How the WNBA's commitment to social justice united players to return for 2020 season

Nneka Ogwumike was feeling a sense of uncertainty.

As president of the players' union's executive committee, she went through months of negotiations and Zoom calls about what it would take to start the 2020 WNBA season in the middle of a global pandemic.

Yet even as she sat on an airplane headed to Bradenton, Florida, the Los Angeles Sparks' forward was thinking, "Is this really going to happen?"

The answer will come Saturday, as the WNBA opens its 24th season, one that will be like no other. The coronavirus pandemic delayed the scheduled May 15 tipoff. But the WNBA created a bubble -- since nicknamed the "Wubble" on social media -- at IMG Academy and got buy-in from the majority of the players for a 22-game regular season and standard playoffs.

Saturday's season opener (12 p.m. ET, ESPN) matches the Seattle Storm -- with Breanna Stewart back after missing last year with an Achilles injury -- against the New York Liberty with No. 1 draft pick Sabrina Ionescu making her pro debut. There's a hunger, of course, for basketball again.

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"I said this on the first day of training camp, that those three hours on the court was the most normal I've felt in months," Phoenix Mercury guard Diana Taurasi said. "Especially right now when there's so much going on, we get to do what we love to do, and hopefully entertain people for a couple of hours."

But the league's commitment to social justice initiatives was a key component to many players agreeing to return to the court and enter into this controlled environment for perhaps as long as three months. Ogwumike also had a pivotal role in helping the Women's National Basketball Players Association and the league form a much-heralded new collective bargaining agreement, which was finalized in January.

No one could have anticipated then that intense negotiations would be needed again so soon.

"I was sure of the process we went through to ensure that whatever it was that was here in Florida for us was the best that it could be," Ogwumike said. "And social justice -- amplifying our voices in the bubble -- was non-negotiable for me personally, and for many of the players."

Some, such as the Washington Mystics' Natasha Cloud and the Atlanta Dream's Renee Montgomery, have opted out this season to focus on social justice and the global conversation about race and law enforcement following the death of George Floyd on May 25 in Minneapolis and the increased attention to the death of Breonna Taylor on March 13 in Louisville.

Phoenix guard Skylar Diggins-Smith didn't mince words on a Zoom call when asked about how it feels to be a Black woman in America now.

"It's just pretty f---ing tough, you know?" she said. "I'm trying to use my platform for good, for change and for reform. To speak for people who feel like they're not being heard. If it sounds like I feel some sort of way, it's because I do. I can't hide it. Maybe I'm just wearing it on my sleeve right now."

WNBA players will wear Taylor's name on the backs of their jerseys this season. Their warm-up shirts will say "Black Lives Matter" on the front and "Say her name" on the back, and "Black Lives Matter" will be featured on the courts at IMG.

WNBA players have long discussed issues such as the Black Lives Matter movement but are getting more of a spotlight now.

"I feel like we've always been at the forefront, we've just been ignored," said guard Seimone Augustus, in her first season in Los Angeles after 14 years and four titles in Minnesota. "We haven't been covered as much as we are now with the things we're doing. We're all here because we feel we can use our platforms on a bigger scale."

Four years ago, Augustus and former Lynx teammates, including Maya Moore, wore "Change starts with us" T-shirts to protest the deaths of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling. Other teams wore black warm-up shirts, and the WNBA initially fined players for uniform violations, a move that the league soon rescinded.

Contrast that to the message from WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert, who took over a year ago, when details of this season were announced June 15.

"Amplifying the voices of our players is really important," Engelbert said. "They do it all year around, and I think they can use this opportunity to be together to enhance what they're doing. We're going to work with them on that and support them in it."

The league and the union formed the Social Justice Council, which will address issues such as racial inequality, LGBTQ advocacy and voting rights.

"It wasn't the players and the league combined together four years ago," Augustus said. "Now you have the league that is embracing what the players are going through. Being that this league is 80% Black, [we] feel a need to speak up and speak out. They've been reaching out to figure out what is it that the players want, not just the league throwing out, 'This is what we're going to do.' "

Even while the pandemic put all sports on hold, the WNBA had its draft -- done virtually -- on April 17. By the second week of June, the league offered players a proposal for this season. It included 100% of their salaries, a commitment to having a safe playing environment and a pledge that social justice would be the season's theme.

That came after an initial proposal that had salaries at 60% and was, according to the WNBPA, a non-starter. The league moved quickly to get to 100%. Over June 12-14, players passionately debated the vote on the proposal. Then with 77% of players voting yes, the league announced on June 15 that it would return. Within 10 days, players were to let their teams know if they would play, and the process of testing, quarantining and packing for a long stay in Florida began.

The players were adamant about bringing the social justice movement into the bubble with them. Ogwumike is known for her optimism, and she applied that to this situation.

"For these kind of specific circumstances to allow us for us to be in one place, everybody together, and have our voices amplified," Ogwumike said, "the stars really aligned in a lot of ways."

Then on July 1, Moore, the 2014 MVP and four-time champion, who sat out last season and this one to help family friend Jonathan Irons get his burglary and assault with a gun conviction overturned, saw Irons walk free after 23 years in prison.

Moore's commitment has been an inspiration to all in the WNBA. Iron's release coming just five days before players were to report to the bubble provided an emotionally uplifting example of social-justice success, which isn't always so concrete and dramatic.

Players were energized by that but still live daily with the broad scope of what they hope to help fix. When Dream co-owner Kelly Loeffler expressed her opposition to the support of the Black Lives Matter organization, WNBA players spoke out questioning whether she should continue to be involved in the league.

While most of the WNBA players have said they're glad to have made the decision to play, there's still some trepidation. On a Zoom call, Diggins-Smith -- who missed last season after giving birth to her son -- said she was "conflicted" about being there and later spoke of how taxing it was to deal with the raw emotions that she has been feeling. Tuesday, Diggins-Smith and hip-hop star Yo Gotti penned a letter to U.S. Attorney General William Barr urging him to investigate and prosecute the alleged attempted lynching of Vauhxx Rush Booker earlier this month in Indiana as a federal hate crime.

Mercury teammate Brittney Griner said she appreciated the questions about social justice because the topic needs to be talked about.

"We don't get asked enough what's going on in our communities, and I think that's a shame," Griner said. "Yeah, we're here to play basketball. But basketball doesn't mean anything in a world where we can't just live. We can't wake up and do whatever we want to do. Go for a run, go to the store to buy some candy, drive your car without the fear of being wrongfully pulled over.

"There's so much anger in me, honestly. But I just want to challenge everybody to do more. Write the story that might be tough. Take a chance. Ask a question that's tough. Don't let it be silent."

Las Vegas Aces coach Bill Laimbeer, who played in the NBA from 1980-94, said in his era, players tended to not want to rock the boat.

"The owners of the franchises were all dominant. A lot of the players were happy to have a job," he said. "Today is different. Players have much more control, they have a voice."

Sparks coach Derek Fisher, who played in the NBA from 1996-2014, said he has seen the mentality among basketball players evolve, from the 1980s-90s when the biggest names in the NBA tended to not speak out on things such as racism and social justice, to athletes now using social media as a far-reaching platform.

"We used to have to rely on media availability from newspaper writers to say anything," Fisher said. "When a player can just say that directly to the world, it provides a level of conviction. And it's why players feel more comfortable. Like, 'I'm a grown person, I can have a stance on social issues, in particular those that affect my people or my gender -- yeah, I want to speak out.'

"I think we should encourage it. And make sure that it's done in a way that actually creates change, and it's not just words."

Aces forward A'ja Wilson echoed that same sentiment: That it's critical to see results from the initiatives the WNBA is backing. That's much harder to measure, of course, than wins and losses on court. But in a year when players are contemplating so much beyond their sport, there's a lot more that they hope to achieve beyond a championship.

"It was tough for me, because I didn't know if I wanted to play under these circumstances," Wilson said of deciding to come into the bubble. "Not just COVID, but with racism and things going on.

"I had sleepless nights [thinking], 'I just don't know.' Because this is my life, this is my job. I love playing basketball, but at the same time my health is my No. 1 priority. I really had to take that into another perspective. I'm glad that we got things settled, and we get to do a lot of things while we're here. It's very rare that we're all at a single site. So we can kind of put our minds together and see how we can bring a change to this world."