Fueled by the recent events of police brutality and the shooting of Jacob Blake, athletes across major sports leagues have boycotted games in honor of the Black Lives Matter movement. The slow return of live sports also brings the resurfacing of some of the largest platforms for high-profile athletes in entertainment across the United States, and rightfully so.
Thousands of athletes have used social media platforms to speak out on recent events, including topics like the All Lives Matter countermovement or the implicit bias of major news outlets when it comes to reporting on police brutality.
The NBA boycott, though justified, was certainly unprecedented — NBA players have only ever boycotted a game once before in the history of the league. During an exhibition game in 1961, Bill Russell and a few other members of the Celtics sat out in protest of racial justice. When NBA teams decided to sit out Wednesday’s playoff games, it set off a chain reaction with several MLB and MLS teams.
NBA players certainly have the resources to continue calling for change in this way. The league has immense Black representation, individual stars with massive social media platforms and extensive support from coaches, owners and other leaders in the league. However, there is a major sports league that has been leading similar social activism efforts for years now with none of the praise: the WNBA.
In 2016, WNBA players led one of the first league-wide protests we had ever seen in professional sports. The Minnesota Lynx, New York Liberty, Indiana Fever and Phoenix Mercury began to wear black T-shirts during pregame warmups. This was in honor of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, both Black men who had both been unjustly killed by police. The WNBA fined teams $5,000 each and each player $500 for failing to wear the standard team shirts.
This quickly ignited a league-wide discussion and support for the Black Lives Matter movement, as well as a condemnation of WNBA leadership. Tina Charles, playing for the Liberty at the time, criticized the league for supporting causes like Breast Cancer Awareness and Pride, but not issues concerning race. Lisa Borders, the WNBA president at the time, quickly rescinded the initial fines in response to backlash from players and fans. The protests continued into the playoffs, and in solidarity with Colin Kaepernick, entire teams began kneeling for the national anthem or staying in the locker room altogether. Since then, the league has been incredibly vocal on social justice issues, even dedicating the 2020 season to Breonna Taylor and the Say Her Name movement.
However, WNBA players make, on average, $75,000 a year in the league, with only a few players earning up to $113,000. And unlike the NBA, many of the players aren’t looking at significant endorsements, and opportunities in sports-related fields are limited. Many WNBA athletes spend the offseason playing on professional teams overseas to supplement their WNBA incomes.
It’s no secret that the NBA does bring in more revenue, allowing it to pay multimillion-dollar salaries to its star players. However, the women of the league deserve a fair share of the revenue of the WNBA. Currently, the NBA pays its players 50 percent of its total revenue, but WNBA players take home less than 25 percent of the league's total earnings. When they advocate for social justice issues, they do so while risking their minimal earnings and professional images.
It’s time to give the women their credit, financially and otherwise. When it comes to social activism, they have set the stage and seamlessly paved the way for other leagues to follow in their footsteps, regardless of the backlash. And, they do so while receiving half the television airtime and earning a fraction of their male counterparts. They risked their professionalism and financial security in order to make their statements on the matter, and set the standard for activism among sports leagues.