Minnesota Lynx were among the early promoters of the Black Lives Matter movement
It was in July 2016. In some ways it feels like just yesterday to Rebekkah Brunson and Cheryl Reeve. Other times, it seems like a completely different age.
Philando Castile had just been shot during a traffic stop in Falcon Heights. An African American man named Alton Sterling had been shot by police outside a shop in Baton Rouge, La., not far from where Seimone Augustus grew up.
Reeve, who was then and still is the head coach of the Lynx, asked her captains at the time: What do you want to do?
Brunson, Augustus, Maya Moore and Lindsay Whalen talked, and agreed. Before their home game that July 9, in a pregame news conference, they wore T-shirts that said, "Change starts with us" and "Justice & accountability" on the front, with Castile and Sterling's names on the back along with "Black Lives Matter."
That night four off-duty police officers there to work security walked off the job.
Four years ago, this sort of display by athletes was considered by some to be controversial or inflammatory.
Move ahead four years to a difficult 2020, when the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor — among many others — at the hands of police has brought social justice to the forefront and made athletes more willing to speak out about them.
"There was outrage when we did it in 2016," Brunson said. "But I feel now the climate has changed."
Brunson is now a Lynx assistant coach who spent the summer with the team in the WNBA bubble in Florida, a location change necessitated by COVID-19 concerns. It was a season dedicated, by the league, to Taylor with their "Say Her Name" campaign.
Some players — like former Lynx guard Renee Montgomery — took the season off entirely to work for social change. When Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler of Georgia — a part-owner of the Atlanta Dream — came out against Black Lives Matter, players wore the name of her opponent on their warmup shirts. When Jacob Blake was shot in Kenosha, Wis., in August, the WNBA postponed three games in protest.
"It wasn't like the reason people were protesting had changed," Brunson said. "It was that you just couldn't ignore it any longer. Being in the bubble wasn't ideal in terms of what we were going through to get a season in. But it gave us an opportunity to use our voices, as a group, collectively to create some change about issues we were very passionate about. It ended up being a beautiful thing."
This is happening across American sports.
Just a few years ago quarterback Colin Kaepernick was essentially blackballed from the NFL for kneeling during the national anthem. Before this season, in a podcast, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell acknowledged the league's mistake. "I wish we had listened earlier, Kaep, to what you were kneeling about and what you were trying to bring attention to," Goodell said. This year, several NFL players — including prominent members of the Vikings — took a knee.
Bruce Maxwell, the former A's catcher who took a knee before the anthem during a game in September 2017, received a lot of pushback. Three years later, players and coaches from around MLB took a knee on opening day. The Twins played their games at Target Field with signs honoring Floyd and with Black Lives Matter displayed in the outfield.
The NBA season, also in a Florida bubble, was played out on courts painted with Black Lives Matter. Star players like Carmelo Anthony and Damian Lillard marched in George Floyd protests.
Wild defenseman Matt Dumba, who helped found the Hockey Diversity Alliance, was asked by the league to give a speech on racism before the NHL playoffs began, then he became the first NHL player to kneel during the national anthem.
Wolves players like Josh Okogie and Karl-Anthony Towns attended a downtown rally calling for justice for Floyd. The team has launched a web series called "Voices" that deals with issues of racism. D'Angelo Russell, a Louisville native, participated in rallies for justice for Taylor.
A lot has changed since 2016. Reeve remembers certain members of the Lynx and Wolves organization who were concerned about that pregame protest.
"The No. 1 thing we were trying to convey was that we couldn't sit idly by and watch murders at the hands of the police against Black and brown communities," Reeve said. "Change was the No. 1 thing we were after. So it was, 'Change starts with us.' It was also being bold saying Black Lives Matter. Fast-forward to George Floyd and how comfortable the vast majority of people are using the phrase Black Lives Matter, how fast it had become acceptable. Not everyone, of course. But it's significantly different than it was in 2016, certainly in our organization."
For Brunson, there is a little pride knowing she was a part of that protest four years ago. She still has that warmup shirt, something she'll cherish forever. Since then Brunson has retired and become a Lynx assistant. Whalen retired and is coaching the Gophers women's basketball team, with those players wearing Black Lives Matter shirts during warmups. Moore put her career on hold to fight for change.
"From a team standpoint, I do feel we set the tone for teams coming together," Brunson said.
Others are following.
"Now is the time for action," Reeve said. "What you're seeing is action, the collective will of not only the women of the WNBA, but the men of the NBA, the different sports."