Bigger than Basketball: The Phoenix Mercury’s season of protest
By Niki D’Andrea, October 2020 issue.
Black Lives Matter. Say Her Name.
These words were on the minds — and the backs — of Phoenix Mercury players every time they took the court inside the WNBA bubble at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida, during a season marked by coronavirus, injuries, and social injustice.
Every Mercury player (in fact, every player in the WNBA) wore the name Breonna Taylor on the back of her jersey in every game this season, in tribute to the 26-year-old African American EMT who was shot and killed by police in Louisville, Kentucky on March 13, as they executed a “no-knock” search warrant at her apartment. The words “Black Lives Matter” were visible in big black letters on the court at every game. Players advocated for social justice at every opportunity — wearing T-shirts proclaiming, “Say Her Name” and “Vote,” talking to media, and refusing to play two games in August (see sidebar) in protest of the police shooting in Wisconsin of Jacob Blake, a 29-year-old African American man now paralyzed from the waist down.
It was an unusual setting for the season to begin with: All 12 WNBA teams in a bubble (or “wubble,” as it was commonly called) at IMG Academy to guard against coronavirus. As the season wore on, the Mercury roster got thinner: in August, center Brittney Griner left the wubble for undisclosed “personal reasons,” guard Bria Hartley sustained a season-ending injury, and players Sophie Cunningham and Nia Coffey were questionable for most games with a hip and hand injury, respectively. The Mercury, often down to just seven available players, still made the playoffs, and continued to speak out about social injustice.
If the Phoenix Mercury had not been on the basketball court this season, they would have been in the streets. Some were, before undergoing coronavirus quarantine protocols to travel to Florida for the WNBA season. Diana Taurasi was one of them. She attended a Black Lives Matter (BLM) protest in Phoenix on June 5, marching in a mask and later posting black and white photos to her Instagram account (@dianataurasi) with the caption “no justice | no peace.”
Being inside the WNBA bubble to guard against coronavirus while BLM protests took place in cities across the country sometimes made it a challenge to focus on basketball, even as the playoffs approached in September. “I was trying to be out in the streets, protest and try and do whatever I can, and donate to different funds,” Mercury guard Shatori Walker-Kimbrough said via Zoom. “I want to be active. I can’t do that here. So, it’s hard to see some of my friends out. I would have been at the March on Washington. I wasn’t able to do that. But I made a decision to come down here. I made a commitment to be here. I try to be locked in as much as I can, but it’s hard because of what’s going on. I try to stay focused. It’s easy to say that, but it’s hard to do. It’s just crazy what we’re seeing, and I wish I could do more.”
In a Phoenix Mercury news article titled “From the Sidelines” that was published to the team’s website (mercury.wnba.com) on September 1, center Kia Vaughn said, “A lot of us wish we could be out there marching and helping and volunteering for voting organizations. When we are all using our platforms together, it becomes bigger. It says a lot. I hope we continue to stand with each other and get our point across.”
Balancing basketball with social justice advocacy seemed a seamless act for most Mercury players, as they continued to bring up Black Lives Matter in on-court and post-game interviews, in-between answering questions about who’s stepping up on defense with Griner out and how deep their bench talent is. Speaking via Zoom after a game day shootaround in early September, Taurasi emphasized the importance of advocacy and achieving change. “This is the issue of our lifetime. This is something we’re not going to put up with. It’s simple as black lives matter,” she said. “The things that you see on TV, the discrimination, the injustice that black and brown communities face every single day — we’re not going to put up with it.”
Brittney Griner grew up wanting to be a police officer like her father. She said in an interview with CBS Sports Network this summer that she was sad her father told her not to follow in his footsteps in the current climate.
Forward Brianna Turner, whose parents are both police officers, said in an article on espn.com that “there is some confusing space for me, things I’m still trying to navigate. I look at some of my friends’ stories and protests, and the NWA song ‘F--- tha Police’ is just blasting in the background. And I’m like, ‘My parents are police. I can’t support blasting a song like that.’”
But at the same time, Turner says, reform is needed and “people should not be afraid to interact with police officers … maybe there are ways the WNBA could work more closely with law enforcement. I’m not sure what that would look like, but it could be a positive thing. If people come to games and see their favorite players having positive interaction with law enforcement, it could be a way to bridge the gap between police and the community. I believe sports can help with that.”
The spotlight on the WNBA this season was bigger than usual, as league games began before almost any other team sport. Being one of the only sports on TV for a brief time expanded players’ platform and amplified their voices. Speaking via Zoom in September, Turner said, “We’re athletes. We’re not in a position of political power like politicians, but we do have a voice. We have a platform. We got to use our platform this season to shed light on a lot of these issues … it’s definitely an ongoing conversation throughout our season.”
Taurasi says it’s time for elected officials to “step up.”
“It’s almost incredible in this time and age that it’s up to athletes to speak up,” she said during a Zoom call. “Where are the elected officials? We work our whole lives to play basketball. They worked their whole lives to be politicians. This is the time to step up. You’re either going to be on the right side of history or on the side of history that’s ashamed of you. Step up.”
Phoenix Mercury Statement
Released August 26, 2020
“We will not play tonight. Find a way to understand why. We are people we are concerned citizens. We are mothers, daughters, sisters, wives. We are free Americans who didn’t forfeit our right to free speech and protest when we accepted these jobs. You ask, well what does that do? What else will you do? We’re raising awareness with the name on our jersey, the names on our shoes, the moments of reflection to start each week of games, telling the stories of victims who deserve at least that. We’re raising money for organizations doing vital work on the frontlines. We’re focused on voter registration and participation, partnering with When We All Vote and the Office of the Secretary of State of the state of Arizona. In our down time, we’re learning, hearing directly from victims’ families, organizers, elected officials. We are doing the work – and we have much more to do. Don’t ask us what else we will do. What else will you do? Tonight, we won’t play. Find a way to understand why. And find a way to be alongside us seeking a solution. Because enough is enough. Because BLACK LIVES MATTER.”