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August 26, 2020: The Day the Sports World Stood Still
In the days following the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, WI, the NBA and WNBA stood at the forefront of sports and refused to take the court. The league-wide protest sparked a protest around the country as MLB, NHL and MLS players and teams followed suit as the battle for social justice remains the center of attention throughout the nation.
“I thought it was a powerful move,” Phoenix Mercury forward Brianna Turner said about the Milwaukee Bucks’ initiating the protest. “Being a team from Wisconsin and that’s where it happened, I thought it was a really powerful statement in the move that they made that domino’d to other leagues as well.”
The Mercury united with the rest of the basketball world as they remained on the sidelines and denied the country the distraction of sports while making a statement that racial injustice and police brutality will not be tolerated. The team released the following message on social media near the time of their scheduled tip-off:
“We will not play tonight. Find a way to understand why. We are people we are concerned citizens. We are mothers, daughters, sisters, wives. We are free Americans who didn’t forfeit our right to free speech and protest when we accepted these jobs. You ask, well what does that do? What else will you do? We’re raising awareness with the name on our jersey, the names oon our shoes, the moments of reflection to start each week of games, telling the stories of victims who deserve at least that. We’re raising money for organizations doing vital work on the frontlines. We’re focused on voter registration and participation, partnering with When We All Vote and the Office of the Secretary of State of the state of Arizona. In our down time, we’re learning, hearing directly from victims’ families, organizers, elected officials. We are doing the work – and we have much more to do. Don’t ask us what else we will do. What else with you do? Tonight, we won’t play. Find a way to understand why. And find a way to be alongside us seeking a solution. Because enough is enough. Because BLACK LIVES MATTER.”
The fight for racial equality in the United States is clearly not a new battle, but rather, one that now has clearer and louder voices from the community that has been oppressed throughout time.
“It’s not just Black athletes, it’s Black women in general,” Skylar Diggins-Smith said. “It’s Black people, period, have never really had their voices being heard, which is why we feel like we always had to shout to get people to listen to us. As an athlete in this bubble, I just continue to try to use my voice to speak out on things that are wrong, that are negatively affecting Black people in this country. Recent events that have happened that are wrong, I’m going to continue to use my platform as I know all the women in the bubble will. Black athletes and the white allies continue to use their voice to speak on social injustices.”
The deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and countless others have not only sparked a revolution in this country, but have taken an emotional toll on the Black community who are fighting to make their voices heard.
“What’s going on is really, really heavy,” Kia Vaughn said. “A lot of the days, I just don’t really understand how we as humans can actually continue our days and be able to wake up the next day with so much weighing on the world.”
Vaughn believed the situation to sit-out was expected, just as one would do when mourning the loss of a loved one.
“It’s just like your reaction to anyone that would be close to you and your family,” Vaughn said. “You’ll make that decision to not go to work because you may be emotionally drained. Mentally, you’re thinking about other things besides going to work, other things besides playing a game at that moment… At that moment, we needed to actually push the pause button ourselves.”
Just because the team was creating an absence on the court didn’t mean they were going completely silent. In fact, they took the opportunity to make their voices abundantly clear.
“The positive is how we’re able to come together,” Turner said. “We had our Players’ Association on SportsCenter with Holly Rowe speaking about it. I think it was the best call for us. We can definitely use each other’s resources. There’s been lots of Zoom calls with various people and I think we just have a lot of resources here.”
The ‘Wubble’ in Bradenton turned off the lights at center court and instead created their own illumination with a candlelit vigil and a players-only meeting to share their emotions and discuss plans of action moving forward.
“Sports are powerful,” Turner said. “People always like to say, ‘Stick to sports,’ but we sat out and our message was being streamed on ESPN and SportsCenter and by various news outlets. I think we definitely are in a position of power, even though we are athletes.”
The players on the Mercury and throughout the entire WNBA ultimately decided it would be best to resume the season following the couple of days of protesting. Despite being restricted to their bubble, the league is determined to play their role in providing a voice for the voiceless while fighting for equality throughout the country.
“A lot of us wish we could be out there marching and helping and volunteering for voting organizations,” Vaughn said. “When we are all using our platforms together, it becomes bigger. It says a lot. I hope we continue to stand with each other and get our point across.”
Whether inside or outside of the bubble, Vaughn is seeking a set course of action moving forward. The world-wide platform provided by the WNBA and sports in general equips the players with an abundance of resources and assists in amplifying their personal messages.
“Even if I wasn’t playing basketball and I still had Instagram, just living my life normally, I would still be posting these things about being human, being kind, erasing racism, erasing police brutality, being the best that we can be,” Vaughn said. “Having this platform makes that a little bit better. Although people pretend they don’t see us, they see us and I’m sure they hear us. They just have to listen.”
Turner is only in her sophomore season, but has already taken it upon herself to become a leader in her community and help in aspiring others to do the same.
“No platform is too small,” Turner said. “If I could impact one, two, three people, that’s good enough for me – knowing that I can have impact and not stepping away from that. We’re going to still keep advocating and working towards social justice while we are in the bubble still.”
The Mercury has always stood at the forefront of sports when speaking out and fighting for equality, women’s rights, the LGBTQ community and people of color. It was clear from the moment the teams landed in Bradenton that player-led actions such as this protest would not occur if needed, but play a major role in the overall bubble experience. As the players and league discussed the details of returning to play in Florida, it became a critical element in the agreement that the players would use this platform for activism.
“I stay proud of our Merc players,” Chief Operating Officer Vince Kozar said. “We knew, the players knew, and the league knew part of going down to Bradenton wasn’t that player activism was a possibility, but that it was built in. They were always going to be on the front lines of this. That’s why ‘Black Lives Matter’ is on the floor. That’s why Breonna Taylor’s name is on the backs of their jerseys.”
Sports have now resumed across the country as their message was strongly delivered and the idea of ‘Shut Up and Dribble’ is not going to be tolerated. Instead, athletes are uniting together and using the strength of numbers to remain loud in their protest against police brutality, racial injustice and the oppression of the Black community in the United States.
“It’s tough, this world we live in,” Vaughn said. “I try to pray for us every day. Everyone needs to get out there and vote. Us as a whole, the WNBA, I’m very proud of us. I’m proud to be a part of this league. We just have to continue to use our platform. Change doesn’t happen overnight. We are just living in tough times. We have to stay together and pray that we will see better days.”
For a continued behind-the-scenes look at the Phoenix Mercury and Phoenix Suns, tune-in this Sunday to the Suns’ YouTube Channel at 11 a.m. PT in this week’s episode of “Don’t Sleep on Basketball.”
Don’t Sleep on Basketball is a content series that captures the unprecedented times we’re facing through the lens of the Phoenix Suns and Mercury. Basketball sits at the intersection of culture, entertainment and sport, which puts the Suns & Mercury organization in the perfect position to serve as participant, voyeur and storyteller during this unparalleled era. The dynamic initiative is available across multiple mediums, including FOX Sports Arizona, Suns and Mercury social channels, YouTube, and editorially on Suns.com.