Sparks agree 'on unity and solidarity,' stay in locker room for Game 1's national anthem

MINNEAPOLIS -- The Los Angeles Sparks opted to stay in their locker room during the national anthem before Game 1 of the WNBA Finals on Sunday at Williams Arena on the University of Minnesota campus, and the Minnesota Lynx players and coaches stood with their arms linked.

"We agreed on unity and solidarity," said Sparks forward Nneka Ogwumike, who is the president of the executive council of the players' union. "We were inspired by the message of Steelers coach [Mike Tomlin] earlier today. We wanted our team to stick together."

Some of the Sparks players wanted to kneel during the anthem Sunday and others didn't. But, as Ogwumike said, they wanted to be united and make a statement. So they took a vote and felt staying in the locker room was their best option.

"There's nobody who loves my country more than me," Sparks center/forward Candace Parker said. "But I'm not saying my country is perfect or I believe in everything that is happening here.

"This is not a protest against America or against the flag. I feel I can't kneel before the flag; I have too much respect and pride to do that. There are some people who can. There are some people on our team we don't want to have to make that choice. We didn't want to put anyone in an awkward position. In this, we're united. We're still respecting the United States and the flag, but still taking a stand."

WNBA teams' activism regarding the Black Lives Matter movement preceded NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick's kneeling protest last year. The WNBA was in the midst of its season when the shooting deaths of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and Philando Castile in St. Paul, Minnesota, occurred on July 5-6, 2016.

Three WNBA teams -- New York, Indiana and Phoenix -- subsequently wore all-black warm-up shirts, while Minnesota and Dallas wore shirts with messages on them referencing both the shooting victims and expressing support for police.

Even so, four off-duty Minneapolis police officers who were working security for a July 12, 2016, Lynx game walked off the job when the Lynx wore the shirts.

The WNBA then sent out a memo reminding teams to not wear anything but league-issued warm-ups as part of league policy that uniforms can't be altered. Minnesota and Dallas did not wear the shirts again, but New York, Indiana and Phoenix did, resulting initially in $5,000 fines for each of those teams, with the individual players fined $500 each.

Later in July 2016, though, just after the WNBA's break for the Summer Olympics began, the league rescinded the fines. No teams wore the shirts when the league resumed play in August.

Before the start of the WNBA Finals on Sunday, league president Lisa Borders referenced how the league has evolved in dealing with the protest actions of its players.

"The initial response was automatic -- if you wear the wrong shirt or sock, you automatically get a fine," she said. "What we had to do was stop, take a breath, step back and evaluate what was going on in the context of what was going on across the country.

"Those conversations were very fruitful, they were very productive and constructive. Our players have been very open -- not only then, but they continue today. We talk to them regularly. I think the conversations are more intense and they are more insightful."

Parker said she feels that the support of both the WNBA and NBA has been welcomed by the players.

"We are a league that speaks for minorities," Parker said of the WNBA. "We represent women, African-Americans, LGBT. We are doing this as a stance for all minorities. We just want to be equal, what everyone wants. That's why we're doing this."