Only under very rare circumstances are professional sports ever suspended, but 2020 is nothing if not unprecedented. Just as games, matches, and races were starting up again (many with robust COVID-19 safety precautions in place), wildcat strikes to demand justice for Black people killed by police disrupted professional play across leagues—leaving the future of U.S. sports hanging in the balance.
Male athletes have garnered the bulk of the media coverage for the strikes across the industry. On Wednesday, the NBA's Milwaukee Bucks refused to take the floor against the Orlando Magic, causing a stunning ripple effect through the league and into men's baseball and soccer. Three games were called off in Major League Baseball, and five matches were cancelled in Major League Soccer.
This collective movement will certainly go down as one of the most powerful protests in sports history. But we wouldn't be here on the edge of tangible action if not for the female athletes spearheading the revolution—many of whom have been advocating for equality for years, and with a lot more to lose.
Below, the women putting everything on the line to lead the fight for racial and social justice.
Maya Moore, WNBA
Two-time Olympic gold medalist Maya Moore, 31, walked away from this year's WNBA season to focus on criminal justice reform. In just a few months, the basketball star helped overturn the conviction of Jonathan Irons, who served more than 20 years in prison for a crime he didn't commit.
"I'm in a really good place right now with my life, and I don't want to change anything," Moore told the New York Times in January. "Basketball has not been foremost in my mind. I've been able to rest, and connect with people around me, actually be in their presence after all of these years on the road. And I've been able to be there for Jonathan."
WNBA legend Maya Moore took time away from basketball to help overturn Jonathan Irons' 50-year prison sentence.— Sports Illustrated (@SInow) July 2, 2020
Today, he was finally released 🙏🏾 https://t.co/RnXVMMHDZi
(via @MooreMaya | IG) pic.twitter.com/mdS1zudMgH
Irons, who was serving a 50-year sentence on charges of burglary and assault for a crime that happened when he was just 16 years old, told the New York Times that he finally feels "free" and "blessed."
"I just want to live my life worthy of God’s help and influence," he told the outlet, adding, "I thank everybody who supported me—Maya and her family.”
Renee Montgomery, WNBA
Two-time WNBA champ Renee Montgomery, 33, also opted out of the 2020 WNBA season. Instead, she's focusing on social justice issues and political reform, both by speaking out against voter suppression and working with LeBron James’s More Than a Vote campaign to protect voting rights for Black people.
"Voter suppression comes in all forms, it could be anything from downsizing voting locations to manipulating the mail-in voting. COVID-19 has also added a whole new layer of problems for voting," Montgomery previously told ELLE.com. "The recent democratic VP candidate Kamala Harris summed it up beautifully when she said, 'This pandemic has exacerbated the health, education, and economic disparities that have disproportionately impacted communities of color for centuries.' The More Than a Vote campaign is trying to address the many forms and efforts to suppress votes. Not only that, but we want to make sure that people have as many safe voting options as possible."
Montgomery is also advocating for HBCU funding and more inclusive history books. "It’s going to take a lot of work, but there’s no better time than now to get started so that future generations can reap the benefits," she told ELLE.com. "Moments equal momentum. Once everyone understands that voting is a responsibility and treats it as such, then we will truly see change."
Elizabeth Williams, WNBA
Elizabeth Williams, 27, of the Atlanta Dream, is leading the WNBA's #SayHerName campaign to demand justice for Breonna Taylor. In a candid interview with ELLE.com, the star forward opened up about the league's commitment to social justice, and what it's like taking on her team's co-owner, Sen. Kelly Loeffler. After the Republican from Georgia derided the Black Lives Matter movement, Williams and other Dream players wore t-shirts endorsing Loeffler's opponent in this November's special election.
"If Sen. Loeffler doesn't want to support what her players believe in, that's on her. If she wants to separate herself from the league, that's on her," Williams said. "But she shouldn't try to stop us from pursuing justice."
Williams hopes Sen. Loeffler understands that WNBA players "won't just 'shut up and dribble' anymore."
"I'm glad WNBA players are leaders in the discourse on social justice in sports, focusing specifically on making effective change at the polls," she said. "As we get closer and closer to elections, we will continue to emphasize the importance of voting. We'll also be intentional about our work off the court. We'll be strategic about what we oppose and how we convey that. And we'll unify our message, because there's always strength in numbers."
Ariel Atkins and the Washington Mystics, WNBA
This week, the Washington Mystics honored Jacob Blake, the 29-year-old Black man shot seven times in the back by a Wisconsin police officer, by wearing white t-shirts spelling out his name. The back of the shirts were designed with seven bullet holes to represent Blake's injuries.
“This isn't just about basketball,” Mystics guard Ariel Atkins, 24, told reporters. “We aren't just basketball players and just because we are basketball players, doesn't mean that's our only platform. We need to understand that when most of us go home, we still are Black, in the sense that our families matter."
The WNBA cancelled three of its games in solidarity with the Mystics’ powerful statement on police brutality.
“We need to understand that these moments are so much more bigger than us, and I really appreciate my team, for not only having my back, but for saying what they feel," Atkins said. "It's hard to say that type of stuff in these moments. It's hard to be vulnerable in these moments. But I think if we do this unified as a league, it looks different. Because this league is close to, if not over, 80 percent Black women. We have cousins, we have brothers, we have sisters, mothers, everyone—we matter. And I think that's important. I think people should know that. And I'm tired of telling people that. I know I matter. We know we matter. I'm tired of telling people that. If you don't know that, if you don't think that, then you need to recheck it. If you have a problem with us saying 'Black lives matter,' you need to check your privilege."
Naomi Osaka, Tennis
Following what she called the "continued genocide of Black people," Naomi Osaka, 22, pulled out of the Western & Southern Open, tweeting that there are "more important matters at hand" than a tennis match.
"Hello, as many of you are aware I was scheduled to play my semifinals match tomorrow," she wrote on Twitter. "However, before I am an athlete, I am a black woman. And as a black woman I feel as though there are much more important matters at hand that need immediate attention, rather than watching me play tennis. I don't expect anything drastic to happen with me not playing, but if I can get a conversation started in a majority white sport I consider that a step in the right direction. Watching the continued genocide of Black people at the hand of the police is honestly making me sick to my stomach. I'm exhausted of having a new hashtag pop up every few days and I'm extremely tired of having this same conversation over and over again. When will it ever be enough?"
Several hours after the two-time grand slam winner announced her decision to skip the tournament, the U.S. Tennis Association, Association of Tennis Professionals, and Women's Tennis Association tours all put pauses on matches, "collectively taking a stance against racial inequality and social injustice that once again has been thrust to the forefront in the United States."
Osaka will now play her rescheduled semifinal match, stating that it, "brings more attention to the movement."
"As you know, I pulled out of the tournament yesterday in support of racial injustice and continued police violence," Osaka told ESPN of her decision. "I was (and am) ready and prepared to concede the match to my opponent. However, after my announcement and lengthy consultation with the WTA and USTA, I have agreed at their request to play on Friday. They offered to postpone all matches until Friday and in my mind that brings more attention to the movement."
Kiki Stokes and This Is Us, Softball
All 18 players on professional softball team the Scrap Yard Fast Pitch walked away to form a new team after their former general manager tweeted at President Donald Trump, praising players that stood during the national anthem.
The since-deleted tweet, written by Scrap Yard Fast Pitch's then-GM Connie May, appeared on the team’s official Twitter account mid-game on June 22. It included a photo of players standing on the field, with the caption: “Hey @realDonaldTrump Pro Fastpitch being played live…Everyone standing for the FLAG!”
When players saw the post in the dugout after the game, they were upset. Kiki Stokes, one of two Black players on the team, tweeted out her response. "I have never felt so small in a locker room, so helpless, so lonely,” she wrote. “I feel betrayed, embarrassed, disgusted, angry ... to come to into that locker room after a game and have no idea that the organization I stayed loyal to for the last five years and put my honest to God heart and soul into wasn’t looking out for me but more importantly my community hurts."
I am so hurt but Hate and Ignorance will never win. pic.twitter.com/81tV29G4HH— Kiki Stokes (@KStokes10) June 23, 2020
“The more we talked about it, the angrier I got, and I finally just said, ‘I’m done, I’m not going to wear this jersey,’” pitcher and Olympic gold medalist Cat Osterman told the New York Times. “We were used as pawns in a political post, and that’s not okay.”
The entire team quit and formed a new squad called "This Is Us Softball" with the goal of supporting and promoting Black women in softball.
Our mission remains. We will continue to work to be a positive voice in our community, and we look forward to the future of This Is Us Softball. pic.twitter.com/0FhDmyerYL— This Is Us Softball (@thisisussb) July 8, 2020
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