WNBA players speak out after league rescinds fines for supportive shirts
Players and the league will meet over the coming Olympics break to try and broker a resolution
When a mass shooting took place at Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, Florida, in June, the WNBA gave its players shirts that read “#OrlandoUnited” and the league raised money for the nightclub victims. The WNBA even said things like this.
But the league’s reaction to players recently wearing shirts that support Black Lives Matter and the police officers who were killed in Dallas and Baton Rouge, Louisiana? Much different.
After three teams (the New York Liberty, Indiana Fever and the Phoenix Mercury) donned shirts that included the phrases “Black Lives Matter” and “Dallas 5,” the WNBA sent a letter out reminding teams of its uniform policy but not fining them. Multiple players on the New York Liberty gathered and decided on a compromise that they hoped would please everyone involved. Instead of shirts with writing, they would wear plain, all-black shirts with only the Adidas logo (the WNBA’s primary sponsor), sticking true to the causes they wanted to advocate for, but also respecting the wishes of the league and its uniform policy. The players wore the shirts for four games with no objection from the WNBA, according to Swin Cash of the New York Liberty.
On the morning of July 20, some players from the Indiana Fever appeared on ESPN wearing the black T-shirts. That’s when the league sent out another memo reminding everyone of the uniform policy.
Many players were confused about the timing, asking how they were allowed to wear the shirts for multiple games with no word from the league. The Liberty players decided to wear their all-black shirts for that Wednesday’s game anyway, and that’s when the WNBA fined each team who wore the shirts $5,000 (as well as docking each participating player $500).
Players were fed up. There won’t be any WNBA games for another month with the Olympics break looming, but players took to social media to promise that they weren’t backing down.
Today, I decided to not be silent in the wake of the @wnba fines against @nyliberty, @indianafever & @phoenixmercury due to our support in the #BlackLivesMatter movement . Seventy percent of the @wnba players are African-American women and as a league collectively impacted. My teammates and I will continue to use our platform and raise awareness for the #BlackLivesMatter movement until the @wnba gives its support as it does for Breast Cancer Awareness, Pride and other subject matters.
It's bigger than US! Proud of my @indianafever mates, and all of the ladies around the league who are exercising OUR RIGHTS & using our platform to create change! #BlackLivesMatter #Fight4Equality #NoMoreSilence #ChangingLives #Inspire #ChangeSTARTSWithUs #UseYourVoice #HelpCreateChange #SoBlessed @WNBPA
Over the weekend, the WNBA announced that fines against teams and players alike would be lifted, with WNBA President Lisa Borders saying, “While we expect players to comply with league rules and uniform guidelines, we also understand their desire to use their platform to address important societal issues,” Borders said. “Given that the league will now be suspending play until Aug. 26 for the Olympics, we plan to use this time to work with our players and their union on ways for the players to make their views known to their fans and the public.”
So far the reaction from players has been measured. Tina Charles of the Liberty went on SportsCenter to explain that players around the league would continue using their platforms:
Cash told The Undefeated on Monday morning that the WNBA’s decision to rescind the fines was a good one:
“It shows to the women and to other people that when you have the passion for something, really banding together is important. I don’t think we would have had the impact or the resolution that came out of it if it was only one or two players or half the teams and not everyone. This was a united front with all the players and I said this before — our league is so diverse that having players from around the globe being able to stand up for a cause, and some not even knowing the history of how far this issue goes back, it shows our strength in numbers. You have to have strength in numbers and as women, a lot of times people don’t expect us to be at the forefront, but if you look back, even back to the civil rights movement and other powerful movements in the U.S., women have been right there at the beginning, at the front, in strategy, helping and standing up for what they believe in. To me, I thought this was a great step for the union and for the league, hopefully, as a whole. To your point, yeah, you can say, ‘You know what, we shouldn’t have gotten fined in the first place.’ But a lot of times with big organizations, whether it’s sports teams or big companies, they understand that they made a mistake or they should have said something different and they take the approach of standing their ground. For me, I do give a little bit of credit to the WNBA for saying, ‘You know what, we’re going to take another look at this and we’re going to rescind the fines.’ ”
“It’s a huge win overall,” Indiana Fever All-Star and president of the players’ union Tamika Catchings told ESPN. “I think more than anything I told [Lisa Borders] at times you’re going to agree to disagree. With this, I’m really proud of the players standing strong and for utilizing their voices. Change starts with us. We have a social responsibility as well.”
The Undefeated spoke with five players on the New York Liberty last week to get a better sense of what this whole process has felt like, what the WNBA should be doing differently and what the future will look like.
Cash, 36, is currently in her 15th year in the WNBA. She won two national titles at the University of Connecticut (2000 and 2002) as well as WNBA titles in 2003, 2006 and 2010. She is also the vice president of the WNBA players union.
Q: What’s your recollection of how this all came about? What moment with you and your teammates sparked the whole idea of wearing shirts supporting Black Lives Matter and the police officers who were killed?
A: Well, basically, the thing with our team is we communicate very well, so we have a group chat in WhatsApp and we talk about a lot of different things. Sometimes we’re joking in there, sometimes we’re talking about presidential races going on, I mean, whatever it is, we just have the conversations so I think whenever things started happening and the videos started coming out of the shootings — it was like one after another, back to back to back. There started to just be this sense that people are voicing, like, ‘I’m in shock right now, I don’t know what to do, I don’t know what to say, is this really happening?’ And I think having all those conversations and that dialogue just opened it up to us saying this has to stop. We have to say something.
Q: When you have an entire team in a group chat like that, what are the reactions like? Are there a lot of teammates who are silent?
A: It’s emotion, it’s raw — you can get angry, you can speechless, you can ask, ‘What can we do?’ And then it goes from the group chat to you may come out for practice on the court or you’re on a bus and the conversations start then and people are pulling up certain stuff on social media or pulling up articles and showing each other or sending it to each other in the group chat so it just really opens up kind of this floodgate of wanting to know more information, looking for stuff and sometimes I guess the bottom line is you’re trying to find answers and sometimes there aren’t any answers, but we’re still trying to figure things out.
Q: When you first decided to wear the T-shirt that mentioned both Black Lives Matter and the Dallas Police Department, were you expecting full support from the league? Were you surprised by their reaction?
A: I don’t think we even thought about the WNBA. It was more about how comfortable everyone on our team was. That was the main thing — how do we present this together as a team and we all had to buy into that. And so there was a lot of conversation back and forth because of how the situation played out. It was Minnesota, New Orleans, then all of a sudden it was the police officers. So it’s like you’re grieving one situation and, boom, another one hits you and everyone is kind of in the middle and you can really fall into that trap of: Are you going to be politically correct? Or are you going to talk everything out and really stand for what’s on the shirt. I think that’s kind of what happened is that we came together, like sports does, it brings you together and you figure it out. We, at the end of the day, all signed off on our shirts and it was like, ‘All right, this is what we have to do,’ understanding that we would get some type of communication from the league.
Q: And then the league sends the letter right after those shirts reminding everyone of the uniform policy. When you guys decide to compromise and wear the all-black shirt with the Adidas logo, were you caught off guard then when you get fined anyway?
A: Well, I think the one thing people are missing is that this is almost two weeks now of incidents happening. It was affecting people. We have players that really were just not in a great state and felt like they needed to let their voices be heard. Immediately for us, we kind of got the message that maybe the writing on the shirts could be taken out of context or it could cause more issues and so how we tried to compromise, immediately, our next game, after we had worn the Black Lives Matter shirts, we were in Minnesota, we actually wore all-black Adidas shirts. As a compromise. Still being able to support and wear the black shirts, but we had respect to say, ‘OK, their big thing is the sponsor. No problem. We’ll make sure it’s an Adidas-issued shirt and it’s all black.’ So for four games we were wearing the all-black shirts with the Adidas logo. It wasn’t until recently when Indiana went on ESPN on national television wearing the black shirts. And that morning is when we all got the memo, so Indiana came to the game and got the memo and everyone is like, ‘All right, all this is happening.’ It was just a heavy-handed memo that came on Tuesday and I think, to be honest with you, that really sent the emotions of the players into kind of a whirlwind. And so immediately, it goes back to the group chat. We also have a players’ union group chat where we have the player reps and we’re talking and now it’s like you’re talking to your own team, other teams are chiming in and everyone is asking where things lay and what’s going to happen. We had an early game Wednesday in [Washington,] D.C. We saw Indiana wear the shirts Tuesday night and we wanted to be in solidarity with them and so we said, you know what, we’ve been wearing these shirts the last few games, if we take them off now, what are we really saying? And so we stood by them and we wore the shirts for our Wednesday game in D.C. and then the fine came down after the game and I think everyone was pretty shocked. It’s like, ‘OK, I can knock a girl upside her head and I can get a flagrant 2, get thrown out and it’s going to cost me less money than an all-black shirt with their sponsor on it.’ Everything just kind of went into a whirlwind after that.
Q: In terms of what you were describing earlier about the union director reaching out, is it fair to say you guys feel like you went through the proper channels to tell the league how you felt?
A: Yeah, I think at first you can say it’s rogue. It’s bold to say we want to wear shirts but it’s not like it hasn’t been done before. The guys did it, absolutely, when it was heightened emotions happening with ‘I Can’t Breathe’ so for us it was a heightened sense of — listen, besides Major League Baseball right now, we’re the only ones playing and in season so this is our platform. Our offseason, a lot of the women are playing overseas so if you don’t speak in the moment then it’s really hard to try and come back and want to create a platform and talk about something that’s happening right now. For players, we thought we were trying to move in a certain direction and then once the memo came, it was like, ‘All right, we’re about to go to the Olympic break, like where is this coming from?’ I think it kind of caught players off guard and it just kind of poured gasoline on the fire of their emotions. I have gotten no sleep over the last week or two because it’s not only the players on my team. I’m getting calls from other players on other teams and you can hear the pain in their voice, you can hear the confusion. Sometimes you don’t have answers but you can comfort, you can listen, you can try to guide. It’s a community of trying to hold people up. That’s the part people miss — we’re human just like every other person in this country and we’re affected by it.
Q: When the Orlando nightclub shooting happened, the WNBA gave its players “Orlando United” shirts and raised money for victims but they aren’t doing the same sort of thing here? Why do you think that is?
A: I think you definitely would have to ask them that. I don’t know why. I understand, like, that was a tragedy and it affected players on our team and a lot of the players in the league and so of course we need to stand up for Orlando because this is important. I think that’s the one piece a lot of our players keep questioning and they need some answers in that field.
Q: You’re hearing that a lot from players? Are they bringing this specific example up?
A: Yeah, and you know what’s so sad for me is that I hate the fact you have to even get to the point of comparison. Like, why are we doing this and we’re not doing that? Do we care more about this community or that community? If you look at the injustices across the board, absolutely, the LGBTQ community has fought for injustices, the black community has fought, the Latino community as well — minorities in general. But right now, there’s a high visibility of things happening to the black community and you look at the percentage of your league (that’s African-American) and you think just because it’s happening to men and not as much to women, that it’s not going to affect us, but it does. I think that’s where a lot of women and even myself would want to open up and have this conversation with the league to understand how things come down the pipeline. We understand the business side of stuff, absolutely. We understand relationships and partnerships and I think people need to understand that about our players. I think, at the end of the day, we want to grow the WNBA. We’re not trying to hurt the WNBA in any way, shape or form. We’re not trying to be defiant, but if we’re going to talk about inclusion, then the players have the right to ask those questions that they’re asking now.
Q: What does the future look like after the Olympics break and the second half starts? How do you continue to advocate for this while not harming the league
A: I think it’s conversations. I can tell you this — this is my 15th season and I haven’t seen the ladies more engaged, more galvanized around having that unity. I think this is going to go very well for our union because right now the players want to talk, they want to see, OK, what kind of action can we take? And that’s the great thing about having a union — if the league can’t take action or won’t take positions on certain things, then you can get that support from the union and figure out, OK, how can we do more than just media hits. We can keep the visibility out there but we want to make sure — are we taking things back to the community? Are we talking to the right politicians? Are we talking to our communities about voting and making sure that we’re out there? So best believe, the WNBA women, we’re looking at next steps and strategically looking at what we can do to make an impact. At the end of the day, we have continuously said change starts with us. And that doesn’t mean media hits. It also means we’re out there doing some of the grassroots work and making sure we’re talking to those organizations.
Q: If you were in a room with NBA commissioner Adam Silver and the people deciding to fine you and punish you all, what would you say?
A: The first thing I would say is the players love and respect our league and we want the league to grow. But the players also need to know where the support lies from the league and then have that open dialogue so things can be decided on together. It’s better for the league and the union and the players to unite for causes like this than for us to be divided and having this conversation about the league vs. the players. It’s good to know that a league stands for inclusion, that stands for diversity, that they’re showing the same support to their players for this cause. I think it’s not only Adam Silver but Lisa Borders — I think the league gets that and you can see by what just happened with the league pulling the NBA All-Star Game out of Charlotte, [North Carolina]. They have always stood by that and I think there’s just some questions the ladies have about where the support lies. What it comes down to is having those conversations and making sure you have the people in the room.
Charles, 27, was the first overall pick in the 2010 WNBA draft after leading the University of Connecticut to two undefeated national championships. She’s a four-time WNBA All-Star and the league’s 2012 MVP. Charles has been one of the most outspoken players on the New York Liberty, promising not to back down and even intentionally wearing her warmup shirt inside out in protest after receiving a player of the month award last week.
Q: After you received the letter about uniform policy, were you surprised that the WNBA still fined you for wearing the all-black shirts?
A: Yeah, we were. I think Tanisha Wright said it — ‘If you’re going to do it, then you do it from the beginning.’ You know, 70 to 80 percent of our players are African-American but it’s not just us who are impacted, it’s the entire league. The WNBA is able to support breast cancer awareness, pride, what happened in Orlando, Green Week. The WNBA should support us as quickly as they did for those other causes. It’s a failure in the system and something needs to change.
Q: What’s your opinion on why they decided to fine you now and not before and not for other social causes like you mentioned?
A: Well, that’s something you have to ask the WNBA, but we’re disappointed. You look to your league to have your back, to support you. We saw NBA players wear their ‘I Can’t Breathe’ shirts in December 2014 and how supportive Adam Silver was of them. They used their voice, and he didn’t see any problem with that.
Q: If you and your teammates had the same sort of platform that LeBron James and his fellow NBA stars had at the ESPYS, what would you want the world to know?
A: I want them to know that we’re not going to be able to solve all the systematic problems, as far as racism goes. But we can continue to advocate, we can continue to educate and we can make sure people turn out and vote for candidates that care about the issues. It’s not just police brutality, it’s economics, it’s education and it’s also criminal justice reform.
Q: I’ve noticed that a number of players, including yourself, have put up posts on social media essentially saying you’re not going to back down from this. What does the future look like? Will you continue to wear the shirts?
A: For me personally, I will continue to try to force change and just standing up and being a representative for the WNBA players that are not in a position to financially. To be in this position, to play at Madison Square Garden, to use my status more — I will definitely continue to wear my shirt inside out until we see there’s change, until we see the WNBA understands about what is affecting WNBA players. We can’t go and protest, we can’t go to town hall — we have priorities with our team, so having that shirt and being able to play in those arenas, you know, we’re also role models. Young girls look up to us because we play in the WNBA, but I have stated this in the past, the WNBA isn’t just about basketball, it’s about opportunity. I’m able to use the WNBA as a platform for my foundation where I raise awareness for sudden cardiac arrest and help save lives. In essence, I’m doing the same thing right now. I’m raising awareness to the fact Black Lives Matter and for what’s going on in the system, the fact we need a change, to in the future save lives, so there’s no way someone like me personally can stay quiet.
Q: What has all of this been like for you? Have people been supportive of what you’re trying to do?
A: I’ve really been taken aback. When I decided to wear my shirt inside out when I was presented with the player of the month award and I decided to keep the shirt inside out, I did it because I wanted to use that platform to show what I’m standing up about, to show that it’s not about the award right now. I’m able to acknowledge what WNBA players are feeling and what the WNBA is potentially silencing us about. And so I was really taken aback and really thankful for the support from everyone around the country.
Q: Do you think the WNBA misunderstands your root cause or do they disagree with it?
A: I think the league has its agenda and its reasons why they support different causes and how it affects our community. As a player, you always want to take care of each other and I think every coach of every team always tells the players, ‘Make sure you take care of one another.’ Right now, we’re taking care of one another and we’re making a stand to the WNBA, pleading that we need support and we need them to come around and see how we see this and how it impacts us. We’re not immune to what’s going on.
Wright, 32, plays guard for the Liberty and signed with the team in February 2015.
Q: What’s your recollection of how you and teammates first took up this cause? What sparked it and who led the charge when it all first started?
A: We had some dialogue between ourselves about what was going on and we all felt very strongly. It really just came about from a conversation. We have a group chat, which most teams around the league do, and one particular day the conversation came up and we had the conversation about what was going on in society and what was happening. And most of our team is made up of African-American women. And so we all just felt a very strong sense to show our support and really advocate for what was going on and all the different injustices happening. We had conversations with one another and literally within one night this was something we wanted to do and support — and we just did it.
Q: When you guys take up this cause in general, are you expecting to be completely supported? Were you caught off guard this was viewed negatively and controversially by the WNBA?
A: Oh, not at all. We were expecting support. You know what I mean? Just like the same support that we showed and we gave for the Orlando shootings. We thought that the WNBA would jump on this with us and show us their full support. It’s unfortunate that didn’t happen. But yeah, we fully expected that we’d be supported in this cause.
Q: If I put you in a room with NBA commissioner Adam Silver and the folks making these decisions, what would you want them to know that they might not understand right now?
A: I think they understand most of the things that we’re saying. I think that they have a corporate world that they need to deal with and so they’re looking at all aspects of it, so I get that. But I think that one thing they don’t realize is how passionate our players are about this and how much it affects our players. Everywhere we go, we walk with this. We walk with being black. That doesn’t change no matter where we go. We can’t hide that, we can’t run away from that and so this directly affects us no matter which way we look at it. We have brothers, we have fathers, we have uncles. I have three amazing nephews — you know what I mean? These are the conversations that at 11 years old, 7 years old, 6 years old, we unfortunately need to start having with them. So I just don’t think that they understand the magnitude of how much this affects the players and how passionate our players are about this.
Q: What do you make of the idea the league allows NBA players to wear “I Can’t Breathe” shirts but they are less than supportive of this cause? What’s your best guess as to why they are drawing the line here of all places?
A: Yeah, you know, I can’t put a finger on it. I’m not exactly sure what the league is thinking in this instance and why there’s a disparity between the two. I really couldn’t give you an answer on that. That’s something that they’d have to answer and live up to. I really can’t put a finger on it, to be honest.
Q: Since there aren’t games for another month or so with Olympics break, what do you guys continue to do to advocate for this?
A: Well, I think we just continue to use our platform, right? We’re living in a day and time where social media is huge and you can really get information out to the masses so I think we continue to collaborate with different people, different organizations that want to have these conversations, that aren’t shying away from these conversations. We’ll use social media to educate not only ourselves but others about the movement and what it stands for and what we stand for. I think people need to understand that just because we’re saying we support the idea of Black Lives Matter doesn’t mean we’re not supporting the police officers and what they go out and do for us on a daily basis. We understand that and we’re in full support of them and we don’t encourage or condone any brutality or violence against police officers but we want people to know what’s going on, the injustices that are going on against black lives, particularly our black men in society. It’s wrong and people need to stand up and stand out against that and stand up for what is right, and we need to start seeing justice being brought to these police officers. And I think even police officers have a responsibility to stand up for what’s right. If your job is to serve and protect, then you serve and protect all. There’s a code that they don’t speak on it, right, if they know that something’s wrong. I think they have a responsibility as well, just to show that what’s wrong is wrong and what is right is right. That’s what we’re standing up for. We just want justice in these situations. We want people to know they need to start valuing black lives just as much as they value other lives.
Q: Do you think you guys will still wear the shirts after the Olympics break? What will the next few months look like?
A: I think there are different ways you can have your voice heard. I think the first stage for us was advocating by wearing the T-shirts and letting people know we’re aware and we have a voice in this matter. We did that. I think the next step that we just did the other day with the media blackout. We don’t answer questions about basketball because right now this is a much bigger issue than basketball. Yes, this is what we do, but we have a bigger platform and a bigger responsibility. First and foremost, we’re people. We’re humans, so using our platform in that manner and not speaking about basketball. Right now, it’s bigger than basketball. We’ll only speak about what’s going on in society. So I think that was another step and as long as we continue to have these dialogues amongst each other, within these next few months, we can continue to come up with different ways to get our voice heard, to advocate for the things that are affecting us and the things that are important to us, so right now it’s just about continuing to have this dialogue, continuing to talk to one another and figuring out different avenues and different ways to be heard.
Q: If I gave you and your teammates the same platform that LeBron James and his fellow NBA stars had at the ESPYS, what would you say?
A: When people say Black Lives Matter, there is no imaginary ‘only’ Black Lives Matter. Instead of putting that imaginary ‘only’ on it, they need to put that imaginary Black Lives Matter ‘too.’ Period. That’s it. Like Black Lives Matter, too. When things are happening and all these injustices are going on, we need everybody’s support. It can’t just be black lives supporting Black Lives Matter because these are injustices that are happening to black lives but it affects everyone, not just us. We have people going crazy and taking matters into their own hands with the Dallas shooting and then the Louisiana shooting, like, I think these are all happening because of these situations, right? So it’s not just affecting black lives. This is an American problem. It’s not just a black lives problem. We’re the people who are speaking out and we appreciate everyone — there’s media supporting it right now, there’s other races supporting it right now and so we appreciate that. We just need that to continue to happen.
Zellous, 29, plays shooting guard for the Liberty and signed on in February 2016.
Q: How did it happen that you and your teammates decided to take up this cause and to wear T-shirts in support?
A: I think, as a whole, one day we were on the road and the Baton Rouge shooting happened one day and then the next day it happened in Minnesota and we were just like, ‘Oh my God, this is crazy — we should get shirts made.’ And in the process of doing that, those Dallas officers end up getting shot protecting the protesters down there, so we were like, ‘You know what, we’re going to come out and say Black Lives Matter,’ and because innocent cops lost their lives, we decided to put the ‘Dallas 5’ on our shirts. But I think as a collective group, we all decided, like, we have a platform and we have people that look up to us so why not let it be us to go out here and make a change and let people see what we’re doing and capable of doing, just to show support to the families that lost innocent victims. It’s not just black males that lost their lives, we’re talking about officers that were innocent, protecting innocent protestors down in Dallas.
Q: Were you surprised that the WNBA didn’t seem to like/support the T-shirt you guys first wore? Were you expecting to do that and get full support from them?
A: I think we were all kind of surprised. We thought we would get more support than we did, but then that’s when we came together and we were like, ‘OK, let’s all just wear all-black shirts and keep Adidas in it.’ Adidas is our official sponsor of the WNBA so to show our sponsor some support and instead of totally blacking out a shirt, we said let’s get some all-black Adidas shirts, that way we can still show our support. Either way, with the writing or without the writing, we still find ourselves in a situation where we got fined and it’s unfortunate to us because I think we covered all grounds. We wanted our voice to be heard and we have a platform where we can go out there and say how we feel — and we think it’s important because we have little kids that come to the game, little kids that aspire to be us one day playing in the WNBA and if they see us taking the initiative, maybe they think in their head, hey, if I was in that position or when I get in that position, I can do the same thing. And it’s just unfortunate that the league took the big stand that it did.
Q: If you guys were surprised that the WNBA didn’t like your first T-shirt, you must have been really caught off guard they didn’t like the compromised shirt, either, right? How big of a shock was that?
A: Oh yeah! We were just like, ‘Well, if we’re going to get fined for this all-black shirt, why not wear the shirts we got made?’ We actually came together and were like, ‘Hey, this shows support to our official sponsor and we made the effort to wear an all-black Adidas shirt and it’s still like, OK, we’re not accepting it right now.’ We were a little bit surprised and I think we’re still all somewhat shocked that those things happened to us.
Q: What do the next few months look like since there won’t be games for a little while with the Olympics break? How do you continue advocating for this cause?
A: I think the next step for us is to try to set up some town hall meetings, get some officials in there where we can all just sit together and we can just ask what’s next. We’re not playing for a whole month because of the Olympics so what steps can we take next. So now that we’re off the court, what do we do? And I think that’s still up for discussion. I know our team has been looking at doing other things until we’re able to get back on the court, but like Tina said, I don’t think anybody is going to stop wearing our shirts. I think we’ll all come together after the break when the teams have to report back and we’ll decide then.
Q: If I put you in a room with NBA commissioner Adam Silver and some of the people involved with deciding whether to fine you guys, what would you want them to know that they might not right now?
A: It’s kind of tough. It’s just tough for me as a player because I love the idea of supporting the whole Orlando situation that happened. I’m from Orlando — it kind of hit harder for me because I’m from there. To me, it wasn’t an issue with wearing those Orlando shirts and now when we want to wear these shirts, it’s like, ‘Nah, we can’t do it.’ I think people get the concept of Black Lives Matter. We’re not just saying Black Lives Matter. We’re just saying that All Lives Matter but at this particular time, our lives matter the most because we’re the ones being affected with the system and how they’re going against us and I just think, at some point, they have to do what’s right. We have to look into this and hopefully over this break, our league will have a meeting and really talk about these things because this is somewhat important to every person in the WNBA. It’s very, very important for us to use this platform for people to know that we’re here for you and we hope you’re with us and not against us.
Q: What you were saying about the Orlando T-shirts was super interesting. So there were T-shirts after the Orlando tragedy? Were those given to you guys by the WNBA or something you all went and created?
A: Oh, we actually got those shirts from the WNBA. Adidas made some shirts for the Orlando Magic, I want to say, and then the league said, ‘OK, to show our support for the LGBTQ community and all the victims that lost their lives in Orlando, here’s some shirts we’re going to wear,’ and we wore them. It hit a little harder for me because I’m from Orlando, I know exactly where it is, it’s close to home for me, my high school is right around the corner, so it’s kind of harder for me, but it was just the thought that the league showed support for that and it kind of disappoints us and other athletes in the WNBA because it’s like, ‘You support this, how come you can’t support this other issue that has been going on a long, long time?’
Q: Do you remember what it said on the shirts and how long you guys wore it for?
A: It said “Orlando United” and we wore it for one game. It was our Pride Day, actually. I’m not sure about other teams but I know for sure for us, it was our pride game in June.
Q: If that’s the case, where the WNBA supports another big social cause and not this one, do you think the WNBA misunderstands your case or disagrees with it?
A: You know what, it’s kind of tough. I really can’t answer for what the league is thinking but I think a lot of us feel that it’s a big misunderstanding. Just because we’re saying Black Lives Matter doesn’t mean we’re not saying All Lives Matter, you know? We’re basically saying that, as of right now, this issue is stemming from African-Americans getting killed due to their race and that’s the standpoint we’re at right now and it’s kind of tough for us. I think it’s a mixture of both (misunderstanding and disagreement) but I’m leaning more toward a misunderstanding.
Q: If I put you in charge of the entire WNBA and you could do whatever you want, how would you better address this issue and what would you first do?
A: I’d go out and try to meet with officials and hire officials and get their thoughts on how the WNBA and higher officials get our point across to let people know it’s just not about the black lives that matter. Like I had said, we lost cops in Baton Rouge and in Dallas that were helping protesters. I think the next step for us is just try and get out there and protest as much as we can because this issue is so strong and I don’t think it’ll ever go away. Us as athletes we have a say and a platform where we can go out there and show our support for this issue right now.
Swords, 27, first signed with the Liberty in February 2015. Before that, she played overseas in Italy and Australia.
Q: How did you first realize that you wanted to join alongside teammates in wearing T-shirts? What did you hear that made you know you should use your voice and platform in this way?
A: Well, I think with the shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile so close together and then also the Dallas police officers who were killed while protecting peaceful protests — all of that happening really within 48 to 72 hours was just very shocking, that so many incidents were happening so close together, that something that feels like it’s been going on for a long time despite national conversation was still continuing, and then two of those incidents happening in markets where there are WNBA teams. It just felt like players around the league were very much in tune to what was going on and speaking. I know at the time we were traveling in Chicago and we were having time to process this together and we were deeply saddened by all of these deaths, both of the two men and then the police officers and really felt like this is a national issue and wanted to lend voice to it.
Q: After LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade and Chris Paul made their speech at the ESPYS, they said they decided to take such a stand after texting back and forth in their group chat. Take me to that moment you and your teammates decided to take up this cause. How did it happen?
A: It was a bit of a combination of us being together in person and then also over text message. You know when you’re traveling together, especially with our schedule, we were together in the airports and sometimes at breakfast, and I know there was a group of us sitting and watching CNN on mute while heading to shootaround on the day of a game and it’s just very sad and disturbing and troubling. It’s something that’s difficult to try to process when it’s just so tragic and you feel like something needs to change. But it’s helpful to have to teammates and a group you can talk to and process with.
Q: What was your goal going into all of this, in terms of wearing the shirts and trying to draw attention to this cause?
A: We recognize as athletes that we do have a specific platform. We wanted to be inclusive in terms of showing support and solidarity to Black Lives Matter and also to the police officers, the numerous police officers who have lost their lives while protecting and serving their communities and that violence on either side is not something we condone or support at all and wearing the T-shirts we were hoping to ignite conversation, engage in conversation with people who are kind of in our sphere of the athletic world and the media who cover us and hoping that as a nation we can try to make change and move forward.
Q: When you decide in that moment to take up this cause, what are you expecting? Were you expecting the league to think that this was controversial? Or were you expecting full support?
A: I think it was disappointing that we haven’t necessarily felt supported by the league at large. A large proportion of the league is filled with African-American women and so it’s a cause that very much affects the large majority of us and because of that it really affects all of us. I do think this is a national issue and something that is very relevant to teammates of mine and therefore very relevant to me because I care very deeply about these people and their families and we’re all deeply saddened by the events. It’s disappointing when the league doesn’t necessarily seem to be supporting that cause.
Q: What do you make of the idea that the WNBA supports other social causes like gay pride and Green Week and breast cancer awareness and this is where they draw the line and say, “No.”? Do you think it’s the league disagreeing with your cause or misunderstanding it?
A: That’s a good question. I don’t know necessarily what the league is thinking or why or why not certain things might be happening. I know that our goal was to try and engage in conversation and hopefully that would bring about change —understanding that conversation takes time and understanding and back and forth so I think it’s just been disappointing that that conversation seems to be difficult, if that makes sense. If our goal is conversation then it’s just been disappointing to see that it’s not really being supported.
Q: If I gave you the platform that, say, LeBron James and his fellow NBA stars used at the ESPYS, what would you want the WNBA to know and what would you want them to change?
A: Well, I think it’s that as players, there’s an issue we care very deeply about. It’s a national issue that we think requires national attention and so just being supportive in the ability to communicate awareness and solidarity and letting the players use their platform to try to make a positive impact in their community.
Q: What does the future look like? Do you think you guys will still wear the black T-shirts and take up this cause? Will the fines from the WNBA change anything?
A: I think the details at the moment are difficult. We are heading into an Olympics break so there won’t be games for a long period of time. I do know that as a team we don’t want this to be a one-and-done type of ordeal. And we certainly don’t want the conversation to fade because this is still an issue day-to-day. We hear more news every day of tragic things happening to the black community and to the police officers of this nation and it’s something that we hope we can continue to talk about, so what exactly that looks like? I think we’re still trying to figure that out, but we do hope the conversation will continue on.
Q: What has the reaction been to what you’ve done over the past few days, taking up this cause. Have people been supportive? Negative?
A: Personally, I’ve encountered a lot of positive support from fans, from friends and family, from other players in the league, other athletes, so I think that it’s a cause — in terms of giving voice to the issue and understanding that this is an American issue, it’s a national issue that we’re trying to enact positive change — and so I’ve seen largely positive support for this movement.
Q: What do you make of the idea that the NBA allows the “I Can’t Breathe” shirts and takes the step to move the next All-Star Game from Charlotte, North Carolina, because of a controversial bathroom bill, but they are also willing to fine you guys for these T-shirts. Why is this the line? The “I Can’t Breathe” shirts were highlighting Black Lives Matter and police brutality, it’s not even necessarily a new cause you are drawing attention to. The same cause is where the line gets drawn? Why?
A: To be honest, I think I would simply ask that very question. I don’t necessarily know and I can’t perceive why the league has drawn a certain line or is choosing to take a stance or is choosing to act in this way. It’s something that I think you would have to ask the league. I’m mostly just disappointed and also just don’t really know.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story stated Swin Cash won a WNBA title in 2015. It has been updated.