‘The blueprint’ of athlete activism: WNBA is at forefront of LGBTQ+ issues

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In just 25 years of existence, the WNBA has established itself as one of America’s most progressive sports leagues. Through player activism, planned events and community outreach the WNBA has demonstrated its commitment and support of marginalized communities. In solidarity with the WNBA’s players who identify as part of the LGBTQ+ community, the league focuses on promoting LGBTQ+ rights, especially during Pride Month.

The WNBA and its players have rarely been shy about expressing their opinions regarding social justice issues. One of the earliest examples of this occurred in 2001 when the Los Angeles Sparks organization publicly acknowledged Pride Month, becoming the first professional team sports team to do so.

Thirteen years later, the WNBA was the first league to launch a dedicated LGBTQ+ campaign and establish leadership in the community regarding such issues. Every team in the league was participating in annual pride nights by 2014. While the NBA formalized its support much later, since 2016, the WNBA and NBA have marched together in New York City’s pride march.

The WNBA has also stood by the LGBTQ+ community in times of crisis. The WNBA responded to the mass shooting at Pulse nightclub by issuing warmup shirts to be worn by players and making donations to local funds. In addition, WNBA star and member of the LGBTQ+ community Breanna Stewart auctioned off her game-worn shoes, with the proceeds benefiting victims of the shooting.

Recently, the league has also made strides to be more inclusive by emphasizing representation. As a result of racial justice movements occurring in summer 2020, the league announced that it would dedicate the 2020 season to social justice. Along with its Players Association, the WNBA also created a Social Justice Council, with various players and league representatives accepting leadership positions. The initiatives include creating space for ongoing conversations about LGBTQ+ advocacy, among other goals.

For Pride Month, the league is focusing on transgender inclusivity. In order to do so, it will conduct league and team ally education sections in partnership with Athlete Ally, a nonprofit LGBTQ+ athletic advocacy group, on trans inclusivity. Additionally, the league plans to sell Pride-based merchandise. All proceeds from the sales will go toward GLSEN, an organization that works to end discrimination, harassment and bullying based on gender expression, sexual orientation or gender identity. In addition, WNBA social media accounts will promote pride with the hashtag #wnbapride.

WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert fully supports these initiatives. “The WNBA’s commitment to equity, justice, diversity and inclusion is year-long, but this month is a special celebration of the LGBTQ+ community,” she said in a statement. “We also wanted to specifically voice our support of the trans community as our WNBA/WNBPA Social Justice Council continues to focus on rights for non-binary and trans people. We are honored to collaborate with WNBA Changemaker Deloitte to continue to shine light on combating inequities and promoting advocacy for LGBTQ+ rights.”

This month, there will be 10 nationally televised games that will be dedicated to Pride. As WNBA games typically garner an average of 375,000 viewers, the LGBTQ+ community is continually advocated for and represented. It is important for young viewers to see LGBTQ+ athletes in the spotlight, if not only to remind them of the continued struggles of the LGBTQ+ community but to make them feel more comfortable if they identify with that community.

The WNBA exists as one of the most consistently progressive professional sports leagues, and this year is no exception. With an emphasis on LGBTQ+ rights this month, the league shows pride in its athletes and their identifications. In many ways, the WNBA is the blueprint for the intersection of social justice and sports: Other leagues could stand to follow its lead.

Contact Emily Wilson at [email protected].