Traditionally, professional athletes aren’t known for speaking their minds, though that’s beginning to change. Their personal opinions often remain private to protect an endorsement—or three. Of course, there’s the apocryphal story of Michael Jordan saying, “Republicans buy sneakers, too,” when asked about a political opinion he did not want to give. But there are professional athletes who speak their minds and stand up in the face of social and political injustice. And they’re often women.
“I think in some ways, as women, we’re used to speaking out about social issues,” says Dawn Trudeau, Co-owner of WNBA team the Seattle Storm. “We’re concerned about taking care of our community and our families. I think that even just women’s professional sports, to some degree, is a social issue. It doesn’t have the same support men’s sports do—that’s a social issue in and of itself.”
In 2017, virtually the entire Seattle Storm team—from owners to bench players—took stands in the face of changing social and political paradigms. On July 18, 2017, the Storm donated $5 of every ticket sold for that day’s game to Planned Parenthood, raising tens of thousands of dollars for the healthcare provider. A year prior, Storm players took to Twitter to support their colleagues who were fined by the league for wearing t-shirts in support of the Black Lives Matter movement before games. And in October of 2017, Storm player Breanna Stewart penned a piece in The Players’ Tribune for the #MeToo movement, describing her experience being molested as a child. “When she told us that she was going to write that piece,” remembers Trudeau, “we were very supportive of her. We thought she was really doing something that was important and powerful.”
But, says Trudeau, who co-owns the team along with her management group, Force 10 Hoops, the Storm never set out to be so outspoken or on the frontlines of important social issues. Trudeau says Force 10 Hoops’ focus was on the fans first, not politics. Things shifted, however, and the team felt a need to make their voices heard, to use their platform. “The world has changed,” emphasizes Trudeau. “All of us think access to health care is a critical right for people, and the first people who will get hurt with changes to healthcare will likely be women and girls, or families and children. As you see things change in the world around you, you respond to it.”
Whereas popular women’s sports like golf and tennis feature one main athlete, the Storm is a collection of players who live, work and play together closely for months on end. “You spend a lot of time with each other,” Trudeau explains. “Because, whether you like it or not, you’re going to be with those people for a long time.” As a result, she says, team chemistry becomes paramount, which leads to necessary communication, discussion and, likely, empathy. “We’re stronger [as a team] than any individual person could be,” says Trudeau.
And, of course, strong team bonds and clear team philosophies often begin at the top. “Ever since we became owners,” asserts Trudeau, whose Force 10 Hoops group took over the team in 2007, “we have always spoken out about the empowerment of women and girls. That’s a constant agenda of ours. And [in 2017] we started seeing fundamental rights for people being dismantled. As we saw things unfolding, we talked together and decided we wanted to do something.”
Unlike other sports leagues, the WNBA—which, Trudeau says, has received support from its parent company, the NBA—allows its players to speak out, and almost encourages it. The WNBA doesn’t look at their workforce and think of bodies colliding against other bodies for billions of dollars. Instead, notes Trudeau, the league and its ownership group see the players as human beings.
While the Storm benefit from their position in the Pacific Northwest, a region of the country known for being more progressive than others, the team knows their impact goes far beyond Seattle or even Washington state. As their 2018 campaign revs up, the team will continue to support one another in the face of bigotry that so often seems empowered by callous leadership. And, as usual, it’s the women of the WNBA and the Seattle Storm who are bold enough to speak their minds—and the team’s ownership that’s flexible and intelligent enough to let players be their authentic selves. “If players thought they needed to protest,” declares Trudeau, “or make a statement, we want to support them. They’re human beings, as well as players. It matters to them what’s going on in the world.”
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