Indianapolis, IN—As the National Anthem began to play at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on Wednesday night, the Fever linked arms along the foul line, lowered their heads and each took a knee. Two Mercury players, Kelsey Bone and Mistie Bass, also joined in the protest.
They may have lost their opening round playoff game to the Mercury, 89-78, but the Fever will be the WNBA storyline heading into tomorrow. Their protest will also no doubt overshadow the final game for Tamika Catchings, who is retiring, and head coach Stephanie White, who is leaving to coach Vanderbilt.
The Fever collectively became the next group to wage a peaceful protest in the face of what many athletes deem racial injustice in the United States. Some look at their protest and may take offense. They believe it is disrespectful to the flag and to those who have served or are currently serving in the armed forces.
Others look and see a group of women willing to stand up (or in this case, kneel) for what they believe in on a national stage and in a non-violent manner.
“I’m proud of y’all for doing that together, leading that together, that’s big,” said White. The protest was not shown on ESPN live, but was instead televised at the end of the first quarter along with White’s words.
“It’s bigger than basketball, right? So let’s use that energy and use that togetherness on the floor.”
Greater than basketball was exactly how Catchings viewed her team’s actions.
''This game of basketball is important for a lot of reasons. One of them is bringing people together. Even uniting people,'' Catchings said.
''[W]e thought it was important to have a voice about something greater than basketball.''
Whether you agree wholeheartedly with their demonstration, or wish they would find a different way to make their voices heard, what’s clear is these non-violent protests by professional athletes during the National Anthem aren’t going anywhere anytime soon.
Taking a stand by sitting
The Fever are not the first athletes to take a stand by kneeling.
On August 26, during a preseason game against the Green Bay Packers, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick drew attention when he remained seated during the National Anthem.
"I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color," he said to NFL media following the game.
“To me, this is bigger than football, and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”
And while he still refuses to stand, he has gone from sitting to kneeling, believing that is more respectful to members of the military.
Although Kaepernick reignited this form of national protest, he is hardly the first athlete to think or do something similar.
Jackie Robinson, one of the most influential athletes the world has ever known, and himself a veteran, wrote this in his autobiography:
There I was, the black grandson of a slave, the son of a black sharecropper, part of a historic occasion, a symbolic hero to my people. The air was sparkling. The sunlight was warm. The band struck up the national anthem. The flag billowed in the wind. It should have been a glorious moment for me as the stirring words of the national anthem poured from the stands. Perhaps, it was, but then again, perhaps, the anthem could be called the theme song for a drama called The Noble Experiment. Today, as I look back on that opening game of my first world series, I must tell you that it was Mr. Rickey’s drama and that I was only a principal actor. As I write this twenty years later, I cannot stand and sing the anthem. I cannot salute the flag; I know that I am a black man in a white world. In 1972, in 1947, at my birth in 1919, I know that I never had it made.
Since his initial protest, Kaepernick has drawn the ire and adulation of many.
Despite being listed as the backup quarterback on September 6, he had the top-selling jersey on September 7.
President Obama, while taking questions during a press conference at the conclusion of the G20 summit said, “My understanding, at least, is that [Kaepernick]’s exercising his constitutional right to make a statement. I think there's a long history of sports figures doing so."
But in a recent poll by E-Poll Marketing Research, Kaepernick was named the most disliked player in the NFL.
He has also received death threats, through “multiple avenues” and not just social media.
All of that has not steered athletes away from taking a knee, or linking arms, or raising a fist during the anthem.
Since Kaepernick’s initial seat, Eric Reid, Jeremy Lane, Brandon Marshall, Marcus Peters, Devin McCourty, Martellus Bennett, Jelani Jenkins, Arian Foster, Michael Thomas, Kenny Stills, Jurrell Casey, Wesley Woodyard, Jason McCourty, Robert Quinn, Kenny Britt, Steven Means, Malcolm Jenkins, Ron Brooks, and the entire Seattle Seahawks team have joined in some form of protest throughout the NFL.
Soccer star Megan Rapinoe has also joined in, in response not only to how Kaepernick was being treated, (“It is overtly racist,” she said) but also due to the way she has felt as a member of The L.G.B.T. community.
“Being gay, I have stood with my hand over my heart during the national anthem and felt like I haven't had my liberties protected, so I can absolutely sympathize with that feeling," Rapinoe told ESPN.
Along with these high-profile athletes, countless other high school and college athletes have opted to kneel instead of stand when the Star Spangled Banner begins to play.
Charlotte, North Carolina
Hours before the Fever tipped off on Wednesday night, an African-American man later identified as Keith Lamont Scott, 43, was shot and killed near The University of North Carolina campus in Charlotte. The officer who shot him, Brentley Vinson, is also African-American, according to the Charlotte-Observer.
According to the Observer, police were searching for a suspect on an outstanding warrant. While Scott was not the suspect they were after, officers say he left his car holding a gun. A woman who claims to be Scott’s daughter, however, stated that he was holding a book, and was unarmed.
As of Wednesday night, the department is still reviewing video from the scene. Officers say he had a gun, while family members still insist he was unarmed.
The incident almost immediately sparked protests throughout the city. Demonstrators in Charlotte blocked a highway, damaged police vehicles, looted a Walmart and threw rocks, traffic cones and bottles. Police used tear gas on protesters, and 16 officers were injured.
The shooting of Scott was the latest in officer-involved shootings in recent memory. And in July, just like now, the stars in the WNBA refused to remain silent.
T-Shirts and Fines
The WNBA is, without a doubt, a socially conscious league. It was only a matter of time until peaceful protests during the anthem reached women’s basketball.
Following the officer-involved shootings of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling, as well as the Dallas sniper attack that left five police officers dead, WNBA players responded. The New York Liberty, Phoenix Mercury and Indiana Fever franchises all wore t-shirts pregame to honor Castile, Sterling and the officers.
In response, each team was fined $5,000 while each player was fined $500 by the league. And while WNBA President Lisa Borders later reversed the fines, that didn’t stop Los Angeles Sparks stars Nneka Ogwumike and Candace Parker from speaking out.
Following a win over the Washington Mystics on July 23, Ogwumike said:
“For me, at the end of the day, it's about the ethical nature of everything. The reason why we wanted to do this or why we wanted to come out and express ourselves, as a lot of other athletes do, is because of what's going on in our world. And a majority of our league is African-American.”
"I'm a little disappointed, because looking back, obviously in the NBA when separate players had made statements and worn shirts they were not fined," Parker said. "So I think definitely it's something we need to communicate about and figure out things, and you know, have open communication. I think that will help the situation."
Parker was referring to NBA Players such as LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, Kobe Bryant, and Carmelo Anthony wearing black t-shirts saying "I can't breathe" after the death of Eric Garner during the 2014-2015 NBA season.
After July, it was clear that the issue of race relations in the United States was on the forefront of WNBA players’ minds. While the t-shirts may have been the first protest of the 2016 season, they certainly were not the last.
Following the demonstration by the Fever on Wednesday, Borders issued a statement about the importance of the players expressing their views.
''I support our players expressing their views on important social issues,'' Borders said. ''Standing for an anthem is a sign of respect and a demonstration of unity across many cultures throughout the world. The call to action is for all of us to invest time and resources to help rebuild and strengthen our communities.
“And we have been actively working with the players on this next impactful effort.''
The Role of Athletes
Since Kaepernick’s protest, the Fever are the first team to unanimously take a knee during the anthem.
Their protest was impromptu, according to both White and Catchings.
“I did not know that they were going to [take a knee]. I’m proud that they are unified. I’m proud that they talk about it and do things together. I think that there’s a respectful way to effect social change and I think anytime our players have a conversation about doing it in a respectful way, I appreciate that and I applaud them for that,” White said.
Catchings also talked about their protest being just the latest in a long line for a common cause, and expressed appreciation that White understood where they were coming from.
“This game is important for a lot of reasons. Definitely being able to pull together and one thing that I’ve talked about, even before the Olympic break, which is being able to unite players for a common cause and social injustice and being able to stand firm in what we believe. Tonight was just another example of that.
”But what’s even cooler, nobody knew that we were going to do that and when we got into the huddle Steph just looked at each one of us and said she was proud of us. I think sometimes you worry about getting scolded in situations. But I’m just glad that she understood why we did it and what we were doing.”
The easy thing to do in this situation is to criticize the athletes involved. It’s easy to call Colin Kaepernick a benchwarmer. It’s also easy to point out that the WNBA has lower attendance and makes less money than their NBA counterpart.
The hard thing to do, whether you agree or disagree with their protest, is to listen.
Athletes are on a platform, and many view them as role models. While some may argue that they should stick to sports, others view it as a disservice for them to only worry about putting a ball through a hoop, a goal, or into the end zone. What good is their stage if they aren’t willing to turn the lights on and draw back the curtain?
In the month since Kaepernick began his quiet and provocative protest, countless other athletes at the professional, college and high school levels have joined him, and they likely will not stop until their voices are heard and change is made.
Protesting the anthem is no doubt controversial. The Fever were not the ones who began the trend, and they will certainly be far from the last to take a knee. Whether you agree with this form of demonstration or not, it is clear that this trend of peaceful protests during the anthem is not going anywhere anytime soon.
And if the protest itself is here to stay, the national conversations and debates are likely here to stay as well.