September 16, 2022 | SPORTS | By Charlie Rounaghi | Photo courtesy of the Catalyst Archives

“Thank you, Sue,” the Seattle, Wash. crowd roared as Seattle Storm point guard Sue Bird was interviewed following the final game of her legendary 21-year Women’s National Basketball Association career. 

Bird’s consistency, accolades, and leadership qualities on-the-court put her in the conversation for the greatest WNBA player ever. However, her off-the-court impact in the Seattle community and for female athletes across the globe exceeds even her on-the-court successes.

Now, Bird walks away from a very different WNBA than she walked in to when she was drafted first overall in 2002. 

Since its inception in 1996 as a women’s counterpart to the National Basketball Association, the WNBA has faced many struggles to gain relevance and popularity as a professional sports league. In 2018, NBA commissioner Adam Silver told The Associated Press that on average, the WNBA has lost over $10 million every year that they have operated. 

Despite economic struggles, the WNBA cemented itself as a league with players that are not afraid to boldly voice their opinions on political and social issues. Bird has played a major role in paving the way for athletes to use their platforms to speak out, rather than merely “shut up and dribble”.

Bird has not shielded away from voicing her experiences and struggles as a female athlete. 

“When you’re a male athlete you’re allowed to just play your sport,” Bird told NPR in 2020. “But everything about us, regardless of our play on the court, we’re judged on. We’re judged on what we look like, we’re judged on who we love. And it’s been that way for many, many years.”

Alongside her fiancée, soccer player Megan Rapinoe, Bird founded the “Love IS” fashion brand that supports LGBTQ+ youth. As a leader in the WNBA, Bird helped navigate the league through a global pandemic and joined her teammates in taking a stand against racial injustice. 

Speaking out against social and political issues has been a cornerstone of recent WNBA history. The league and its players have repeatedly taken stands over racism, policing, reproductive rights, gender pay equity, voting rights and more.

Although former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick garnered national news attention for kneeling during the national anthem to protest systemic racial and ethnic inequality in America,  WNBA members had been protesting police killings months earlier. 

In 2016, just days after Philando Castile was killed by a police officer during a traffic stop in Minnesota, four members of the Minnesota Lynx wore black t-shirts that read “Change Starts with Us: Justice and Accountability”. This led to players across the league wearing black t-shirts that read “Black Lives Matter”.  

Activism by WNBA players came to a head during the 2020 season at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. The league formed a Social Justice Council to be a driving force of necessary conversations around topics that include race, voting rights, gun control and LGBTQ+ advocacy.

The players also decided to dedicate the 2020 season to Breonna Taylor, the 26-year-old EMT who was shot by police during a raid on her Louisville apartment. Each week, they shared the story of a Black woman who was killed by law enforcement. 

The courageous players have faced many repercussions for their efforts. Most famously, Georgia Republican Senator Kelly Loeffler, a co-owner of the Atlanta Dream, vocally opposed the players’ activism.

“The truth is, we need less — not more politics in sports,” Loeffler stated. “In a time when polarizing politics is as divisive as ever, sports has the power to be a unifying antidote.”

Shortly after these statements from Loeffler, members of the Atlanta Dream warmed up in shirts that read “Vote Warnock” in support of Loeffler’s Democratic challenger, Reverend Raphael Warnock. In January of 2021, Warnock defeated incumbent Loeffler in the special runoff election for U.S. Senate from Georgia.

Despite outside attacks, WNBA teams using their platform to fight for social issues has not lead to a diluted on-the-court product. 

Currently, the Connecticut Sun and the Las Vegas Aces are battling in the WNBA finals to conclude what has been a record-breaking season in many ways. Viewership and attendance numbers have reached record levels across the board. 

WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert is focused on innovative solutions to grow the league and improve the product. Earlier this year, the WNBA raised $75 million from various investors. In a press release, the league called it “the largest-ever capital raise for a women’s sports property.”

These impressive fundraising numbers are an indication that the WNBA is gaining momentum and attention from investors. This momentum has translated into a league expansion announcement by Engelbert. The Commissioner’s goal is to add two teams to the existing 12-team league no later than 2025.

Due to the league’s sustainable practices and positive impact on society and culture, the WNBA has strong foundational values that will be a worthy long-term investment. 

Although Sue Bird will no longer wear a Storm jersey, she has inspired and paved a path for future women’s athletes. On behalf of basketball fans everywhere, thank you, Sue.

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