As the notes of the national anthem floated through Madison Square Garden on Sunday, players from the New York Liberty and Minnesota Lynx linked arms with members of the New York Police Department. Earlier, a video showcasing the Liberty players' continued investment in conversations about police brutality and racial justice played on the big screen. Image after image of the protests that rolled through the WNBA a season ago, many also featuring the Lynx, were displayed high above the Garden floor.
The message to the 10,000-plus fans in attendance was clear: The Liberty had been out here, and will continue to be moving forward.
Partnering with the Ross Initiative in Sports for Equality (RISE), founded by Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross, the Liberty hosted a panel to foster solution-oriented discussion about racial justice. The pregame panel was one part of the Unity Game event, which also featured a pickup game between NYPD officers and youth from Covenant House, a Garden of Dreams Foundation partner that serves homeless youth.
"We started holding town halls with teams about a year ago, and this is our first with the WNBA," RISE CEO Jocelyn Benson said. "What we found last year is that the women in the WNBA are leading on these issues in a way that is extraordinary and courageous and cohesive, so we were really eager to work with the Liberty."
"It's important that we realize that we are stronger together," Liberty guard Shavonte Zellous said. "It's huge to see how many fans came out to support the cause, and [for us] to have a platform for it."
The panel featured Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the national Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law; Ambassador Attallah Shabazz, diplomat, professor, consultant and lecturer; NYPD Assistant Chief Juanita Holmes; William Rhoden, a writer for The Undefeated, and former Liberty players Sue Wicks and Tanisha Wright. It was moderated by scholar Michael Eric Dyson. The conversation ranged from the challenges within the police department to the responsibility of white teammates to support non-white teammates, as well as the aftermath of Charlottesville and the overall political climate.
"It's important that we realize that we are stronger together." Shavonte Zellous
Suggestions for solutions were recorded on a flip chart, keeping attendees and panelists alike on topic because the panel was not intended as an opportunity to vent, but to engage citizens in thinking about how to move forward after identifying problems.
"Athletes have the right to be agnostic and not say a word if they choose to, and at the same time, they have the right to speak if they choose to," NBA Players Association executive director Michele Roberts said. "As an athlete, you don't forfeit your rights to the First Amendment."
Last season, Liberty players wore Black Lives Matter shirts following the deaths of Philando Castile, Alton Sterling and five Dallas police officers, and were among the teams originally fined for their violation of the uniform policy. Those fines were rescinded.
"This is a continuation of where we started last year, to give our players a vehicle to continue to voice their thoughts and try to impact society," team president Isiah Thomas said.
"The entire union standing up, not only last season, but this season makes for a powerful message," said WNBA Players Association executive board member Jayne Appel-Marinelli. "We all do it together regardless of race, orientation, or religion."
The WNBA more broadly has engaged in cohesive engagement in conversations of social justice. The Lynx kicked off last year's protests (though they were not fined), followed by the Liberty, Indiana Fever and Phoenix Mercury. Members of the Seattle Storm posted team photos of their solidarity on social media. While the NFL and NBA have been having conversations driven by the individual actions of Colin Kaepernick, Michael Bennett, LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, etc., the actions in the WNBA have been defined by the participation of full teams.
"As much as I appreciate and love the guys in the NBA, when it comes to social conscience being wedded to athletic glory, ain't nobody got nothing on the WNBA," Dyson said to open the panel. "The ladies are out there doing mad, crazy, uplifting and responsible actions."
"We're not looking to have credit, we're looking to have a voice," Wright said. "I don't care if [WNBA players] get their due, as long as they continue to push forward and speak out. As long as the needle is moving, who cares who gets the credit?"
After the game, a 70-61 Liberty win, Tina Charles met with the family of Eric Garner, a man who was killed during an altercation with an NYPD officer in 2014. Charles donated her Black History Month shoes to the Garner family and plans to support more families affected by police brutality.
"We're affected, just as everyone else is, by the news," Charles said. "The fact that the organization has allowed us to speak up and use our platform means the world to us. I am personally very thankful to be a part of this organization."