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Can WNBA players really count on the league's support?

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Tina Charles: We're going to keep using our platform (2:03)

Tina Charles talks about the Fever, Liberty and Mercury being fined for wearing black warm-up shirts in the wake of recent shootings by and against police officers. (2:03)

WNBA players understand that even as the league celebrates its 20th anniversary season, it's still in growth mode. They know there's no foreseeable end for the need to play overseas after the WNBA season ends to supplement their incomes. They're used to armoring themselves against insults from that particular species of social-media vermin fixated on belittling female athletes.

This unflinching realism makes for a kind of pragmatic, steadfast resolve. It's partly why many WNBA players are aware of social issues and willing to not only talk about them, but engage in their communities. It's a mindset the league publicly takes pride in promoting.

But it seems on one issue -- the conflict between police and African-American communities, and the "Black Lives Matter" movement -- the WNBA is having some internal conflict itself. Which has made players wonder if they really can't fully count on the league's stated support.

"It's difficult as players not to do something when there's a topic you want to keep at the forefront," Phoenix forward and union representative Mistie Bass said. "Which is why when [WNBA president] Lisa Borders says, 'We have an incredible stage and platform to take a stance on social issues,' it's a bit disheartening to see that we weren't able to do it this time. And we don't understand why."

Three WNBA teams -- New York, Indiana and Phoenix -- were fined $5,000 each, and the individual players $500 each, for wearing black warm-up shirts that were not in compliance with the league's policy that uniforms can't be altered. The fines came after the league sent a memo earlier this week to every team reminding them of the uniform policy.

WNBA teams Minnesota and Dallas also wore special warm-up T-shirts in reaction to the shooting deaths of Alton Sterling and Philandro Castile, and the subsequent shooting deaths of Dallas police officers Lorne Ahrens, Michael Krol, Michael J. Smith, Brent Thompson and Patrick Zamarripa.

The Lynx and Wings did not wear their shirts after the memo was circulated, which the league said is why they were not fined. What about when some NBA players wore "I Can't Breathe" T-shirts during warm-ups in 2014 in reaction to the death of Eric Garner and were not fined? The WNBA said that no one wore those shirts after NBA commissioner Adam Silver made a public statement expressing support for the players' speaking their minds, but reminding them of the NBA's uniform policy.

So it boils down to this: The WNBA was willing to let a few teams wear shirts that didn't comply with uniform rules for one game. Essentially, the league was indirectly saying: OK, we'll look the other way for a little while, but then we'll take action.

As Borders said in a statement, "We are proud of WNBA players' engagement and passionate advocacy for non-violent solutions to difficult social issues but expect them to comply with the league's uniform guidelines."

"This is about much more than just a shirt. It's about starting conversations in our communities to make changes that are systematic. As pro athletes, we have a platform that we may never have again." Mistie Bass, Mercury forward and union representative

You can understand the league's point of view about regulating its brand in regard to uniforms. Most professional leagues, if not all, have such standards. It's not unreasonable to expect WNBA players to adhere to that, as they agreed to the uniform standards in their collective bargaining agreement.

But the issue is more nuanced than that. The WNBA has had its players wear warm-up shirts expressing support for a variety of causes or to show sympathy. Such as T-shirts in response to the Orlando massacre in June, when 49 people were murdered at a nightclub.

According to Bass, what the players wanted in response to the deaths of Sterling, Castile and the Dallas officers was a shirt that was made with the league's approval and support that could have been worn by all WNBA teams. The fact that didn't happen is what the players are particularly concerned about.

"When you have so many players that are so passionate about this, are willing to go out and inform others, push these issues to the forefront ... [the league's] communication with us, and trying to figure out a way to do that, needed to be better." Indiana guard Briann January

"The league has done a great job over the years of pushing initiatives that make the world a better place," Indiana guard Briann January said. "We're about having strong role models that encourage positivity.

"This is one of those touchy subjects. There is a fear, maybe, of bad publicity. But when you have so many players that are so passionate about this, are willing to go out and inform others, push these issues to the forefront, and have these conversations that are needed to make change, I think [the league's] communication with us, and trying to figure out a way to do that, needed to be better."

Bass said that the topic was brought up July 11 during the regular monthly call between the league, the union's executive committee, and each team's union representative.

"We felt there was an urgency to support a stance that the majority of the league is dealing with, and hits close to home for a lot of us," Bass said. "It was toward the end of the conversation that we sought to engage the league on our desire to make a stand and have a T-shirt that would say something.

"They were really reluctant. They said, 'We have already made a statement and released something with the NBA.' But they said they were open to having a conversation about maybe doing something more. But that was the end of it."

Bass said she and other players sensed that the league just did not recognize how strongly they felt about this issue.

"So teams decided to take things into their own hands," Bass said. "That's why you saw Minnesota do what they did, and New York, and others. There was some backlash to that, so we still were trying to engage the league to do something that was 'uniform' for all of the teams.

"We didn't understand why it was so hard to get them to help us. Because after the situation with Orlando, it was so urgent; we had those T-shirts within a day or two to support that cause. And we did support that; it was necessary. But we didn't understand the difference with this situation, where you had the entire league wanting to say something."

"After the situation with Orlando, it was so urgent; we had those T-shirts within a day or two to support that cause. And we did support that; it was necessary. But we didn't understand the difference with this situation." Phoenix's Mistie Bass

Bass said Borders was not on the July 11 call, but she believes perhaps the urgency of the players was not properly relayed to the league president. The WNBA, as of early Thursday evening, did not respond to a request to comment on Bass' statements, including whether Borders at some point did listen to the call or was aware of all that was discussed on it.

The Women's National Basketball Players Association released a statement Thursday evening.

"We are extremely disappointed the league chose to punish our players for bringing attention to an issue that continues to impact families and communities across the country," WNBPA director of operations Terri Jackson said. "The league's behavior has been inconsistent.

"Our players sought only to demonstrate in a constructive way that was consistent with reactions to social issues by NBA players, and with earlier league initiatives, including the recent tragedy affecting the LGBTQ community in Orlando. The league's decision to try and suppress our players' desire to express themselves is shortsighted and arbitrary, and we hope they will reconsider."

When the players were informed of the potential of fines for wearing any kind of "non-compliant" uniform -- even a plain black warm-up shirt -- Bass said it was as if no one in the league was really listening to them.

"We got those sheets of paper on our chairs in the locker room [Tuesday] right after shootaround," Bass said, "that said we needed to wear Adidas team-provided uniforms. We tried to have a happy medium: We wore Adidas shirts, but they weren't what the team gave us. And that's why we were fined."

Some observers will say that from a protocol standpoint, the league simply followed its rules. And that the players were seeking to bend the rules, which -- if that went unpunished -- might result in future controversies involving other displays on WNBA uniforms or alterations to them.

January acknowledges that the league was "within their rights" to fine the players. She just wishes the WNBA would have worked more with the players instead of seeming to -- from the players' perspective -- duck away from the issue.

The WNBA is about to have a month-long hiatus for the Olympics, but several of the league's highest-profile players will remain in the media spotlight as they compete in Rio de Janeiro. Those who aren't going will continue to focus on this initiative, January said.

"If they're going to continue to fine us, we're going to try to continue to find a way to get our voice out there where we work within the rules," January said. "But this is not something that's going to go away."

Bass and January both stressed how important it was to get the message across that the WNBA players are doing this to help spur dialogue and attempt to find solutions.

"Having a conversation on race is very tough," January said. "But when you go about it the right way, and you attack the issue with information and statistics and support, there is no 'fight' here. We're not out to put up a fight, we're asking for change. It's about spreading love, and care, and treating people fairly."

Bass said she and other Mercury players are hopeful to have a chance to meet with local police officers to get a better understanding of what they face and to communicate what their concerns are. As Bass said, this is not mere symbolism to the WNBA players.

"This is about much more than just a shirt," Bass said. "It's about starting conversations in our communities to make changes that are systematic. As professional athletes, we have a platform that we may never have again."