Sparks and WNBA lead the way for social change

As loud as the cries are for social change stemming from the callous killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Rayshard Brooks by police, the Los Angeles Sparks and WBNA have been down this social justice pathway before. Social justice is not a topic that neither the Sparks nor the WNBA has ever shied away from. 

In fact, the league and its players have been ahead of the curb when it comes to making noise about addressing police brutality and putting the word out of getting rid of systemic and structural racism. 

Before Colin Kaepernick began taking a knee during the NFL 2016 season, the women of the WNBA were already making their own headlines that summer by wearing social justice statements on their warmup t-shirts such as “Black Lives Matter” and others following the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile at the hands of police.

Sparks-Sun WNBA playoff game
Sept. 22, 2019 © Sammy Saludo/News4usonline – Los Angeles Sparks forward Nneka Ogwumike scored 17 points and pulled down six rebounds against the Connecticut Sun in Game 3 of the WNBA playoff semifinal game played at Long Beach State. Ogwumike and the Sparks were eliminated from the postseason after losing 78-56 to the Sun.

Sterling (July 5, 2016) and Castile (July 6, 2016), both Black men, died within a day of each other. That set in motion a chain of activism by WNBA players. Fast forward to 2020. The narrative of Blacks being killed by police has not changed. The only difference is the change of the names.       

We’re breaking down a lot of doors, great things are happening and there’s starting to be a change, so I feel like the fight should continue, I don’t feel like it should stop,” Sparks rookie Te’a Cooper said. “I’m on board with it and I think everybody with the LA Sparks is too.”

On July 6, the WNBA announced that it would be dedicating the 2020 season to social justice. With that in mind, the league is kicking off the season with an homage to the Black Lives Matter movement. 

As they articulated the issue of social justice in their own way during the team’s media day, it’s clear that members of the Sparks are all in when it comes to spacing time for awareness of police brutality and other social irregularities. 

Sept. 22, 2019 Sept. 22, 2019 © Sammy Saludo/News4usonline - Los Angeles Sparks guard Chelsea Gray attempts to dribble the ball up the court against the defense of a Connecticut Sun player.
Sept. 22, 2019 Sept. 22, 2019 © Sammy Saludo/News4usonline – Los Angeles Sparks guard Chelsea Gray attempts to dribble the ball up the court against the defense of a Connecticut Sun player.

“If you talk about the WNBA, I believe that it has always been on the forefront of change and I will say it till I am blue in the face; we are the majority of the minority,” forward Candace Parker said. “We are a women’s league, we are 80% African American, we come from different socio-economic backgrounds, sexual orientations, so it is our job to make sure that we keep social justice in the forefront and that obviously is going to extend longer than just when you are playing basketball.”

So why is social justice now the trending thing? Two words: George Floyd. Floyd was a 46-year-old Black man, whose death at the hands of Minneapolis, Minnesota police was caught on video. A teenager caught a policeman kneeling on Floyd’s neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds. The video would go viral. 

The Black community, as well as the nation and the world, erupted with a furor of anger not seen for quite some time in the United States. That anger has resonated within the sports world as well. The Sparks and the WNBA are not immune to the ills of society. However, players like Sparks guard Brittney Sykes believe the platform that the WNBA has in reaching people can make a difference if utilized right.   

© Mark Hammond/News4usonline – Los Angeles Sparks forward Candace Parker goes up for two points in her team’s 70-60 win against that Atlanta Dream at Staples Center on Tuesday, Sept. 3, 2019.

“Just as much as we do on the court, it is as big as what we do off the court,” Sykes said.“I am really proud to be a part of an organization that has a platform such as ‘Change Has No Offseason’ and to know as an individual the platforms that we have and we hold, how big our voices are, how everyone we think isn’t looking is looking and to make sure we have little ones that have adults like us to look to for answers. It’s okay to give those answers and use our platforms to do that.”

The aftermath of Floyd’s death has been swift with rebuke and stern condemnation. Demonstrators took to the streets for weeks protesting and calling out the injustices of too many Blacks dying at the hands of law enforcement. The list is too many to name. 

But here’s a start: Walter Scott. Tamir Rice. Philando Castile. Eric Garner. Ezell Ford. Atatiana Jefferson. Stephon Clark. Freddie Gray. As each deadly law enforcement incident involving a person of color, particularly Black people, has caught wind with local and national media, the more public scrutinization of these cases. 

The Los Angeles Sparks pulled off a 77-70 win against the Connecticut Sun at Staples Center on Friday, May 31, 2019. Photo by Dylan Stewart/News4usonline

Floyd’s death was the last straw for a lot of people. So bullish has the outrage been that sports teams have changed offensive and derogatory names (Washington Redskins) hate symbols (Confederate monuments) are coming down, corporate America is now leading the charge of inclusion, and universities are trying to own up to their ties to the slave trade (Yale University). 

The Black Lives Matter organization has officially transferred from just being a trendy topic on social media to becoming a full-blown movement to be reckoned with.

The WNBA was quick to jump on this bandwagon. The league announced that during its opening weekend, players participating in games will be wearing Taylor’s name on the back of their jerseys to bring awareness to women and girls who have fallen victims to racial violence and police misconduct. 

“As a league, all of the players are wearing Breonna Taylor’s name on the back of their jerseys,” said Sparks guard Tierra Ruffin-Pratt. “It’s been how every many days– 100 plus– that her killers have not been arrested. So we’re still trying to fight for justice for her and make a statement as a league that we’re still standing with her, and even though we’re not out there on the front lines, we’re still trying to make some noise here in the Wubble.”

© Mark Hammond/News4usonline – Los Angeles Sparks forward Chiney Ogwumike goes up for the block shot attempt against Jessica Breland (51) in her team’s 70-60 win against that Atlanta Dream at Staples Center on Tuesday, Sept. 3, 2019.

Fighting for social justice is nothing new for the Sparks or the WNBA. Remember the 2017 WNBA Finals? As a team and organization, the Sparks laid down the gauntlet in peaceful protest, staying in the locker room for the first four games of the series against the Minnesota Lynx during the playing of the national anthem. 

“Being able to use this platform for social justice, Breonna Taylor, all of these other victims of police brutality, we’re able to figure out a way to support them as well as create the change that we feel is necessary with our league and with society,” said Seimone Augustus.  

And when it comes to standing at the forefront of this cause, some people may point to the activism work by Minnesota superstar Maya Moore, who decided to sit out the 2019 and 2020 seasons to help an incarcerated man win his freedom. Moore’s advocacy to free Jonathan Irons became complete when he walked out of a prison after serving 23 years of a 50-year sentence. 

Sparks forward Nneka Ogwumike, president of the WNBPA, said that Moore’s work in the social justice arena is indicative of how in front of social issues the league has always been.  

“To get the recognition in the way that she has now has certainly been indicative of how we’ve always been as WNBA players,” Ogwumike said. “I think that she’s certainly set an example for whether it’s been younger players or people who aren’t even in tune with the WNBA as to what we love to do outside of basketball.”

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