June 17, 2022 

‘Is it safe?’ WNBA players, coaches reckon with another U.S. mass shooting

'It feels like every other game, we're having a moment of silence'

BROOKLYN — If it were up to New York Liberty head coach Sandy Brondello, games would have been canceled on May 24. The Liberty were in Minnesota and played the Lynx at 8 PM ET, just a few hours after news had spread that there was a mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas. 21 people including 19 students were killed by an 18-year-old gunman. 

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“We shouldn’t have played that game,” Brondello told The Next. “I mean this country, this country really is fucked.”

The Liberty lost that game 84-77 and would lose two more before returning back home for a few games on the East Coast, including two more against the Lynx at home. At the first practice since the team’s trip out West, it all hit Brondello hard. When she was reminded of what had gone on in Texas, the tears fell. She noted that she doesn’t talk about gun violence in America as often as she should because she knows that the end result is, more often than not, tears.

“Yeah you know it’s terrible and to be quite honest, we should talk about it more but it always makes me emotional to talk about it,” she said. “I’m a parent.” 

Her daughter Jayda was back in Brooklyn with Brondello and her husband, assistant coach Olaf Lange. It was her 12th Birthday, and Brondello watched her as she was helping Liberty guard Sabrina Ionescu get some shots up. Jayda was there running to every rebound. 

Brondello explained that the school that both Jayda and her son Brody go to is quite secure. Doors are locked from the outside and security employees monitor the entrances and exits to make sure the school is air tight. But amid how secure her children’s school is, Brondello recognizes the modern day reality of how frightening it is to work in or obtain an education. 

“These are young children,” she said. “You send your children to get an education, not to fear for their lives.” 

Brondello’s voice quivered as she continued. The cadence of her voice changed, now laced with some more desperation. “Change, they need change. It’s just terrible. This shit keeps happening because anyone can go buy a gun.” 

Notice how she said “they” referring to a country, the United States, one where she’s lived for years but not where she’s from. Her native Australia took matters into their own hands around 26 years ago when 35 people were shot dead by a gunman in Port Arthur, Tasmania. The response from the Australian federal government and newly elected Prime Minister John Howard was stark. Howard, a conservative politician, passed new gun legislation 12 days following the mass shooting. Howard banned sales and importation of semi-automatic rifles and shotguns, along with demanding citizens present specific reasons as to why they needed a gun. He also instituted a mandatory gun buyback. This all happened before Brondello began her WNBA career in 1998. 

Her husband Lange is from Germany and has lived in the United States as a resident since 2008, dating back to when the pair was coaching the San Antonio Silver Stars alongside Dan Hughes. Even after 14 years of living here full-time, he still doesn’t understand why it’s so easy to get a gun in America.  

“So I understand the culture but this gun thing is still puzzling to me because in Germany, I would not be able to get a gun,” Lange told The Next. “Doesn’t matter what I do. I just don’t get a gun. “Where I come from… it’s incomprehensible that is even a thing.”

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Getting a gun to hunt is one thing, but Lange doesn’t understand why semi-automatic weapons are necessary. In his home country, hunting culture isn’t what it is in the U.S. With the population so dense in Germany, there isn’t a lot to hunt in rural areas. Ever since World War II, citizens aside from police and the military and those involved in crime don’t have access to guns. An 18 year-old shooting up an elementary school is unheard of in both Germany and Australia. 

“But still just the availability of guns and the fact that an 18-year-old can buy a gun but not a beer,” Lange said.  “Makes me wonder. I’m here trying to win basketball games and make that the most important thing of the day, and it really isn’t.”

A week spent compartmentalizing  

Before the Liberty took on the Indiana Fever on June 1, the PA announcer reminded the teams on the court and the fans in the stands to take a moment to remember the multiple mass shootings that have occurred in addition to the school shooting in Uvalde. The jumbo-tron followed up showing photos of the places these tragedies took place along with listing out the names of every person who didn’t make it. 

Guard Crystal Dangerfield was overwhelmed. She looked over at Liberty forward Natasha Howard and expressed to her how difficult it was to take this type of moment before playing in a game. It’s a complete switch in tone and emotion. Dangerfield remembers the heaviness, the exact opposite feeling an athlete wants before a game. 

Two days later, after defeating the Fever 87-74 at home, the Liberty arrived in Washington D.C. for the Mystics’ annual Wear Orange game, which fell on the annual Wear Orange Weekend presented by Everytown for Gun Safety. Pre-game the energy from Liberty and Mystics shifted — pregame excitement transformed into silence and reflection at center court. 

Mystics Wing Alysha Clark assembled both teams in a circle. She locked arms with Liberty guard DiDi Richards on her left and Mystics’ Center Elizabeth Wiliams on her right. Each team followed suit on either side of Clark. Liberty wing Jocelyn Willoughby was stationed next to Richards while Natasha Cloud was locked in arms with Williams. 

And once again, both teams couldn’t stop after the moment of silence. The Liberty and their opponent the Mystics had to flip the switch, from having a heavier heart to one full of competitive fire. What is the key to turning that light switch on and off? It can be a heavy lift sometimes. 

“It feels like every other game, we’re having a moment of silence for something. And so, obviously, it’s really hard to stay focused on the game and not let the emotions really take over,” Ionescu said.  

For guard Sami Whitcomb, it’s really hard to try to compartmentalize and put her different emotions in boxes. She’s grateful that her job is to play a game she’s loved close to her whole life, but that gratitude doesn’t supersede the anguish that washes over her every time there’s a mass shooting and especially a school shooting. Whitcomb is a mom to a toddler and since her son was born she has had a very different perspective and reaction when children die for just going to school. 

“It’s sad, it’s heartbreaking and I think for me as a mom: I picture Nash and it makes me cry,” she said. “So it’s a different perspective as well, but it’s infuriating because nothing changes and it happens so many times, you feel like it’s going to happen again because change is not coming immediately like it needs to unfortunately and we need that.”

This isn’t just personal for Whitcomb, it struck a poignant emotional chord with Liberty sophomores DiDi Richards and Michaela Onyenwere, two players who know people from two separate communities impacted by mass shootings. For Richards, the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas hit close to home. She knows people from the San Antonio metro area who are hurting and continues to following the fallout from the massacre. Onyenwere is from Aurora, Colorado, the community that was struck almost ten years ago by a movie theater shooting that killed 12 people. The 2021 Rookie of the Year knew people in that theater who just wanted to see a midnight screening of the Dark Knight Rises. 

“I think there’s senseless violence over and over and over again,” she told The Next. “And at some point, enough has to be enough. There’s people who are dying every single day because of you know, senseless gun laws, senseless gun violence and that’s not fair to us as a people. And so I’m standing with Washington Mystics, with my team in order to hopefully create some sort of change or create some sort of talk about change.”

For Minnesota Lynx head coach and general manager Cheryl Reeve, an action plan is required.

“I think the first step is: understand that contacting our elected officials to say that we want to be a state here in Minnesota or wherever a person would want to take action and find out about your gun safety laws and what exists because the the data shows that the states that are committed to having gun safety laws have a lower rate of gun violence,” Reeve said prior to the Lynx game against the Liberty on June 5. “So we know that that works. And so we understand some of the challenges, the political challenges that there’s, that the United States has become. And it’s really unfortunate that we were putting money and greed, power, in front of taking care of our citizens… You could go to the Everytown support fund and read about things that you can do and the ways that you can financially support.”

Moving past the bare minimum on mass shooting

But what about for players who weren’t born in the U.S.?

For New York Liberty rookie Lorela Cubaj, this was unheard of until she moved to the United States to play and get an education from Georgia Tech. New York veteran Rebecca Allen only really began learning about this when she first arrived in the United States to play in the WNBA in 2015. Like Brondello, Allen is from Australia.

On Sunday, Belgian Sky guard Julie Allemand, who had just arrived days ago from France, was in Brooklyn. She explained that while still playing in the French league playoffs she was keeping track of the global news. The multiple mass shootings back-to-back-to-back scared her and put her on notice. 

“To come here sometimes I’m like, ‘is it safe?’” she said. “Is it safe to come over here like when you see all the things happening? It’s just crazy. And for us, we’re like, how that can happen? Like how is it possible to have people doing that?… it’s really hard for us to understand.”

On the other hand, Ionescu explained that this is the reality of being a professional women’s basketball player in the United States. She’s been living in this country her whole life, so enduring these incidents have become depressingly expected. But all the Liberty star guard could think about was how individuals and the collective can take action that yields to meaningful change. 

“Everyone has to  kind of acknowledge it, and try and figure out the change that they can make individually and that we can make in society as a whole so  that we can actually see change take place,” she said. 

And so how does the W do that? Right now it has manifested in the form of mass social media posts coming from teams, players and the WNBPA. It has manifested in the form of moments of silence and wearing t-shirts that make folks watching games in arenas or at home aware of what’s going on. But more needs to be done, and according to Dangerfield, it requires even more demonstrative action. 

Whitcomb began speaking about how WNBA players do what they can to honor the lives that were lost from these tragic events. She called the current model, social media posts and wearing shirts, “the best” the W can do. But then she took that back. She changed course and called that the minimum and the least that players can do. 

She believes she and her colleagues and teammates can do more. She  wants more talk and as a result more action. But how? Dangerfield’s immediate response to this question was writing to congresspeople and senators in an attempt to make them listen. Whitcomb recommended actually getting on the phone, protesting and publicly calling people out. 

As of June 12, there’s a bipartisan group of senators who announced a legislative deal in response to the most recent influx of mass shootings in America. But will this deal that focuses more on mental health and safety resources in schools, enhanced background checks for people aged 18-21 and incentives for states that implement red flag laws be enough? And will it even pass through Congress to be signed by President Biden? That is currently unknown. 

But what is certain is that the U.S. is currently not in a position to engage in what Brondello’s home country Australia executed over 25 years ago. Why? Whitcomb believes it’s because of the lack of good faith embedded into American politics and politicians.

“That is a loaded…. I have no idea,” said Whitcomb, who is a dual citizen of both the US and Australia. “Because of power and money and people are hungry, the NRA is funding these people.”

And Reeve echoed many throughout the league when she asserted that the status quo is no longer an option.

“I think at this point, no one should stand idly by and continue to let happen what’s been happening in this country.”

The Next Managing Editor and Mystics reporter Jenn Hatfield contributed to this story from Washington, D.C. 

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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