WNBA players balance activist roles at All-Star weekend

Like any other milestone in the WNBA, the 2022 All-Star Game will be about much more than basketball.

Players rarely stay on the sidelines when it comes to a fight for human rights. As the league converges on Chicago for All-Star weekend, players carry with them the burden of a tumultuous year of advocacy for trans children, reproductive rights and gun control.

But the foremost issue for the league and its players is the imprisonment of Phoenix Mercury star Brittney Griner, who pleaded guilty to drug possession charges in Russia earlier this week in an effort to possibly secure a prisoner exchange with the U.S. government.

After assembling a letter co-signed by nearly 1,200 prominent Black women including Bernice King and Dawn Staley, the Women’s National Basketball Players Association will continue to plead with the Biden administration to negotiate for Griner’s release throughout the weekend.

“With a 99% conviction rate, Russia’s process is its own,” the WNBPA said in a statement Thursday. “You can’t navigate it or even understand it like our own legal system. What we do know is that the U.S. State Department determined that Brittney Griner was wrongfully detained for a reason and will continue negotiating her release regardless of the legal process. We’ll leave it at that.

“The administration needs to know that this powerful collective is behind them and supports whatever needs to be done to get BG, Paul Whelan and other detained U.S. nationals home right away.”

Griner’s absence will leave a gaping hole throughout All-Star weekend as the league plans to use the platform to hold attention to her imprisonment. But the scope of player activism will be wide-ranging as mass shootings and attacks on abortion and transgender rights swept through the country this season.

In the wake of mass shootings in an Uvalde, Texas, elementary school and a Buffalo, N.Y., supermarket, players enacted media blackouts and used social media to demand stricter gun control legislation. Now the league’s All-Stars arrive in Chicago to a community still reeling from a mass shooting in Highland Park on the Fourth of July.

“We have an issue in this country,” Washington Mystics guard Natasha Cloud said after the team announced a media blackout following the Uvalde shooting. “Not only white supremacy — we also have a gun violence issue. … We’re talking about our kids not being safe to go to school, and our government is still not implementing sensible gun laws.

“This isn’t about taking people’s rights away from bearing arms, this is about putting sensible gun laws in so this doesn’t happen again.”

The same political fervor spilled over following the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade last month, sparking protests that likely will continue this weekend.

The Seattle Storm released a statement declaring the team was “furious and ready to fight.” The WNBPA echoed league-wide uproar against the decision in a statement on June 24.

“Are we in a democracy where guns have more rights than women?” the statement read. “This ruling provides a treacherous pathway to abortion bans that reinforce economic, social and political inequities and could lead to higher rates of maternal mortality while eviscerating rights to reproductive freedom for everyone. To protect our democracy, we must vote like our lives depend on it. Because they do.”

In a league predominantly represented by Black and queer women, it never has been a surprise that WNBA athletes take their platforms seriously.

But this year’s All-Star Game highlights a continued shift in the power given to the voices of women’s athletes.

“For people that are standing up and being the voice — I think it’s really important,” Sky guard Courtney Vandersloot said on WGN in June. “The fight’s not over. People need voices and I think the WNBA and the Chicago Sky is a great platform.”

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