© NBAE/Getty Images Imani McGee-Stafford: ‘Sports are a microcosm of the real world, and especially for the WNBA’ .
As the WNBA playoffs begin on Tuesday, the league can reflect on a successful season, with rising television ratings and strong attendance. In the doldrums a couple of years ago, enthusiasm for women’s basketball has rebounded, and with that growth has come greater attention paid to what players have to say.
WNBA players have always been active on social media, making their voices heard both to promote the game they play and to advocate on social issues they are passionate about. In 2018, however, they are louder than ever before.
“People love to think that political, socioeconomic stuff, none of that touches sports – racism doesn’t touch sports, sexism doesn’t touch sports, none of that touches sports,” said Atlanta Dream center Imani McGee-Stafford. “It’s completely the opposite. Sports are a microcosm of the real world, and especially for the WNBA – most of us are women of color, a lot of us identify as LGBTQIA, and we speak out about the things we believe in. Like, the Black Lives Matter thing: we were at the forefront of that. Colin Kaepernick took a knee, but we were there first. Before the NBA started wearing shirts, we took a knee. We’re always on the forefront of social advocacy, because we have to be. I can’t play basketball and forget that I’m a black woman, forget that I come from Inglewood, California, forget that most of my friends, that I have a lot of friends that are homophobic, things like that. I have to deal with these things every day. I can’t step on the court and forget everything I am and everything that touches me.”
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McGee-Stafford certainly does not forget those things when she’s off the court and online, and that resulted in perhaps the best tweet of the 2018 season. On 5 July, the 23-year-old was fed up with an old trope, and wrote, “Yall really so tired with the ‘WNBA on the cooking channel’ ‘get in the kitchen’ yada yada. I’ll have you know I love to cook. I’m hella domesticated lol. But I’m also killing you in any one on one game and my muscles prolly bigger than yours.” That drew a response from Twitter user @solCYkb that simply read, “WNBA really pointless,” to which McGee-Stafford responded with her mic-dropping quote tweet, “My checks clear.”
That last statement was impactful in two ways. First and most obviously, McGee-Stafford was standing strong and clapping back at a troll, in devastating fashion. Also, it touched at least a little bit on an important issue that has been talked about this season, the pay gap between WNBA and NBA players.
After LeBron James signed his four-year, $154m deal with the Los Angeles Lakers in July, Las Vegas Aces rookie A’ja Wilson tweeted, “154M ……….. must. be. nice. We over here looking for a M 🙃 but Lord, let me get back in my lane.” Obviously, James’ ability to get paid that way has a lot to do with the NBA being much a much richer league than the WNBA, but Wilson clarified exactly what she meant with a follow-up tweet: “We get less than 30% revenue vs the guys get 50%…..”
Pay disparity, of course, is something that women are confronting across all walks of life, and that goes back to McGee-Stafford’s point about the impossibility of separating sports from everything else in the world. What is unique to sports is something that happened while McGee-Stafford was at the airport in Atlanta, being interviewed on the phone. Nobody would walk up to an orthopedist and claim to be able to set a broken arm as proficiently as the expert. But McGee-Stafford found herself being challenged by a stranger to a game of one-on-one. She decided to smile politely and move on with her travels.
“It’s a lot easier for a man to ignore these things, because they don’t touch them,” McGee-Stafford said. “That’s privilege. Privilege is that because this issue doesn’t expressly affect me, then it doesn’t exist and I don’t care about it. We don’t have the privilege to ignore these things, because they’re real and we deal with it every day.”
The one-on-one challenge in particular is a common occurrence for WNBA players, one that Phoenix Mercury forward Devereaux Peters authored a Twitter thread about in July. A few weeks later, that thread became an op-ed by Peters in The Washington Post, after the paper reached out to her to see if she wanted to write it. Some of that is a matter of celebrity, but it’s also impossible to ignore that in 2018, women – and especially women of color – are staking out and making the most of spaces in the national conversation that have previously been unavailable.
“Right now, a lot of where we’re at comes with what goes viral, and what gets the most attention,” Peters said. “For me, it kind of just happened that the tweets happened to blow up, because a lot of us have had similar experiences. I was able to blow up like that because I’m a basketball player, and have had these people talk a certain way, and that provided me the opportunity to get to that point, but I think it’s important to be able to have discussions and have representation in the media to be able to talk about things. So, I do appreciate that we’re in a space where it’s more available to people to have these discussions.”
That availability is being driven in part by the social climate, but also by social media, where voices can be heard that otherwise would not. The WNBA does not get a lot of traditional media coverage, but the internet is boundless, and makes it a lot easier for players to get their stories out.
“We have a voice,” said New York Liberty center Kiah Stokes. “We’re on some sort of a platform. It’s obviously not as high caliber as NBA players, but we do have a certain platform, and we can use that to speak out. It also brings awareness to our league. So, like, I don’t want to say we complain about the pay, but the large pay gap, a lot of people assume that we’re making millions of dollars, and we’re not. We’re not saying that we deserve millions of dollars, but just to inform people. I think that’s the thing, to spread awareness, get people talking about our league, and when they come to a game, they can see, these girls work hard, and should get what they get, and bring more fans and more support.”
It’s impossible to say how much players taking strong stands online is driving things like ESPN posting its highest single-game rating for a WNBA contest in seven years, or the overall gains in television viewership and attendance, but it clearly is not hurting, even if the league itself sometimes stands in the way. Players were fined for uniform violations over the Black Lives Matter protests two years ago, and the pay gap issue is an obviously sticky point between players and management.
“It’s more of an individual matter in deciding what you want to do and what you want to talk about,” Peters said. “Obviously, the league doesn’t necessarily always agree with what we may feel and what we may want to speak out on. … Social issues have always been a part of sports, no matter how much people want to say it’s their release, or they don’t want politics in it. It always has been, and it always will be, because athletes are people of influence. We’re people that can have an impact on social issues and social justice, and have that conversation.”