Saturday, July 23, 2016

The great un-silencing

WNBA President Lisa Borders has a problem, and not the one endemic to the league she leads, which is that it exists in the shadowland of American sport for a smorgasbord of reasons ranging from calendar misplacement (the league plays only in the summer) to gender bias (America just doesn't care to watch women play basketball all that much).

No. This is a different problem: Borders' workforce has a social conscience.

They've taken to wearing plain black warmups with #blacklivesmatter and #dallas5 on the front as game warmups, a show of support for both Black Lives Matter and law enforcement that acknowledges the common ground between them. Both sides, after all, have the same message these days: Please stop shooting us.

And so the women wear the shirts to endorse that message, eloquently (and perhaps patiently) explaining to America's polarized that expressing concern over black citizens getting shot when they shouldn't be getting shot, and condemning the killing of police officers in retaliation, are not mutually exclusive positions.

"We really would appreciate if people stopped making our support of Black Lives Matter, an issue that is so critical in our society right now, as us not supporting the police,” said one of the player's spokespersons, Swin Cash. “There’s a lot of women in this room right now, in the WNBA, who have family members who are in law enforcement… People need to understand that it’s not mutually exclusive. You can support both things.”

Well. Apparently not on Borders' watch.

The league's response, after all, was startlingly tone deaf in its heavy-handedness. It fined the players taking part in the protest -- from the Indiana Fever, New York Liberty and Phoenix Mercury -- $500 each for wearing the shirts, on the premise that it violated the league's uniform policy. That was more than twice the normal uniform violation fine of $200, and suggested the league was not just functioning as the usual mindless corporate entity but as thought police, too.

Oh, no, no, no, no, says Borders, who claims the league encourages the players to get involved in social issues, just, you know, as long they abide by that all-important dress code.

"We were making every effort to engage our players," she told The Associated Press in a phone interview Friday night. "We made an effort to support them and we were trying to get them to come to the table to have a conversation. The players have an open invitation with the league. Our players are important to us. We believe in them. We want them to be the people they are and we're proud of them. We want to make sure they play well on the court and they are happy off the court."

Which sounds like what it is, mainly, a lot of blah-blah-blah damage control. Bottom line, by acting in such a clearly punitive manner, the league comes off looking as if it's punishing its players for speaking out against violence. And that's a bad look.

Especially when the players have said they're not backing down, and will continue to defy the league. And that, from where the Blob sits, is a very good look.


Because it defies the usual narrative that professional athletes are all self-absorbed elites who function in a gated community of sorts, far away from the realities of American life. That perception has been shaped by decades of athletes whose big contracts and chunky commercial endorsement deals have acted as a damper on their consciences. Oh, they could be activists if the cause was something safe and uncontroversial (disease research, for instance), but standing up when standing up might have real financial consequences ... well, not so much. Wouldn't want to make Father Nike uncomfortable or anything.

And so we had Michael Jordan's famous "Republicans buy shoes, too" line. It was a stark reminder of how far American sports had drifted away from the Muhammad Alis and Arthur Ashes and Jackie Robinsons, who spoke out (and stood up) at considerable personal risk, simply because it was the right thing to do.

And yet, so many of today's athletes are, in fact, very familiar with those aforementioned realities of American life. Many, many of them were shaped by those realities. Many, many of them are where they are right now because of those realities, and because of the desire to escape them.

Is it any wonder their consciences are still stirred by what goes on out there in the world that formed them? And that they would want to use the platform they have to at least try to make some small difference?

This is social activism in its best form, frankly. And regardless what you think about these women and what they are standing up for -- which, frankly, is as simple and ecumenical as it gets -- they're to be commended for it.

Not fined. Not punished. Not treated the way the USOC treated Tommie Smith and John Carlos in Mexico City in 1968 -- sent home like a couple of common criminals for raising gloved fists on the medal stand, a place deemed not appropriate for such displays of "political' expression.

Even if there was no better place for such expressions. Even if, today, the basketball floor is no better place.

Update: Borders has withdrawn the fines imposed on the protesting players. Common sense prevails.

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