"I think of the WNBA as a blueprint": Black female athletes discuss activism and the path forward

Tina Charles and Toni Smith-Thompson represented basketball in a discussion hosted by Penn State University

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Team USA center Tina Charles (left) and Team Canada guard Kia Nurse welcome the fans before a FIBA World Cup exhibition game in Bridgeport, Connecticut, on September 8, 2018. Photo credit: Chris Poss

When Tina Charles heard that her Washington Mystics teammates were not going to play their scheduled game on August 26 in order to draw attention to police brutality, she cleared her calendar. “I was like, ‘Oh, all right, I need to stop everything and see what’s going down.”

Charles was medically excused from the WNBA season in Bradenton, Florida, due to asthma, so she watched Ariel Atkins explain the team’s decision just as fans did, live on national television. “I'm happy that they took that stance. I'm happy that they used their platform again,” Charles said. “I'm happy that they did what was on their hearts because, at the end of the day, the whole point of us coming to the [WNBA bubble] wasn't just about who's gonna hoist up the championship at the end of the season. It was about … bringing this cause to the forefront.”

Charles’ remarks came during a panel discussion about the past, present, and future of Black women’s activism, hosted by Penn State University and assistant professor Amira Rose Davis. A ten-year WNBA veteran, Charles has been instrumental in the activism that players have shown over the years, including in 2016 following the police killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile.

Then playing for the New York Liberty, Charles and her teammates wore warm-up shirts that honored Sterling and Castile, as did other teams around the league. The WNBA fined them for violating the league’s uniform policy, but Charles continued to protest by turning her Liberty warm-up shirt inside out when she accepted a player of the month award.

In 2020, Charles donated her full $175,000 salary to support the Black Lives Matter movement, making it the eighth straight season that she has donated her entire WNBA salary to charity.

WNBA players “were always the main ones who were on the forefront and used our platforms,” Charles said. “… [But] it was basically a big difference between 2016, with the lack of support with the WNBA, and then fast forward [to] 2020 with the full support of the WNBA.”

The league dedicated the 2020 season to social justice, formalizing and strengthening the work that individual teams and players had been doing to effect change this summer. The WNBA also emphasized the Say Her Name campaign, which tells the stories of Black female victims of police violence. Charles explained that the importance of the campaign for the WNBA is two-fold: society too often forgets Black women’s stories, and Black women comprise roughly 80% of the league.

“Black women have always been on the front lines” of activism, said Toni Smith-Thompson, another panelist and a former basketball player at Manhattanville College. “If you're not including black women in how you talk about the history of athlete protests, you're not telling the story right.” As a college senior in the 2002-03 season, Smith-Thompson sparked controversy by turning her back during the national anthem to protest the oppression of Black and Brown people.

However, three-time Olympic gold medalist Wyomia Tyus, a track athlete who protested at the 1968 Olympics, said that the activism she sees today feels very different than in 1968 and praised the actions of WNBA players both inside and outside the bubble this summer.

“What has changed for athletes and women athletes and for Black and Brown athletes is that you do get a lot more opportunities,” Tyus said. “… You can get more scholarships. You can get a lot more publicity.” She contrasted that with her experience growing up in an era when people said that women shouldn’t have muscles, let alone opportunities to make a living from athletics.

For Smith-Thompson, the biggest change in athlete activism over the years has been the shift from individual protests like hers or Tyus’s to collective action. “We’re seeing really amazing examples of what collective action can do,” she said. “I wish sometimes that, at the time that I protested, that I'd had the thought to say, ‘Maybe this could be a collective movement.’ It didn't even occur to me that there could be support.”

One thing that hasn’t changed, Tyus said, is that female athletes and athletes of color are not getting enough credit and coverage. “We're still in it, we're still fighting for equal rights and all that,” she said. “And you hear about what's happening with [men’s] basketball, you hear about what LeBron James is doing [with social justice] … every day in the news, but you definitely don't hear about what the WNBA is doing.”

Softball player A.J. Andrews said that the WNBA’s activism inspires her as one of the very few Black players in her sport. Andrews was slated to play for the USSSA Pride in a 25-game series against the Scrap Yard Dawgs this summer, but during the first game, Dawgs general manager Connie May tweeted at President Donald Trump about how all of her players had stood for the national anthem. When the Scrap Yard Dawgs players saw the tweet after the game, they considered it racist and anti-Black Lives Matter, and they decided they would no longer play for the team.

“I feel good that they were so unified,” Andrews said of the Scrap Yard Dawgs, “because when I think of unity and I think of teams and organizations, I think of the WNBA, honestly, as a blueprint. … You see them taking a stand and going against different causes and … it doesn't seem like there's ever any outliers. It all seems like they're all band[ing] together on this one mission, and I never really had that full confidence in softball. And so to see [the Dawgs disband] was really interesting.”

In Andrews’ eyes, though, activism in her sport fell short this summer because it required an incident that personally impacted the players to get started. “I wish it didn't take a tweet for people to say, ‘Oh, you know what, you're right. This isn't right. This is what we should be doing.’ … other leagues all across [the country] that we’ve never seen stepping up have stepped up from the beginning, and softball needed someone to give them a push.”

New York Liberty center Tina Charles shoots during a game against the Connecticut Sun on May 13, 2019. Photo Credit: Chris Poss

Charles shared that she also played softball growing up, but she chose basketball because it was the sport in which she saw a professional future. Growing up in New York, she was captivated by watching the New York Liberty play at Madison Square Garden. The league has steadily expanded its reach since then, and its recent shift to support players in speaking out on issues that are meaningful to them enables the league to inspire the next generation both on and off the court.

Andrews’ criticism of softball needing to be pushed toward activism demonstrates a point that Charles made about what it takes to create societal change. “I don't believe change happens until those who are unaffected finally become affected,” she said. “… I live in New York—it’s one of the most diverse states, and I think that's the beauty of New York City. [And] seeing the different races who are now a part of that front line, that's something that I hold on to hope.”

“There's just a refusal to accept what is, and that's how I sleep at night,” Charles continued. “… As athletes with a platform, we have to continue to do the work. And if we stop, then nobody sees the results.”