Last Saturday, Kaila Charles made the 20-minute trek from her hometown to the nation’s capital to take part in a Black Lives Matter protest following the killing of George Floyd by a former Minneapolis police officer.
Having grappled with horror, sadness, fear and anger over the last few weeks, the Connecticut Sun rookie found the scene in Washington, D.C. — one that featured a large, racially diverse turnout — to be “beautiful.” She left with a renewed sense of hope.
Beyond using her First Amendment rights that day in D.C., Charles knows that she has a platform that she can use to help bring about societal change. The same goes for her Sun teammates and her peers across the WNBA, where 80% of the players are black and whose athletes don’t typically shy away from activism.
And while the league contemplates its role moving forward in pushing for racial justice, the players will be keeping their foot on the gas — that much is guaranteed.
“Right now what you’re seeing is a time of people not being afraid to speak on things that before could have resulted in tarnishing your image, having a bad reputation, being seen as the person who always pulls the race card, or you could literally lose opportunities for speaking up continuously about race,” said Jasmine Thomas, the Sun’s veteran point guard. “It’s been like a survival mechanism: You want to feed your family, you want to have better opportunities, you want to survive in this country, and you know that in order to do that, it usually involves being silent.
“And that is what we’re no longer doing.”
In an effort to stay ready for the resumption of basketball, the Sun have tried to keep their players engaged with weekly team meetings over Zoom and other optional activities. But in the wake of the killings of Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor, basketball became the last thing on players’ minds.
George Floyd could have been her, Charles said. Or someone she knew, someone she loved.
“People were really processing trauma,” Thomas said.
The team gave players any space they needed to take care of themselves, she said, before coming together as a group and beginning to have conversations about racial injustice.
“We got to a good place of understanding that that is our safe place,” Thomas said. “We are able to talk to our organization from the top, all the way from our tribal members, down to every player. We’ve just made it an open conversation.”
Charles, who was drafted by the Sun in April, felt supported by her new organization. There have also been group calls with players from around the league, open to all and an opportunity for people to talk about how they were feeling.
“Just listening to what the other players had to say and how they felt, it definitely helped me gain more confidence to talk and speak out on these situations,” Charles said. “It gave me the confidence and assurance that I needed because I knew I wasn’t alone in this. I knew that what I was feeling was normal.”
Outside of those discussions, WNBA players have been taking powerful public stands. Natasha Cloud published an essay in The Players’ Tribune entitled “Your Silence is a Knee on My Neck.” Skylar Diggins-Smith joined LeBron James’ effort to protect black voting rights. Breanna Stewart pushed for the league to include a Black Lives Matter decal on courts’ baselines when the season resumes. Players have protested across the country and shared their perspectives on social media, along with resources for all to use. All the while, many teams are organizing their own initiatives. The Sun have some ideas in the works that will be announced at a later date, while the Minnesota Lynx have already announced a multiyear partnership with The Minneapolis Foundation.
“I don’t doubt that, as a league, our players are for sure in it for each other,” Thomas said.
Thomas said she appreciates commissioner Cathy Engelbert’s verbal backing of the players so far. “The WNBA opposes racism in all its forms and will work to bring measurable and meaningful societal change,” read part of a statement Engelbert tweeted. “We will build on this commitment and support WNBA players in the fight against racial inequality. Enough is enough.” She’s also been listening to players, holding a virtual town hall that allowed players to voice their thoughts on everything going on and how to move forward.
The league is currently selling merchandise with its “Bigger Than Basketball” logo, the proceeds for which will go toward the Equal Justice Initiative, though it has yet to announce a platform or broader initiative revolving around racial justice. In Thomas’ eyes, how the league prioritizes action over words moving forward will be paramount.
“I would just like to see the league, not individual organizations but the league as a whole, have their own initiatives,” said Thomas, who recognized the league may still be fleshing out plans to get more involved with racial justice. “There has to be a huge stand made to show that you support what you say you stand for.”
With the WNBA likely conducting its season in a bubble, Charles said, it presents a prime opportunity for the league and players to come together and hash out what those initiatives can look like.
“80% of the league is black,” Charles said. “We have to be accountable. We have to lead the way.”
“Of course they’re going to be concerned with what might happen with fans and images and views and disappointing sponsors or anything like that,” Thomas said. “But that’s ultimately where we are right now. That’s where we are as a country, is being able to get outside of our own individual comfort in our own monetary, economic gain for something that is so much more important.
“If you really are someone that supports your country and wants what’s best for your country, what’s best for America is that all people, especially black people, are treated equally. And that’s really what we’re fighting for right now.”
When reached for comment about what plans the league has in the works, a spokesperson referred to Engelbert’s previous Twitter statement.
It’s a fight that Charles and Thomas say they will continue to take up well beyond the next few weeks or months. They’ll post about it on social media — Charles on her YouTube channel, Thomas on her blog — continue to educate themselves and have awkward, vulnerable conversations about race, encouraging their peers and fans to do the same.
“At the end of the day, I am a black woman,” Charles said. “I come from a black woman. I want to fight for my community, and I want to see my community be treated as humans. It’s not like we want to be treated better. We just want to be treated equally. We want to be seen as humans, and just have the same life and opportunities as our counterparts. And if we don’t use our voice and we just sit back and allow this to happen, we’re just failing our community. We can’t be silent.”
“No matter what happens,” Thomas said, “I can guarantee you that us as athletes, we’re not going to stop.”
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