‘Not just a one-season thing’: WNBA players haven’t stopped working
How WNBA players and personnel are working within their communities, and abroad, after departing the bubble
When Los Angeles Sparks guard Tierra Ruffin-Pratt returned to her home state of Virginia in mid-September after spending two months in the WNBA bubble in Florida, both her body and mind were in need of an overdue break. The 2020 season had pushed players to their physical and emotional capacities.
But as players returned to the communities impacted by the very issues they brought awareness to while in the bubble, there wouldn’t be much time to decompress.
“I had maybe a week,” Ruffin-Pratt said. “Then I was back to … trying to get back into the community and push the voting initiative.”
Ruffin-Pratt, who is part of the WNBA’s social justice council, is among many members of the league who have continued to use their platform since departing the bubble, where the league raised awareness of social injustice, voter suppression and racial inequality.
Whether it’s working to end police injustice in their local communities, or pushing voter education, or working the polls in anticipation of the upcoming general election, many players have taken their work in the bubble home and even overseas.
“I don’t think that any motivation or any momentum will be lost,” Ruffin-Pratt said. “We’re going back to our hometowns doing the exact same thing that we did in the bubble.”
Before entering the WNBA bubble in July, Tamika Catchings, the vice president of basketball operations and general manager of the Indiana Fever, asked her players what they wanted to focus on off the court this season. During that conversation, veteran forward Candice Dupree suggested the idea of turning Bankers Life Fieldhouse, the home of the Fever and the Indiana Pacers, into a voting center.
“We talked a little bit about it and I said, ‘Yeah, it would be cool,’ ” Catchings recalled. “I remember going back, talking to my boss Rick Fuson, president of Pacers Sports & Entertainment, like, ‘Hey, our players want to see Bankers Life as a voting site.’ ”
In late August, Pacers Sports & Entertainment announced that the arena would become a voting site for Marion County. And, on Nov. 3, Catchings will serve as a poll worker on-site after going through training, which she called “brain overload.”
“My word of my life is: In every situation, how do you make the biggest impact? I felt like being a poll worker was important for me,” Catchings said. “From everything going on from COVID to the fight for social justice to … the percentage of African Americans that go and vote is pretty low — being somebody that a lot of people, especially here in Indianapolis, no matter what race, look up to, it was kind of my duty, my responsibility.”
When Catchings was a player with the Fever, she was also known to use her platform. In 2016, she was a part of the Fever team that was fined by the league for wearing black shirts following the police shootings of Black victims. Later that season, they became the first collective team to kneel during the national anthem.
Now on the other side as a member of the front office, Catchings said, she was proud of both the league and its players for the progress that they’ve made as a collective unit.
“I feel like even though we’ve had people who are outspoken while I was playing, this year, more than any other year, I just felt like as a league we were united,” Catchings said. “Everyone was on the same page.”
Even those players who opted out of the season.
In Atlanta, Georgia, Renee Montgomery plans to hold a virtual pep rally from the state capitol to spread voter information on the eve of the general election. Across the country, WNBA players continue to urge the general public to create plans and exercise their right to vote.
Besides working the polls next week, Catchings has teamed up with the ride-hailing service Lyft to provide $500 in travel credits for those needing transportation to voting sites. She plans to work at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, where she’s spent her entire WNBA career, from 5 a.m. to 7 p.m.
“For me,” Catchings said, “it’s almost like you’re welcoming people into your home.”
New York Liberty forward Kiah Stokes never unpacked her bags upon returning home from the bubble, except for switching out some summer shorts for winter coats. Stokes spent seven days in New York City before boarding a plane for Istanbul, where she plays for Fenerbahce of the Turkish Women’s Basketball League.
Despite the challenges this unprecedented WNBA season brought, it’s been business as usual for many players who spend their secondary seasons overseas.
For a league that is the most socially progressive in all of sports, featuring players who have helped move the needle of athlete activism for the country, not all players have the opportunity to be on the ground in their individual communities.
“It is tough,” Stokes said. “At the end of the day, life is bigger than basketball – it’s just currently my job at the moment. It’s tough, I do feel like I’m missing out.”
This season was formative for Stokes off the court. She said that previously she was never that outspoken about the issues that were front and center for the WNBA. Stokes said she was inspired by the leadership and passion of Layshia Clarendon, her teammate on the Liberty.
In Turkey, Stokes has turned to social media as her primary platform to use her voice and to stay relevant with current events. The WNBA players on the team – Stokes is joined by Jasmine Thomas of the Connecticut Sun, Kayla McBride of the Las Vegas Aces, Satou Sabally of the Dallas Wings and Kia Vaughn of the Phoenix Mercury – also have a group chat used to keep each other up to date.
“You can still kind of use your platform in the best way we can and that’s kind of the benefit that we have as athletes overseas,” said Stokes, who stayed up until 3 a.m. local time to watch the vice presidential debate. “We’re making do the best way we can.”
Catchings echoed a similar tone to her players before they departed the bubble to play overseas, challenging them to stay engaged with what’s happening in the States.
“What I continue to say is use what you can use to make an impact,” Catchings said. “While you might not be able to stand and work the polls … you can use your social media. You have tools and a fan base that will listen and will follow you and what you say. Use that to your advantage.”
While Stokes may be limited in the impact she can make from afar, she’s turned to other American players abroad to ensure they’re making a difference through one of the most tangible ways they can – by voting.
“That’s kind of the one thing that we all can do,” said Stokes, who will be sending in an absentee ballot for her home state of Iowa. “I tell other Americans that are playing out here, don’t just not vote because you’re not in America. I tell them every vote matters, this is your chance to have a say in how the country moves forward.”
As Ruffin-Pratt reflects on the past season, she’s proud of the social justice work done by the league. As a whole, the league dedicated its season to bringing attention to the case of Breonna Taylor, who was killed by police in Louisville, Kentucky, and the Say Her Name campaign.
“I think we did an excellent job as a league,” Ruffin-Pratt said. “We went there with the intent in mind to bring awareness to women who had been killed by law enforcement and really tried to get a grasp on the things going on with Breonna Taylor and I think we did a great job of that.”
Ruffin-Pratt, who started the nonprofit TRP Foundation in 2016 with the mission to empower local youth, is doing her best to continue her work this offseason.
“For me [the WNBA bubble] wasn’t the start of something, it was the continuation of something that I’ve been doing for years on end,” Ruffin-Pratt said.
Though the COVID-19 pandemic will prevent her from hosting an annual community day event, she still plans to coordinate different programming, such as a toy and coat drive and a Thanksgiving event.
Equally important to Ruffin-Pratt is the ability to be on the ground in the community to attempt to bridge the gap between law enforcement and residents.
Ruffin-Pratt has a personal connection to this work. In 2013, her 22-year-old cousin, Julian Dawkins, was fatally shot by an off-duty Virginia police officer. It was the same day she had signed with the Washington Mystics as an undrafted free agent. The officer was sentenced to six years in prison for voluntary manslaughter.
“One thing that I know from dealing with what I’ve been through, it’s that your community matters,” Ruffin-Pratt said. “If you’re touching the people in your community, it will continue to spread. …
“A lot of people think you have to have this big platform and you need to reach millions of people at one time to make change, but, honestly, you can just change one person or family and their beliefs of something and you’re making a difference.”
Ruffin-Pratt said the work of the social justice council, which was formed before the start of the 2020 season, also hasn’t stopped. Since the end of the season, the council has discussed what it wants to put into motion for next season with support from the league.
“This stuff is not just a one-season thing,” Ruffin-Pratt said. “We’re just trying to figure out how to continue to grow and how to continue to use our platform and continue to be the voice for people who don’t have a voice.”