Members of the Seattle Storm and New York Liberty left the floor before the playing of the national anthem at the WNBA season opener on Saturday in Bradenton, Florida, with representatives from both teams then honoring the memory of Breonna Taylor.
Taylor is one of several Black people whose deaths at the hands of police have sparked civil rights and social justice protests and conversations this year. Taylor was shot and killed by police in her Louisville, Kentucky, apartment in March when plainclothes officers entered while executing a no-knock search warrant. The officers involved have not been charged in her death.
Just before Saturday's televised game on ESPN, New York's Layshia Clarendon and Seattle's Breanna Stewart, both members of the WNBA's new Social Justice Council, spoke about the "Say Her Name" campaign and asked for a moment of "recognition" for 26 seconds.
Taylor was 26 years old when she was killed.
"We thought that was very fitting to do a moment of recognition -- not a moment of silence," Clarendon said. "Because we're not being silent by any means."
Clarendon said there was a feeling among WNBA players that kneeling during the anthem had become "performative" in some instances. She said she thinks players may opt to kneel as the season goes on, but they wanted a stronger statement regarding the anthem for the opening weekend, which is why they left the court.
"Kneeling doesn't even feel like enough to protest," Clarendon said. "I don't want to hear the anthem, I don't want to stand out there. I don't want to be anywhere near it, because it's ridiculous that justice and freedom are just not offered to everybody equally."
WNBA teams are wearing Taylor's name on their jerseys this season, an idea that originated with Las Vegas Aces player Angel McCoughtry. Players on Saturday also wore warm-up shirts that say "Black Lives Matter" on the front and "Say Her Name" on the back.
The league began its 22-game regular season, with standard playoffs to follow, on Saturday. Teams and coaches are staying and practicing at IMG Academy, and the games are being held at Feld Entertainment Center, a short bus ride away.
Social justice is a major part of the season for the WNBA players. The words "Black Lives Matter" are on the courts at Feld. The Social Justice Council on Wednesday held a Zoom call with Taylor's mother, Tamika Palmer, who shared memories of Taylor with the players. Also on the call were Georgia attorney and politician Stacey Abrams and professor Kimberle Crenshaw, who started the "Say Her Name" campaign that raises awareness for Black female victims of police brutality.
Clarendon said it was important for the players to speak with Taylor's mother.
"To just make sure we're going in the right direction," Clarendon said. "Everything we've done as activists and organizers is wanting to make sure we're honoring. We're not just slapping her name on a shirt and being like, 'Here we go.' We're doing it alongside her mother."
Also as part of their bigger-picture messaging this season, WNBA players are advocating voting rights. Members of both the NBA's and WNBA's unions are meeting via Zoom call on Sunday with former first lady Michelle Obama to discuss voting.
WNBA players have demonstrated during the national anthem in past years. Indiana Fever players knelt during the 2016 playoffs to protest the deaths of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling and to support quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who knelt during the anthem before NFL games. The Los Angeles Sparks left the court during the 2017 playoffs in support of the Black Lives Matter movement.
In the WNBA's second game of the season Saturday, between the Sparks and the Phoenix Mercury, the players also left the court just before the national anthem.
Stewart, the Storm star who returned to WNBA action after missing last season with a torn Achilles, talked only about social justice initiatives after the game and not about basketball.
"We were debuting the season," Stewart said. "And the momentum for what we do off the court is just as important -- if not more important -- than what we do on the court. And we really wanted to take advantage of that and continue to highlight things that we need to be better in this world. And that starts with getting justice for Breanna Taylor and her family."