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The WNBA Made the NBA Strike Possible

An abridged history of WNBA player activism could be told in T-shirts. Wednesday night, before joining the Milwaukee Bucks in strike of their scheduled games, the WNBA’s Washington Mystics arrived on the court wearing shirts that together spelled the name of Jacob Blake, who was shot seven times in the back by police in Kenosha, Wisconsin. On the reverse side of the shirts were drawn seven bullet holes, limned in dark red. The protest was sapped of friction before any could be generated. The WNBA’s league office officially postponed the scheduled games. Addressing players at a candlelight vigil that night, WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert said, “I just want to say how proud I am of all of you, what you’ve displayed over the course of a very difficult season, what you’ve displayed tonight.”

This did not go over so smoothly four years ago, when players on the Indiana Fever, New York Liberty, and Phoenix Mercury wore unsanctioned warmup shirts responding to the deaths of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling. Their demonstration then was met with $500 per player fines and a league statement couched in icy euphemism: “We are proud of WNBA players’ engagement and passionate advocacy for non-violent solutions to difficult social issues but expect them to comply with the league’s uniform guidelines.” (The fines were later rescinded.) Earlier that month, four off-duty police officers working arena security for the Minnesota Lynx walked off the job when Lynx players wore shirts to honor Castile, Sterling, and also the five Dallas police officers killed at a protest. Bob Kroll, the despotic head of Minneapolis’ police union, felt compelled to tell a reporter so few officers were needed at the arena that night “because the Lynx have such a pathetic draw.”

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