A WNBA court painted to read Black Lives Matter

Sports Leagues as Activists

Every so often, the leagues get it right

You don’t have to be a football fan to recognize the name Colin Kaepernick. Whether your grandparents had Fox News on the last time you visited or you dared to enter the comments section of an article about the June 2020 Black Lives Matter demonstrations, the quarterback has transcended beyond sports channels and become synonymous with the current iterations of protests against racial injustice sweeping the nation.

And then there is LeBron James, easily one of the most famous people in the entire world. Inspired by the actions of the Milwaukee Bucks, James put his global fame behind the wildcat strike organized in protest of the shooting of Jacob Blake by a Kenosha police officer. Despite the fact that their actions led to delays in playoff games and could have invalidated their collective bargaining agreement, NBA players stood together and refused to play in honor of Blake and out of frustration with continued police violence.

Other individuals, such as the young tennis phenom, Naomi Osaka, followed the example set by the NBA players, as did teams across a variety of American professional leagues. 

These actions, from Kaepernick’s quiet protest of the national anthem to Osaka forfeiting her match in solidarity with the NBA players to the historical Black power salute defiantly raised by Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Olympics, were athlete-driven.

Individuals, occasionally with the support of some or all of their teammates, made the choice to use their field of competition to direct their fans’ attention to a larger issue.

Tommie Smith and John Carlos raise their fists on the medal podium a the 1968 Olympics
The historic photo of Smith and Carlos by Angelo Cozzi

However, there exists a second, far less common but far more powerful, type of sports activism. Throughout history, there have been instances where leagues such as NFL or NCAA rebuked a city or state over a particularly odious policy. These types of boycotts represent sports at their best; uniting fans from disparate backgrounds through their common rooting interests and then using this interest to draw their attention to an injustice wholly outside the world of athletics.

I first became aware of the ability of the leagues to effect policy change when the NCAA threatened the state of North Carolina with a ban on hosting championship events over the state’s HB2 legislation, more commonly known as the Bathroom Bill, in February of 2017. This discriminatory law forced people to use the bathroom of the gender assigned to them at birth regardless of their gender identity, an inherently transphobic practice.

In response to the bill becoming law, the NCAA informed North Carolina that until the law was repealed, the state would not be permitted to host any NCAA championships.

In the basketball-crazed home of universities like Duke and UNC, as well as the league headquarters of the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC), this was a significant blow. March Madness often plays a round of games in the city of Greensboro and other NCAA sports like field hockey and baseball have held postseason events in North Carolina as well.

The actions of the NCAA seemingly inspired the NBA, and the league’s professional brother-in-basketball pulled its All-Star Weekend event from Charlotte. Non-sport entities such as the film studio Lionsgate, financial behemoth PayPal, and former Beatle Ringo Starr cancelled events and projects destined for the state as well. An analysis by the Associated Press concluded that the state lost revenues totaling $3.76 billion as a result of protests over HB2.

In the spring of 2017, in the face of public pressure and mounting financial losses, the state legislature passed an imperfect repeal of the law and the NCAA announced it would “reluctantly” consider North Carolina as a host of championship events once again. The NBA brought the All-Star Weekend, its considerable tourism spending and all, back to Charlotte in 2019.  To me, the takeaway from the NCAA’s stance against HB2 was clear.

Sports matter.

To some people, perhaps a majority of Americans, sports matter more than politics. It’s relatively easy to imagine an apolitical, sports-crazed strawman, whose idea of discourse is Stephen A. yelling at Max Kellerman every morning. My strawman hasn’t thought about current events since he finished tenth grade social studies, but he sure as hell noticed when he received an email from Ticketmaster that his All-Star Weekend tickets for Charlotte had been canceled and refunded.

When I was researching my post about MLK Day, I learned the story of the 1993 Super Bowl. Originally assigned by the NFL in 1990 to Phoenix, Arizona, the league’s owners voted a year later to strip the city of its hosting rights.

At the time, Arizona as a state still did not recognize Martin Luther King Jr. Day as a state holiday. Despite the holiday being passed into law by the state’s legislature in 1989, two separate statewide referendums failed to approve the new holiday, as is required by the state’s constitution.

For failing to recognize the holiday, the NFL’s owners reconvened in 1991 and moved the Super Bowl to Pasadena, California. Only one owner voted against the change. Bill Bidwill, owner of the Arizona Cardinals, did not.

Contemporary estimates projected that Phoenix and Arizona lost out on between $200 million and $250 million in revenues when the Super Bowl was removed by the league office. Arizona voters then approved the holiday in 1993 and Phoenix finally hosted a Super Bowl in 1996.

I cannot fairly discuss sports league activism in the United States without mentioning the WNBA. The league’s players have far more to lose than their male counterparts, as they are paid a fraction of the price for their skills and often resort to playing overseas during the off-season in comparatively conservative nations like China and Russia to supplement their domestic salaries.

Athletes in the WNBA called attention to police brutality before Kaepernick first took a knee. Maya Moore, a perennial all-star candidate, took an entire season off from playing basketball to focus on racial justice. I lack the hyperbolic vocabulary necessary to be able to describe the reverberations that would be felt if Kevin Durant announced that, rather than play for the Brooklyn Nets, he would be spending 2021 focused on raising awareness of social issues.

So when, in the summer of 2020, the WNBA league office publicly embraced Black Lives Matter, emblazoning the slogan on its courts and amplifying the voices of its players, few were surprised. What did surprise me, however, was the league’s actions, or rather lack thereof, regarding Atlanta Dream minority owner Kelly Loeffler.

A WNBA court painted to read Black Lives Matter
Black Lives Matter adorned the court used by the WNBA in its bubble throughout the 2020 season. Photo credit WNBA League Office.

Loeffler, a MAGA-style Republican who recently lost her bid for re-election in Georgia, owns 49 percent of the Atlanta Dream franchise. During her summer campaigning, as the league office was publicly re-confirming its support of the Black Lives Matter movement, Loeffler issued this statement:

I adamantly oppose the Black Lives Matter political movement, which has advocated for the defunding of police, called for the removal of Jesus from churches and the disruption of the nuclear family structure, harbored anti-Semitic views, and promoted violence and destruction across the country. I believe it is totally misaligned with the values and goals of the WNBA and the Atlanta Dream, where we support tolerance and inclusion.

The WNBPA, the league’s union, called for her immediate dismissal over the comment. Stars from across the league spent their time campaigning throughout Georgia in support of Loeffler’s (victorious) opponent, Raphael Warnock.

Meanwhile, the league said nothing. While to some, this may be disappointing, especially in comparison to the swift boot given by the NBA to racist former Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling, I believe the lack of boilerplate support of Loeffler from the WNBA office speaks volumes. 

When powerful New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft was arrested in 2019, the league office hardly blinked. They issued a generic statement and have issued no punishment for Kraft (who is not expected to be found guilty), despite the fact that dozens of players, including stars, have faced discipline at the hands of the commissioner despite never being convicted in a court of law.

Yet Loeffler, one of the few WNBA owners in a much smaller league, a mega millionaire, a well-connected former Senator, has received not so much as a generic PR statement in support of her or her rhetoric from the league office. The WNBA has made it clear that it is backing its players over one of its owners and backing Black Lives Matter over racist dog-whistling.

Loeffler is expected to sell the Dream shortly.

People on both sides of the political spectrum criticize ahtlete involvement in politics. From “shut up and dribble” to “Republicans buy sneakers too” to Vice President Mike Pence publicly leaving an NFL game over anthem demonstrations, the conservative side of the spectrum has made their stance clear.

But liberals also complain about sports becoming political. Centrist liberals yearn for the imaginary day when sports and politics were separate, as if President Teddy Roosevelt didn’t have to intervene to save the entire sport of football.

More progressive liberals complain that athletes are millionaires so their activism is performative in nature; this type of criticism conveniently ignores that athletes are laborers too, often unionized ones at that. Furthermore, college athletes have worked as unpaid labor for over a century and professional sports owners are typically billionaires.

I have no doubt that individual athletes will continue to use their platform to protest. There will be sweeping actions on the scale of Muhammad Ali casting his Olympic medals into a river and as quiet gestures as subtle as a college basketball player inscribing the initials of a murdered friend on his shoes.

But I have no similar faith in the leagues to keep backing social justice movements. 

Right now, the prudent thing for each league to do is to voice their support for Black Lives Matter and social justice.  Every time I watch an ACC basketball game, I see the same ad that starts off mentioning how “this summer, we marched”, as if the ACC’s conference staff were out in the streets side-by-side with Syracuse football players or Wake Forest discus throwers. The conference’s coaches may have supported their players, but the conference’s central office, along with the NCAA, controls the money. Accordingly, it is the conference executives who have the power to remove events from a state with discriminatory legislation. 

Politics overlapping with athletics is not new. The intersection of the two as cultural forces is permanent. It is up to the fans to back their favorite athletes and teams when they protest. We as fans must send a clear message to the leagues that we are watching and we like it when athletes use their voices to effect change. And now, we expect the leagues to use their wallets in the same way.

Ben Testani
Ben Testani is a freelance writer and young professional. Though originally from Central New York, he is currently based out of Sacramento, California. He enjoys basketball, noise-cancelling headphones, and the National Parks Service.
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