WNBA players balance activist roles as political turmoil looms over All-Star weekend

Like any other milestone in the WNBA, the 2022 All-Star Game will be about much more than basketball.

The Chicago Sky will be well represented at Wintrust Arena: Candace Parker is an All-Star starter, while Courtney Vandersloot, Kahleah Copper and Emma Meesseman are reserves. But WNBA players are rarely on the sidelines when it comes to fighting for human rights. And as the league converges on Chicago for All-Star weekend, the players are carrying with them the burden of a tumultuous year advocating for trans kids, reproductive rights and gun control.

But the bigger issue for the league and its players is the incarceration of Phoenix Mercury star Brittney Griner, who pleaded guilty to drug possession charges Thursday in Russia in an effort to possibly secure a prisoner swap with the US government.

After drafting a letter co-signed by nearly 1,200 prominent black women, including Bernice King and Dawn Staley, the National Women’s Basketball Players Association will continue to plead with the Biden administration to negotiate Griner’s release throughout the weekend.

“With a 99% conviction rate, Russia’s process is its own,” the WNBPA said in a statement Thursday. “You can’t navigate it or even understand it like our own legal system. What we do know is that the US State Department determined that Brittney Griner was wrongfully detained for a reason and will continue to negotiate her release regardless of legal process. We’ll leave it like that.

“The administration needs to know that this powerful collective is behind them and supports whatever it takes to get BG, Paul Whelan and other detained American citizens home immediately.”

Griner’s absence will leave a void during All-Star weekend as the league plans to use the platform to draw attention to his incarceration. But the scope of player activism will be wide-ranging as mass shootings and attacks on abortion and transgender rights swept across the country this season.

In the wake of the mass shootings at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, and a supermarket in Buffalo, New York, players blocked the media and used social media to demand stronger gun control legislation. Now the league’s All-Stars come to Chicago to a community still reeling from a mass shooting in highland park Fourth of July.

“We have a problem in this country,” Washington Mystics guard Natasha Cloud said after the team announced a media blackout following Uvalde’s shooting. “Not just white supremacy, we also have a gun violence problem. … We’re talking about our kids not being safe to go to school, and our government still not implementing sensible gun laws.

“This is not about taking away people’s right to bear arms. It’s about putting sensible gun laws in place so this doesn’t happen again.”

The same political fervor boiled over after the The Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade last month, sparking protests that are likely to continue this weekend.

The Seattle Storm released a statement declaring the team “furious and ready to fight.” The WNBPA echoed the league-wide uproar against the decision in a June 24 statement.

“Are we in a democracy where guns have more rights than women?” the statement said. “This ruling provides a treacherous path to abortion prohibition that reinforces economic, social, and political inequalities and could lead to higher rates of maternal mortality while eviscerating reproductive freedom rights for all. To protect our democracy, we must vote as if our lives depended on it. Because they do.

In a league predominantly represented by Black and queer women, it has never been a surprise that WNBA athletes take their platforms seriously.

But this year’s All-Star Game highlights a continuing shift in the power given to the voices of female athletes.

“For people who are standing up and being the voice, I think it’s really important,” Vandersloot told WGN in June. “The fight is not over. People need voices and I think the WNBA and the Chicago Sky are a great platform.”

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