May 13, 2021

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WNBA Players’ Fashion-Based Activism Reached New Heights in 2020

9 min read

Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned

From Harper’s BAZAAR

When Sports Business Journal announced its Year-End Awards this month, the WNBA’s iconic orange hoodie was among the winners. Deemed the Best Fashion Statement of 2020, the garment was the most popular item at official online retailers and the bestselling item in WNBA history. It became a key fashion choice of the late Kobe Bryant, fellow NBA great LeBron James, and other celebrities.

“The orange hoodie gave the league identity this year,” says Arielle Chambers, talent behind Bleacher Report’s women’s platform HighlightHER. “It was a much needed simple staple that directly [represented] the excellence of women in 2020. The orange hoodie is also a living example of how if you make things related to the WNBA available, people will buy [them].”

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Fashion is an integral part of the WNBA. It extends well beyond a few NBA players popularizing their league’s signature orange hue. The WNBA players—all women, 80 percent Black and many identifying as LGBTQ+—have a long history of using fashion to make statements that create impact off the court.

“With every cause near and dear to the players, they visually represent it through fashion,” Chambers explains, citing when Minnesota Lynx players wore Black Lives Matter shirts in protest over the police killings of Philando Castile, Alton Sterling and other Black men in 2016. “These moments of protest are so important,” Chambers adds. “The entire point of fashion is to make a statement. These statements are amplifications of their voices.”

In 2020, the players’ fashion statements had an unprecedented social impact, particularly on the Georgia Senate race. When the WNBA announced its dedication of the season to social justice centered on Black Lives Matter messaging and the #SayHerName campaign, Atlanta Dream co-owner Kelly Loeffler, a Republican businesswoman appointed to her Senate seat in late 2019, penned a letter of opposition to the league, which WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert answered with firm support of the league’s players. . The players answered with a kick to Loeffler’s political ambitions, arriving at games and going through shootarounds wearing shirts that read “Vote Warnock” in support of Loeffler’s rival in the Georgia Senate race, Rev. Raphael Warnock.

Elizabeth Williams, starting center for the Dream, spoke of the players’ choice to campaign for their team owner’s rival in an interview with WXIA-TV (11 Alive). “We wanted to be strategic, we wanted to be intentional about our words and our language,” Williams said. “And we wanted to make sure that whatever action was taken, in doing so, all of the [social justice] ideas that we’ve been focused on weren’t lost.”

The players’ initiatives centered on eradicating systemic racism, police brutality against Black people, and injustices of any kind. It was not lost on Williams that a candidate who supports those ideals could amplify the players’ efforts.

Photo credit: Julio Aguilar - Getty Images
Photo credit: Julio Aguilar – Getty Images

Without even uttering Loeffler’s name, the players, by wearing “Warnock” shirts, revitalized the reverend’s campaign to dramatic, measurable effect. On August 4, the players showed up to the IMG Academy arenas in Bradenton, Florida, the “bubble” where the 2020 WNBA season was played, wearing the shirts before two ESPN2-televised games. Warnock’s campaign reported raising nearly $200,000 in just two days following those games, according to USA Today, and began airing ads with the funds. By late September, a Quinnipiac poll showed that Warnock had gained a double-digit lead on Loeffler.

Before the players set their sights on Warnock’s campaign, he was polling in the single digits. With their help, Warnock secured 32.9 percent of the vote in the November election, according to The Chicago Tribune, the most of any candidate in the special election for Georgia’s two U.S. Senate seats. Although it wasn’t enough to win Loeffler’s seat, it was enough to force a special runoff election—taking place next week, on January 5—that will decide which senators represent the state of Georgia and which party controls the U.S. Senate.

Warnock, in his interview with USA Today, heralded the players’ efforts as spurring “one of many turning points” in his campaign.

The Warnock shirts were just one of the countless ways the WNBA has used fashion to boldly amplify causes this year. In August, the Washington Mystics arrived to the “bubble,” each wearing T-shirts with seven bullet holes depicted on the back. On the front, each wore a letter that collectively spelled out the name of the Black man who was shot seven times in the back by a Kenosha, WI., police officer, leaving him paralyzed from the waist down: JACOB BLAKE.

It was a chilling statement for players who already had been wearing the names of the dead on the backs of their jerseys amid a season dedicated to the Black Lives Matter social justice movement and the #SayHerName campaign. “It was intentionally triggering and very public,” Chambers says. “Advocacy and activism in the form of fashion [are] highly effective, especially if [they’re] consistent and persistent, aligning with your message.”

Photo credit: Julio Aguilar - Getty Images
Photo credit: Julio Aguilar – Getty Images

With forward Tianna Hawkins, Hawkins’s five-year-old son Emanuel, and the entire Mystics squad standing behind her, guard Ariel Atkins spoke with ESPN’s Holly Rowe about the team’s choice to take a day of reflection rather than play in the wake of yet another Black body being pumped full of bullets by way of a policeman’s gun.

“When most of us go home, we still are Black,” Atkins told Rowe on the court. “Our families matter. We’ve got this little guy right here that we see every day. [Emanuel’s] life matters.” She continued, “If you have a problem with saying Black Lives Matter, you need to recheck your privilege because, yes, all lives matter, including the Black lives we are talking about. This isn’t just about basketball. We aren’t just basketball players.”

Simran Kaleka, general counsel and head of marketing for Made for the W, a women’s sports and lifestyle platform covering WNBA culture points out the strain of playing a basketball season in a bubble amid a viral pandemic, while simultaneously fighting the pandemic of racism. It’s “unfair” to expect Black women, who are often deemed strong to the exclusion of other human qualities, to “show up in the midst of just trying to show up for themselves.”

The players are “still not being valued and not being revered in the regard that they deserve,” Kaleka says “The concept of them having to play through this trauma, through this pain, through this grief that you can’t even necessarily sit with—it’s far too much to put on the shoulders of these women.”

So long as racism remains institutionalized in American society, the players of the WNBA, out of sheer necessity for their survival, are inclined to sustain their leadership on social justice issues. But their activism doesn’t stop there. Through the years, they’ve also battled homophobia and gender-based inequity—often, again, by using fashion.

Photo credit: Julio Aguilar - Getty Images
Photo credit: Julio Aguilar – Getty Images

The players don’t make statements solely through campaign or protest shirts, but with personal style too. Brittney Griner, the number one overall pick by the Phoenix Mercury in the 2013 WNBA draft, accepted her jersey wearing a white, six-foot-eight-sized suit and rocking orange nail polish to match the colors of her likely, would-be team. Days later, even before signing her contract, Griner spoke publicly for the first time about being gay and the bullying she endured growing up. The following year, then WNBA president Laurel Ritchie announced the launch of WNBA Pride Month—to take place each June, with all 12 teams hosting in-arena events.

Photo credit: Jennifer Pottheiser - Getty Images
Photo credit: Jennifer Pottheiser – Getty Images

Prior to Griner’s entry into the league, LGBTQ+-identifying athletes largely stayed mum about their sexuality for fear that homophobia would cause endorsement dollars and contract offers to dwindle. Now, Griner does more than lead Pride Night celebrations. She is also known for her support of homeless LGBTQ+ youth and anti-bullying initiatives.

Made for the W co-founder Melani Carter attributes the success of Griner’s and other players’ initiatives to placing “actionable items” behind their slogan- or symbol-laden fashions. “There’s only so much that we can wear and there’s only so much that we can customize, but it’s really the action behind it,” she says. “And I think the W players have been leading that charge.”

In November 2018, Los Angeles Sparks forward and players’ union president Nneka Ogwumike announced in an essay the players’ decision to opt out of their collective bargaining agreement (CBA) in search of higher salaries, better travel conditions, increased marketing, and improved workplace accommodations for mothers. In fighting for these upgrades, the players used “Bet on Women” as their slogan—the title of Ogwumike’s essay.

The phrase was then officially licensed by the union and appeared on T-shirts, hoodies, mugs and, eventually, face coverings. In January, less than two years after Ogwumike issued that call, the league and union announced a new CBA that included landmark provisions, such as private accommodations at training facilities for nursing mothers and family planning benefits that help pay for surrogacy, IVF treatments, and adoption, along with separate hotel rooms during road trips, better seating in commercial aircraft, and higher salaries with bigger bonus potential for top-tier players.

Whether individually or collectively, the players’ activism is born out of necessity. Tamera Young, a free agent who played in 2019 for the Las Vegas Aces, launched her own brand, TY1 Gear, because of the limited and lackluster swag options sold by the WNBA and its teams. In 2016, she created the line as a service to her fans.

“I’ve always had a nice fan base and my jersey wasn’t being sold in arenas for the teams that I played on prior,” she told us by phone. And much like the slogan-bearing apparel of her fellow players, her brand includes “motivational clothing.”

“I wanted the clothes to be not just for adults, but for kids. I thought about my nieces and my nephews,” Young says. “I’m wearing a shirt like, ‘I matter,’ but you’re a child; ‘you matter’ too.”

Natasha Cloud, the starting guard for the 2019 WNBA champion Mystics, also used her voice and let the fashion follow. Before she opted out of the 2020 season in the wake of the murder of George Floyd by police to give her undivided energy toward racial justice initiatives, Cloud was lobbying politicians in Washington, D.C., on gun reform after learning of children being gunned down mere blocks from the Entertainment & Sports Arena, where her team plays.

“[Cloud] was understanding, like, ‘This has to change or we cannot play in this area,” Carter says. The awareness of gun violence that Cloud brought to her team and to the league led to “The W Wears Orange” initiative, which donates proceeds of its orange tie-dye T-shirts to Everytown for Gun Safety.

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Although the majority of players in the WNBA rarely get credit for their societal contributions, their actions are far-reaching and ever-present. The t-shirt campaign they started during the 2020 season to support Warnock spun off into a “Vote Georgia” shirt by BreakingT, the proceeds of which benefit Rock the Vote and the NAACP. Kristen Wiig even wore the shirt while hosting Saturday Night Live on December 19.

The players’ throwing their support behind Warnock transformed his low-profile candidacy into one that earned enough votes to force a runoff election. There wouldn’t be one without them.

There also would be no WNBA basketball without the mostly Black players who have dominated its rosters since inception, and Kaleka would like to see them further leverage their power. “These leagues don’t move without Black excellence and the greatness that they exude,” she says. “Politics and sports are way more synonymous than what people think. They are linked.”

In a political era populated by elected officials who have demonstrated themselves to be too self-interested or cowardly to speak up, the willingness of WNBA players to speak truth to power strikes an impression. Their dogged commitment to the fight for racial and social justice exemplifies just how effective activism can be. It models the power of people working together toward shared goals and the lasting impact such work can produce.

“These are young women in their 20s, largely,” Warnock told USA Today. “It took a lot of courage for them to do this.”

Their efforts should be celebrated and commended.

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