Basketball Wednesday with Howard Megdal, June 3, 2020
How WNBA players changed the center of gravity on racial justice — Hear from Tierra Ruffin-Pratt — Must-click women's basketball links
How WNBA players changed the center of gravity on racial justice
To understand where the WNBA and its players are, intellectually and emotionally, at this fraught moment in American history, it is necessary to return to the summer of 2016.
Athletes standing up and being counted, especially within the context of the games themselves, simply wasn’t standard practice. So when the Minnesota Lynx held a press conference after the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile — notably, also decrying the deaths of five Dallas police officers — what followed was controlled chaos.
A protest that, yes, called attention to the killing of fellow police officers so offended the sensibilities of the Minneapolis PD that officers refused to provide security at Lynx games. (Think for a moment what that says about what those officers consider an acceptable form of engagement.) When the effort to raise awareness spread to other teams, Lisa Borders, then the WNBA’s president, issued fines to those who so much as worse shirts during warmups to respond to what is an epidemic of deadly force used on the basis of race.
The revolt that followed was more than just a few players. It spread all over the league. Tierra Ruffin-Pratt organized things in Washington DC, her cousin a victim of police violence. Swin Cash of the New York Liberty and Tamika Catchings of the Indiana Fever met at halfcourt near the end of a game at Madison Square Garden and, their level of respect universal, all their teammates followed.
I remember walking into that locker room, to hear Tanisha Wright and the other members of the Liberty talk about something much more important than basketball.
Even as what’s followed hasn’t yet changed the landscape in the way we all desperately want and need it to — that we are still facing the same outcomes, even as our voices grow louder, accounts for the exhaustion, especially within a community that can’t just tap out of that hard work — we can see that the center of gravity of this debate has changed.
The level of pushback was sufficient that the league rescinded those fines. That began a summer that included Megan Rapinoe with the U.S. women’s national soccer team, Colin Kaepernick in the NFL, and a more popular reckoning that’s changed how the majority of this country now views the issue.
It’s impossible to tease out and quantify the specific impact of any subgroup when evaluating how or why social change happens. But to move from a world where the WNBA itself thought it better to shut down calls for change on this issue to one in which the floor for any business, at this moment, is to address, to even acknowledge, that racism remains a pernicious, deadly thing in this country, is to see a sea change in understanding that at the very least followed the stand taken by these women. To my mind, it helped drive that shift.
And though it is not the primary focus of anyone at the moment, it is impossible to imagine the league and its players agreeing to the new CBA if the relationship between the two sides that pervaded following Borders’ fines had been allowed to remain in place. A society that better prioritizes the professional lives of women of color should be a society where those lives are not in as much danger. Even if simply for its own sake, that growth is to be applauded, but there will be, I believe, carryover effects that lift the resting pulse of the American equality from a rising WNBA. It’s what drives me to do the work of covering this league.
I spoke to Tierra Ruffin-Pratt on Wednesday afternoon. She looked and sounded tired. But she didn’t sound like someone who was giving up.
I asked her how she felt the league was supporting her in 2020. Some observers don’t think the league has been doing enough, an easy to understand sentiment, and a fair one.
For her part, Ruffin-Pratt immediately returned to those dark days of 2016 when I asked her that question.
“Yeah, a few years ago when we did the t-shirts and wanted to wear the t-shirts and stuff at pregame and all of that they fined us,” Ruffin-Pratt said. “So that’s always in the back of our minds, like this is the league we’re playing for, 80 percent black, but how can you fine us for standing up for something that’s a part of us?” She praised Cathy Engelbert’s actions, but her wariness over the allyship of the league was present in the smirk as she added, “I know they put out quotes and put out different things to stand with us, but I don’t think we’ve forgotten that they fined us back then for standing for the exact same thing.”
Ruffin-Pratt’s skepticism is also understandable. A media all too often moves on, quickly, to the next story in the days that follow police violence against people of color, leaving the underlying problem unsolved. Declared allies don’t stick with the work, either, and Ruffin-Pratt’s community? They’re living it every day.
I pledge to never stop this work, which I believe extends well beyond the incredibly low bar of finding solutions to unarmed people of color getting killed by police officers. That must change, but it cannot be the endgame, just the start. Our society changes when people of color’s lives in all facets are valued the way white lives are, when the stories we’re telling one another come from black and brown voices as often as white ones. This, I can do something about. We all can.
This is the work we all must undertake, an explicit examination of every corner of a society that was built on uneven terms. If the women of the WNBA could put their livelihoods on the line, if protestors the world over can put their lives on the line, we can engage this work regularly. No excuses.
This week in women’s basketball
Ari Chambers caught up with Skylar Diggins-Smith.
Ari also wrote about Gwen Loyd’s new book at The Next.
Excellent piece by Jacob Mox on stats in women’s sports.
Love this roundtable of three undrafted WNBA contributors, including Becky Hammon, hosted by LaChina Robinson.
Jenn Hatfield looks at the gender equity angle of the coaching carousel.
WInsidr had Eric Thibault explain the finer points of what the Mystics do.
Neil Paine looks at the incredible numbers Cynthia Cooper-Dyke put up.
I got to be on WNBA with Shay! We talked Mystics.
Brendon Kleen talked with Bri Turner about the current moment in police brutality.
Sorry, Plum’s gotta be on this first team, she had the best college career of the decade next to Stewie.
Dawn Staley is making contingency plans with her players.
Natasha Cloud spoke about the current moment at The Players’ Tribune.
And Cloud spoke to Jenn Hatfield at The Next about her work.
Ben Portnoy looks at Nikki McCray-Penson’s latest recruiting finds at Mississippi State.
Chiney Ogwumike is a must-listen on this moment.
Brianna Turner had some vital perspective in the latest Power Plays.
Jackie Powell went in-depth on the Liberty decision to keep six rookies.
Heather Zurich was named Bergen County, NJ’s best-ever female athlete.
It sounds like the WNBA has narrowed down its potential destinations.
Gina Mizell caught up with Bria Hartley, who is protesting for the future of her son’s world.
Tweet of the week
Five at The IX: Tierra Ruffin-Pratt, Los Angeles Sparks
More from today’s Zoom call with reporters.
John W Davis, WInsidr: With the personal experience that I know you’ve had and that you’ve shared with me, related to police violence, how has everything personally affected you that’s been going on, and has there been anything in particular, or something in particular, over the past week or so, that’s been triggering for you personally?
Tierra Ruffin-Pratt: For me it’s just the same feeling as when my cousin was killed by the police a little over seven years ago. All the same memories are coming back up so it’s been an emotional week for me and my family.
John W Davis: And when you think about that lens, is there anything that you can kind of share with people who are seeking justice? Because I guess I’ve never really asked, do you feel like there was justice in that case, and if so, like, what does that look like?
Tierra Ruffin-Pratt: I think the main thing is just keep it relevant, don’t let it die off in a couple days, a week, a month, because it’s something that’s been happening for a long time. Who knows what justice really is. Is it that these cops are arrested and put in jail for life? Justice to me may be different for somebody else. The guy who killed my cousin got six years, he’s out already. I just think, keep it relevant. This is a talk that we have to constantly have with ourselves, with people around us, with our kids, this is a constant conversation that he had. And it can’t just end in a week like it usually does or in a month when all this kind of dies down. So it’s something that we have to constantly talk about until a change is made.
Mirjam Swanson, LA Daily News: Thanks for talking to us and thanks for all your work on this for the last seven years. Julian’s mom said at the time of the sentencing that the six years felt not like justice to her and I was reading that and it took a week before the cop who shot him was arrested. And she made the comment that if the shoe had been on the other foot, that Julian had killed the cop, probably would’ve been a different outcome. Is that something that echoes kind of what comes up with this, and then also just sort of waiting on that?
Tierra Ruffin-Pratt: Yeah, I mean, I wrote a post about that a couple of days ago. If a police officer or a white person kills a black person, they get to go home to their families until they feel like it’s okay to arrest them. But if the shoe was on the other foot, if it was a black person killing somebody, they go to jail immediately, so we stand on that.
Charles Hallman, Minnesota Spokesman: Is it important for professional athletes to speak out on justice issues like this because people keep complaining “you should speak out or you shouldn’t speak out”, how important is it that you speak out in a serious fashion that people will hear you?
Tierra Ruffin-Pratt: I guess you should speak out in whatever fashion you want to speak out. Athletes are people too. Yeah, we have a greater platform, but some people just aren’t comfortable speaking out like that. Is it right or wrong? No, but do we need people to speak out, yeah. Because we have the platform, it would be great for us to use it, but everybody isn’t comfortable with that. When we use it, we use it in the right way, I think a lot of my teammates and counterparts around the WNBA have spoken up and said what they feel and believe and we all want change in this country, we all want things to be different, we all want justice for black people in America. So we’re going to speak out, we’re going to say what we feel. If people agree with us or don’t agree with us, it doesn’t really matter to us, because like I said we’re standing for something far greater than ourselves, something far greater than this league, something far greater than anything that any businessperson can say. We’re standing for black people in this country that haven’t gotten justice, black people who’ve lost their lives and black people that come before us. We stand for generations before us, our generation and generations to come. We need to see a change and we want to see a change, so we’re going to do everything in our power to try to make that happen as best as we can, but it doesn’t just land on us. There’s a lot of other people in this world that can speak up, but we’re going to lead it. We’re going to lead the charge, we’re going to step up and speak out, we’re going to be the people to lead and maybe other people will follow, but if not, our voices are going to be heard.
Howard Megdal, The Next: How do you see the way the coverage has been in the most recent flashpoints, and whether you think there’s been an improvement if there’s ways in which the media needs to do that?
Tierra Ruffin-Pratt: Coverage in itself is helping, but I think it’s always one sided in a sense, especially when it comes to the rioting and protesting and all of that. They always show the negative, but never really show the peaceful side of things. They only start showing a lot of stuff when it becomes negative, and make it seem like it’s always the black people that’s doing it. But I think some type of media coverage is better than none. So that’s a start. And like I said before with John, it just has to be continuous care, and when the protesting stops, it has to be a continual conversation. Athletes speaking out when they’re doing media and press, anything, but the conversation has to keep going. But any type of coverage is helping, in a sense, but the negative side is what kills for the blacks in these situations because it looks like they’re doing the wrong thing and people judge them for going out and protesting and in the riots and all of that but this has been happening for years, and generations, way before us. And sometimes that’s what it takes to get some type of change and for voices to be heard. So that’s what it takes. I’m not in agreement with the looting and burning stuff down but that’s what some people feel they have to do to be heard, and you can’t tell somebody in pain how they can express it.