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NWSL lags far behind WNBA in social justice efforts

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NWSL players aren’t listening to their Black teammates as a united front, and that’s a problem.

2020 NWSL Challenge Cup - Day 2

Since the beginning of the WNBA bubble the women of the dub have led the way in demonstrating a commitment to social justice and keeping the names of Black people murdered by the police foremost in our minds. It’s a continuation of the strong thread of activism running through the league - consider that Maya Moore has already been out for a full season and will sit out a season more to work on criminal justice reform, that Natasha Cloud opted out of the Wubble to fight for social reform. Inside the Wubble, Breonna Taylor’s name has been on jerseys, Atlanta Dream and other players publicly endorsed Dr. Raphael G. Warnock as he runs for senate against Dream owner and Black Lives Matter critic Kelly Loeffler, the Chicago Sky have pledged donations to Chicago area community resource groups including The Movement for Black Lives, and most recently, the Washington Mystics showed up to a game with shirts spelling out the name of Jacob Blake, who was shot in the back seven times by police in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Blake survived the shooting, but is currently in intensive care. The Mystics’ shirts all had seven red holes in the back.

Seeing the WNBA commit so unabashedly to justice made me realize just how little the NWSL really did. Black Lives Matter armbands and shirts and sideboards and kneeling for the anthem are not nothing. The league listening to the players on what they wanted re: playing or not playing the anthem before games is not nothing. The conversations about racism that many Black players have had, both public and private, are certainly not nothing. Black players have repeatedly spoken about the tremendous mental burden of both being in isolation and dealing with the stress of racism.

My criticism is not for those players who have been working so hard to be heard, but is reserved for the league as a whole - a league that is heavily white, with a Players Association whose representatives are also heavily white - that never even came near the level of activism on display by the WNBA.

Now the rest of the sports world is following suit in the wake of the Blake shooting - the Milwaukee Bucks refusing to play kicked off a wave of similar decisions from other teams, with Lebron James reportedly leading a walkout from a meeting about the rest of the season. All WNBA teams scheduled to play Wednesday night instead sat out their games.

Three MLB games were postponed after the Milwaukee Brewers and the Cincinnati Reds agreed to sit out their game against each other. MLS eventually announced it would postpone five matches after players decided not to play. Naomi Osaka announced that she would not play in the Western & Southern Open semifinals.

Given the statements from multiple Black players, including Midge Purce, Sarah Gorden, Darian Jenkins, and Simone Charley about how much sheer education they and other Black players have had to take on while still going to training and preparing for the Challenge Cup, NWSL could not have done what the WNBA is doing.

“Teams were really fragmented regarding racial issues, and that’s not a secret,” Purce told Danielle Slaton in an interview. “It was very apparent if you watched the tournament and you saw how disjointed we were, almost on every team. People don’t realize, they don’t think about us when the game’s over, but this all continued behind the scenes. Teams are very fragmented and disjointed. We were just having conversations within our teams and across teams and it was exhausting, but I personally found it was very concerning. When I argue with people or I have disagreements I’m arguing a position and we just disagree about it or we disagree about the right way to resolve the problem, but what I found was that I was having arguments about facts. Just the validity of truths. And that’s a problem.”

How can an entire league get onboard with a cohesive statement in support of Black lives when its Black players are having to argue the very validity of the racism they face?

There’s also the plain fact that the WNBA is 80% Black. The NWSL is roughly 17% Black, going off the players currently listed on the league website. By the very nature of the way soccer is structured in the United States, most of these players, Black and white, will have been in majority white playing environments for most of their lives. There is a fundamental lack of understanding around the history and effects of racism that is crucial to gathering enough inertia to keep a consistently high level of widespread activism going for so long. During the Challenge Cup, more than one player seemed to have a limited understanding of what, exactly, all the protesting was for.

I think of Kelley O’Hara kneeling one game, then standing for the anthem the next while wearing rainbow socks - if queer lives matter, surely queer Black lives matter? I think of Julie Ertz showing such compassion for Casey Short, then eventually standing for the anthem in a game where Short wasn’t starting - though Sarah Gorden was. I think of teams not willing to make white players available for media who wanted to ask why they stood for the anthem while their teammates knelt.

To a certain extent, you can understand some anxiety around stepping out of line from players who have never had much stability in their careers. We saw it from WNBA players themselves, like Angel McCoughtry discussing how the W doesn’t get the same air time as the NBA, making the statements they do make during that air time more precious.

It’s easy to call for support of Black lives when your career and perhaps only chance at national exposure aren’t on the line. When you’re getting a handful of games due to a pandemic complicating any attempt to play sports, the pressure to make the most of what you have is probably multiplied tenfold. But when your teammates come to you and tell you about their suffering, and how this is a systemic, nationwide problem that not only affects them but everyone like them, how can you weigh a game against that?

We can’t say for sure what NWSL players would do. The NWSLPA has made public statements in support of the players going on strike.

But the NWSLPA isn’t a union, and there isn’t yet an official Black players’ group within the PA, although Purce has spoken about the very necessary efforts she and others are making to assemble a Black players’ coalition.

It doesn’t feel great to not know for certain that the players, as a league, would immediately be onboard with supporting their Black teammates and protesting police brutality against Black people. And it certainly makes it worse that it wouldn’t just be due to concerns about the impact on their already limited platform, but because some of them genuinely, sincerely do not seem to understand the harm being done to Black people in this country. It’s my hope that the players who have, until now, been on the fence or unable or unwilling to understand what it is that their teammates were trying to explain to them will finally see how ugly and pervasive the problem is, and that they have real power to make positive change. I hope that the upcoming NWSL fall series shows us a different league, a league that has spent this time empathizing, learning, and thinking, and ultimately becoming better for it.