well you’re feeling affects how you show up and other opportunities, which is a form of wealth”.
While women and non-binary health initiatives hit home for many Liberty players, it hits especially close for point guard Courtney Vandersloot, whose mother is currently battling Multiple Myeloma, a blood cancer that forms in plasma white blood cells.
Prior to New York’s most attended game at Barclays Center ever when they defeated the Aces at home, the Liberty announced a new campaign that would run throughout the regular season. The Liberty franchise donated $500 for every Vandersloot assist to the Multiple Myeloma Research Foundation following that game on August 6. And then for the remaining five home games, the organization would donate $100 per Vandersloot assist.
Prior to that August 6 game, Vandersloot explained how her mom and her mom’s health was something that impacted her free agency process. She noted how difficult it was for her to move away to New York while her mother was thousands of miles away. But during that negotiation period this past winter, the Liberty wanted to help Vandersloot give back and support her mother even when she couldn’t physically be with her.
“Even though I’m away I can still impact and just telling her and her finding out that we were doing this, it just puts such a big smile on her face,” she said. “And so that, to me, is important and something extra that I can play for.”
Vandersloot had teammates come up to her and say that they were going to make sure that every shot they hit on a pass from her was going in. But Vandersloot didn’t want to put so much extra pressure on a group that has been dealing with pressure all season long. “I didn’t care how many, how much it raised,” she said postgame to a group of reporters. “It was just about awareness. And the fact that they were willing to put up for every assist, and it just means a lot to me.”
What also meant great significance for Vandersloot and all of her teammates was the meeting that the Liberty had with a representative from Callen-Lorde Brooklyn last Thursday. The team learned about all of the different programing that the organization provides, their history and even got to speak with a current board member who previously was helped by the organization.
The presentation really resonated with the Liberty’s openly queer players including Vandersloot, Jones, Dolson and Stewart since Callen-Lorde does focus on services for LGBTQIA+ patients and clients. For Dolson, hearing that presentation on Thursday made Callen-Lorde and their mission that much more real.
But realizing that the Liberty aren’t just playing for themselves is something that all, regardless of sexual orientation can feel and internatlize. Betnijah Laney noted that playing for others and playing for nonprofit organizations is part of why she and her teammates do what they do.
“It’s not just about the money that we could potentially win, but also being able to use what we do, do what we love and bring a change to the community,” she said.
For Sabrina Ionescu, watching the presentation put the weight of this season into perspective. While the Liberty’s one track mind is that they are battling it out in Vegas to win more money, championship hardware and much more bragging rights, there are others that are going to benefit big time from the franchise’s first Commissioner’s Cup appearance.
“It means something to someone else and I think all of us left that meeting, just understanding what we’re playing for and how it can change someone’s life,” she said.
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.