Last week, the Milwaukee Bucks shocked the sports world when they decided not to play in their playoff game against the Orlando Magic, in protest of the police shooting of Jacob Blake. As other pro sports teams joined in the sit-out, it seemed as if the NBA season might come to a dramatic, unforeseen end that could have cost the league millions of dollars. And while the playoffs resumed days later, there was still a tangible outcome: The league says some of its arenas will be turned into voting locations, and it will form a social-justice coalition to help promote voting and advocate for criminal justice reform.
The wildcat strike was unprecedented for the NBA — but the world of professional basketball is no stranger to protesting for Black lives. And for years, WNBA players have been at the forefront of those protests, speaking out against police brutality and gun violence. In many ways, Maitreyi Anantharaman wrote in Slate, these women "made the NBA strike possible."
I talked with Amira Rose Davis, a professor of history and African American studies at Penn State and co-host of the podcast Burn It All Down, about the history of activism by Black athletes and how Black women have often been written out of that history. Below is an excerpt of our conversation, which has been condensed and edited for clarity.
We've been hearing so much about the NBA wildcat strike this past week, but the WNBA has been in many ways more politically outspoken than the NBA. So why is this getting so much more attention?
I think it's twofold. The first answer is fairly simple. It is hard to generate the same level of interest, respect and engagement with Black women in sports or Black women overall. It's not just in the realm of sports in which Black women's labor and organizing goes overlooked for the man standing next to her.
I think the other thing that made the NBA get a lot of attention this week is because the wildcat strike as a form of direct action is a less common step in athletic activism. That made a splash, and then it had a domino effect with the WNBA, the MLB, the NHL — across the entire sports world. That domino effect became a huge part of the story.
So this kind of activism — it's new, right?
Yeah. What we've seen in this country, with athletic activism, has usually been individual acts of protest. When we have seen collective acts within sports, it's been a lot at the collegiate level. When the Clippers said they weren't going to play for a racist owner and got Donald Sterling out of the paint, we saw what the withholding of athletic labor might yield. But for the most part, it hasn't been collective action.
The WNBA, though, has moved as a league on the social justice front for years. Months before Colin Kaepernick took a knee, the Minnesota Lynx wore black shirts and had a press conference where they refused to talk about anything except for police brutality and the killing of Philando Castile. They have been, as a league, holding community partnership days where they highlight social justice initiatives. Maya Moore took the season off last year to focus on criminal justice reform, particularly [helping] to get the case of Jonathan Irons dismissed and to get him released from prison. And so I think that what you see there is a pattern of commitment to social justice, particularly racial justice, from the WNBA. It's not as just one person, but as a team, as a league. And that has really been the blueprint for some of the collective action that we're seeing now. I think it's important not to let that get lost in the conversation.
Why has the WNBA been so politically involved? And how long have they been this outspoken?
The WNBA is a league that is gritty by necessity. It catches so much hate because it's "too Black, too queer." It's full of women. And I think that it draws the ire of a lot of people. And so they as a league have always been fairly outspoken, because it's the only way to be. Their very presence on a court, their very insistence that they have the right to play and make a living by playing is a political act in and of itself. So I think they were already kind of primed towards action.
Black women make up a lot of the league, and the white women really are great allies. Because of that, when you talk to players, they'll give a variety of answers for what drives them, what motivates them to use their platform like this.
You're talking about how the WNBA is so much grittier; players get paid a lot less and don't have the same kind of partnerships or media exposure as their male counterparts. So is there a lot more on the line for these female players to protest and strike? What's at stake when someone sits out a game?
That's a great question, because it highlights the paradox of all of this: That at once, there's less at stake and more at stake. And what I mean by that is there's less to lose, right? There's less sponsorships to lose. There's less salary to lose because they didn't have as much to start with.
But on the other hand, there's more to lose, in the fact that their season is shorter. The labor is more precarious. There's just a small number of WNBA teams. And on those rosters, there's a small number of positions. They did the WNBA draft this year and, especially because of COVID, some of the players drafted weren't even able to get into a gym to play before they were cut from the team. There are many talented people able to play at the WNBA level, and not enough infrastructure to support that. And so I think that competition adds a level of precarity to their actions.
And yet, these women have always kept going, And I think that's really significant in terms of thinking about that risk factor, because their labor is a bit precarious. But it doesn't stop them.
Do you find that there are any similarities between the NBA strike versus what the WNBA has done?
Yes, certainly. I think the strength of what we saw with the NBA is its collectivity. And so it's when we go back to that long history of athletic activism in this country, we've seen all too often how disposable a singular athlete can be. We've seen athletes be blackballed. We've seen athletes be cut off from the team or ostracized. We've seen brands run away and scatter from the athletes they represent.
So what has been a source of protection is that collective action. The Clippers wouldn't have been effective if it was one person saying, "Hey, I don't want to play for Donald Sterling." But when the entire team is like, "Yeah, no, I'm not with this," then it's a different ballgame. And I think that that is a blueprint the WNBA has long abided by. Even when there were individuals like Kelsey Bone, who kneeled when not all of her teammates were kneeling, they all protected her. They were all advocating for her. And that is something that is a model of collective action.
Looking back historically, has it been typical for Black women athletes to be so politically engaged?
Yes. And I think the continuity here is that there's never enough people listening to them. I write about Black women athletes like Rose Robinson. She was a high jumper, and in 1959 in the Pan American Games in Chicago, she refused to stand for the national anthem. She later went on to work on a number of initiatives with [the Congress of Racial Equality,] CORE, like desegregating skating rinks in Cleveland. And like so many Black women athletes and Black athletes in general, she was tapped by the State Department in the middle of the Cold War to do "goodwill trips." These were designed to showcase Black artists and athletes to basically tell the world like, look, we're not really that racist. But she said, I'm not going. I have no interest in being a pawn in this political game. I have no interest in going and trying to convince the world that you treat black people in this country fairly. She made waves when she said that, and within six months of that — coincidentally or not — the IRS came after her for tax evasion.
The track Olympians in the '60s are some of my favorite examples. Wilma Rudolph, who won three gold medals in Rome in 1960, was very outspoken. She came home to her hometown of Clarksville, which wanted to hold a segregated parade, and she refused. And the resulting integrated parade was one of the first integrated things that happened in Clarksville, Tennessee. She participated in a direct action protest to desegregate local diners as well.
There's Kiki Stokes on the ScrapYard Dawgs pro-softball team. When their GM tweeted out a picture of them to Trump, trying to praise them for standing for the anthem, Stokes said, "I'm not playing for this team." That's her career that's impacted. But all of her white teammates joined her in solidarity and left the team. They all said, "We're not playing for this woman anymore," and they formed their own softball team. And I think that that is decisive action if I've ever seen it.
What does this moment in the NBA and WNBA say to you about race and gender dynamics in sports?
It's reflecting that Black women don't have this kind of choice to be in these boxes where it's like, am I in women's sports and fighting about pay equity, or am I over here as a Black woman talking about racial justice? And I think that one of the things this moment compels us to do is to consider that, and the significance of the WNBA centering "Say Her Name" and saying Black women are being killed. There's been too many instances of Black women being erased from the narrative even about police brutality. There's been too many instances of Black women being overlooked as leaders, as political leaders, as activists, as organizers, as athletes. It's too often that Black women are the only ones standing up for themselves. And I think that that doesn't stop when you hit the field of sports.
And I think that we know in sports that women are going to fight for space in ways that men don't have to. And I think we also know in sports that women who are conventionally attractive and who are heterosexual are going to be able to get platforms, while queer women or women who present a variety of different genders on the spectrum are going to have to fight for endorsements or for a platform. And I think that all of these things are thrown into focus right now, especially as the world has kind of stopped.
In the media, we're talking right now about college football as if it's the only fall sport. But there are Black women athletes on college campuses. I've talked to so many of them who are track stars, who had their whole spring season canceled, who are volleyball or soccer stars, who have had their whole season canceled. They have been some of the leading voices on campus, mobilizing black athletes into collective efforts—like Anna Cockrell at USC, who's doing tremendous work. And they are too often in real time being erased from the narrative. And I think that seeing it in real time is just a reinforcement of the kind of understanding that Black women are experiencing this double bind and being erased from simplistic narratives. I think these Black women athletes historically and today are demonstrating above all else that they are very, very brave.
Natalie Escobar contributed to this story.