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Friday, July 22, 2016
 
More on athlete speech in the WNBA (Second Update)

Second Update (Saturday evening): The WNBA, about to enter a month-long break for the Olympics, has rescinded the fines against several teams and players and will use the break to negotiate with the players' union about rules for player protests.

Original Post:

Following on my post about protests by WNBA players: Claire McNear at The Ringer wonders when the WNBA became apolitical, given the league's reactions to previous tragedies such as the Orlando shooting (when the league gave the players official memorial t-shirts), to say nothing of the league's general promotion of LGBTQ and women's issues. It also departs from the NBA's response both to the Lynx protest (NBA Commissioner Adam Silver praised their efforts) and to individual NBA players who have spoken out in similar ways the past few seasons (notably in wearing "I Can't Breathe" shirts during warm-ups). McNear questions whether the line really can be about who made and distributed the t-shirts.

Unfortunately, I fear a different explanation. The recent deaths of police officers has made them untouchable in the realm of public debate. You no longer can criticize or protest police officers, as by memorializing the victims of police-involved shootings (even as part of a general statement against all violence by memorializing everyone). The Orlando memorials no longer work as analogue, because the shooter there was a terrorist, not to mention an "other," so honoring those victims does not implicate police. We may be entering a time in which athletes can speak through the game, but only to express certain messages or certain positions on an issue.

As I said in the prior post, this is playing out on a smaller stage. The question is whether the same limitations are imposed on NBA or NFL players.

Update (Saturday afternoon): In my prior post, I argued that the key question is the extent to which athletes should be able to use the game, on the field/court, as a platform for their expression. The answer from the WNBA, according to this ESPN story, is that the players should keep their activism off the court. The league and the union have been trying to negotiate some arrangements, such as allowing players to wear what they want during early warmups (until, say ten minutes before the game), then change into official shirts for the national anthem; so far, they have been unable to reach an agreement.
The story includes comments from USA Coach Geno Auriemma, who seems to expect some players to attempt to speak out during the Olympics, which would become a matter for Olympic and basketball authorities. I hope we have come far enough in 48 years that the USOC would not respond as it did to Tommie Smith and John Carlos, by kicking them out of the Olympic Village.

I am more surprised by the following from Auriemma:
"I respect Tina (Charles) and the players in the WNBA for their concern and their voices and the passion that they have and for their beliefs. I really do," he said, citing the former UConn player and Liberty star for wearing her warmup shirt inside-out before Thursday's game. "I'm really proud of some of my former players and the way they've stepped forward and spoken their conscience and express their feelings."
This is a change in tone from Auriemma. In 2003, a small-college basketball player named Toni Smith began protesting the Iraq War by turning her back on the flag during the pre-game playing of the national anthem (what I described as "symbolic counter-speech"). Her coaches and teammates accepted her protest. But coaches and commentators criticized her actions, if only for distracting from the team. Auriemma, among others, insisted that whatever a player's right to speak, she did not have right to be part of the UConn women's basketball team (or to speak through her participation in the UConn women's basketball team). I am happy to see he has come around on this.





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