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The WNBA’s Walkout for Social Justice

Quick!  Name one team in the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA).  Can you do it?  How about one WNBA player?  Well?  If you could do both of these things, congratulations.  You have most of the rest of us beat. 

How about some bonus points?  Can you name last season’s WNBA champions?  Can you name last season’s MVP?

Now I’m not asking these questions to be flippant, or condescending, or insulting.  I’m trying to make a point that will hopefully become clear in the next few minutes.   

Before getting to that, though, let’s discuss the events of last Saturday night.  It was the season opener for the WNBA and the New York Liberty and the Seattle Storm (there, you have two of the team names now) were about to square off.  Before doing so, however, they had something to say.  Members of each team (Layshia Clarendon for Liberty and Breanna Stewart for the Storm) stepped forward to dedicate the season to Breonna Taylor who was killed by police when they executed a no knock warrant.  They then led the arena in 26 seconds (Taylor’s age at the time of death) of silence in her honor. 

This event is part of a larger effort on the part of the WNBA to raise awareness of social justice.  Earlier, the league had announced that the 2020 season would be dedicated to that cause.  Part of this effort includes players wearing practice uniforms that feature the slogan “Black Lives Matter” as well as other such phrases associated with the cause.  Additionally, a player led social justice council is to be created.

Returning to the events of Saturday night: after the 26 seconds of silence, the players of both teams walked off the court before the playing of the national anthem and they remained in the locker rooms the entire time. 

The idea of social justice activism has swept through the sports world.  There was kneeling during the opening game of the Baseball season.  Kneeling has become commonplace in the NFL.  And the less said about the issues involving NASCAR the better.  It is not surprising that the WNBA would follow the other sports leagues in this regard.  But, to walk out before the national anthem seems to me to be an exacerbation, or intensification, of the standard protests set by the other leagues.  And this brings me to my point.

Maybe I’m a bit cynical, but I can’t help but think that these players had ulterior motives in their walkout.  This little cynic in me keeps screaming that this was a publicity stunt aimed at giving some much needed media attention to a sports league that has never caught on with the general public. 

Is there any evidence of this?  No, not directly.  But circumstances certainly indicate that this league is in desperate need of publicity, and all publicity is good publicity.  Let’s look at these circumstances. 

In the 2018 season, the average attendance for a WNBA game was 6,721.  Compare this to the male sports leagues in America.  The NBA averaged 17,750.  The NFL averaged 66,151.  Major League Baseball came in at 28,317 while the NHL was 17,456.  Then there was Major League Soccer, the newest of the major leagues and the sport we are told American’s just won’t embrace.  Their average attendance was 21,692.

As far as television ratings go, the WNBA is actually on an upswing over the course of the last decade buy still has only a fraction of these other sports.

I’m not taking delight in this.  I don’t enjoy watching this league struggle.  In fact, it’s just the opposite.  I have a daughter who enjoys seeing women in action and I would like this league to succeed for that reason if nothing else. 

But, if this walk off for the national anthem was a publicity ploy as I suspect, I would like to suggest a different tactic for these players.  Instead of walking off during the national anthem, maybe they should try standing tall, placing their hands over their hearts, and keeping their eyes on the flag during the anthem. 

What would this do?

Well, if their goal is to get attention, this would work.  With all of the male dominated leagues doing just the opposite (and losing fans over it) then logically, following in their footsteps (and taking it a step further) is the last thing they should want to do.  This will only produce the same results as these other leagues are experiencing, and with their smaller fanbase the WNBA can’t afford to lose as much support as them.

So, again logically, to produce a different result, they should do the opposite.  In the present environment where every league is kneeling, they would definitely make waves and get attention by standing.

Can you picture it? The NBA, MLB, NFL, and every other league in the country is making headlines for kneeling during the anthem. They’re in the news for hemorrhaging fans. They players who stand up for the flag are dragged through the mud and made to apologize. Then, out of the smoke of this once fertile landscape, a group of ladies walks with hand on heart and showing pride in their country. The country of their fans. The country that affords them this opportunity to play the game they love for a living. These ladies, who had been living in the shadow of the far more popular male leagues, are suddenly standing head and shoulders above them in the eyes of the fans.

Now, having gone through the cynical scenario, let’s give these players the benefit of the doubt and say that their intentions are altruistic.  Let’s say they really do care about this issue and want to draw attention to it.  In that case they can still stand for the anthem.  After all, aren’t we being constantly told that it isn’t about the flag?  Aren’t we being told that the kneelers can still be patriotic and protest at the same time?  That’s what they’re telling us, so why don’t they show us as well?

They can still have moments of silence for these unfortunate deaths.  They can still wear slogans on their uniforms.  They can still conduct their social justice council.  And they can tell us their doing these things every single game.  Then, they can demonstrate that they are still patriots by standing for the flag.

This would make a lot of sense because the leagues where the kneeling is done and the disrespect of the flag is shown are losing audiences. Those players may be making a message, but no one is hearing it.

By standing for the anthem , the ladies of the WNBA may open up ears to their message that might otherwise be closed.  By doing this, they might be taken seriously by a larger segment of society.  By doing this, they might start to build bridges and open lines of communication between two segments of society that are growing further apart and becoming more entrenched by the day.

The cynic in me has a lot of trouble accepting the actions of these players at face value.  But I could be wrong.  They could be genuine in their desire for social justice and their efforts to reach it.  Regardless of their actual motivation, however, standing and showing respect for the anthem and the flag would be a far better tactic to accomplish their goal than walking out and following the lead of the rest of the sports world.

“A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.”-Proverbs 15:1 (NIV)

“You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.”-a folk saying often attributed to Benjamin Franklin

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