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Although sidelined, Breanna Stewart made a strong statement during WNBA’s opening weekend

Stewie used her moment in the championship spotlight to advocate for abortion rights, another example of the powerful activism of WNBA players.

NCAA Basketball: St. Bonaventure at Syracuse
For the 2019 season, Breanna Stewart may be sidelined, but she will not be silenced.
Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

Teaira McCowan tipped in a game-winner. Napheesa Collier tossed in an impressive 27 points. Natasha Howard posted a double-double of 21 points and 16 rebounds. The Aces dominated, even without Liz Cambage.

Yet, in the opening week of WNBA action, Breanna Stewart made a statement of her own from the sidelines.

Stewie speaks with her style

When receiving her championship ring, Stewart wore a shirt that read:

Abortion is: a human right, a constitutional choice, a personal choice, health care, lifesaving, gender equality, owning your own body, not a crime, not up for debate.

Not insignificantly, she chose to use her time in the championship spotlight to make an explicitly political statement, a choice that expands the athlete activism that has characterized the recent history of the WNBA.

The evolution of activism in the WNBA

Traditionally, more “appropriate” or universal forms of advocacy have occurred in the WNBA.

Since its inception, the league has partnered with various organizations to advocate for breast cancer detection and research, and celebrated survivors. In recent years, squads have partnered with Bright Pink, hosting Breast Cancer Awareness Nights where players wear special jerseys that then are auctioned for fundraising.

While an important cause that can touch the lives of all the women of the WNBA, breast cancer receives much research funding and public support. This does not mean the WNBA’s efforts are unneeded; rather, it indicates the degree to which breast cancer represents an uncontroversial issue that allows for acceptable activism by women professional athletes.

Likewise, with last season’s “Take a Seat, Take a Stand” initiative, the WNBA partnered with well-established liberal organizations that, while doing necessary work, enjoy rather widespread support as well.

Similarly, corporate sponsors, headlined by Nike, have adopted the language and imagery of social justice in its women’s sports advertisements, ostensibly advocating for a universal, uncontroversial form of women’s empowerment. Although inspiring, Nike’s “equality” remains unspecific. The brand does not define what achieving gender, racial and/or sexual equality for women athletes truly would require, optimistically eliding the complications necessary to making equality a lived reality.

In recent years, WNBA players have taken steps to specify what “equality” must mean.

WNBA players back #BlackLivesMatter

In the summer of 2016, players for the Lynx, Liberty, Fever, Mercury, Mystics and Storm became some of the first (albeit some of the most overlooked) athletes to use their public platforms to speak out against racial injustice and in support of the #BlackLivesMatter movement.

Taking a cue from Colin Kaepernick, Kelsey Bone risked public retribution by kneeling during the national anthem — a practice she began in 2016 and continued through the 2018 season.

Through shirts, silences, actions and assertions, players drew attention to police violence against people of color, an enduring reality that makes “equality” a continued impossibility for many Americans. The fines initially levied (and later rescinded) by the WNBA speak to the discomfort caused by the players’ activism, thus, emphasizing its importance. By identifying examples of racial injustice, these players pushed past the boundaries of what the league believed to be “acceptable” activism, opening a space for Stewart to address other issues on which the WNBA had been silent.

Having spoken out on issues of racial, as well as ethnic and sexual justice, Stewie has further specified what “equality” must include.

Stewie, survivorship and social change

Prior to last season, Stewart shared that she is a survivor of sexual assault. In the Players’ Tribune, she narrates a wrenching story of past pain, accepting her survivorship as part of her public identity as a woman athlete.

She wrote:

Part of why I waited so long to tell so many people — even those very close to me — is because I don’t want to be defined by this any more than I want to be only defined by how well I play basketball. Both things are a part of me — they make me who I am. We are all a little more complicated than we might seem.

That Stewart turned in her best season, and one of the most impressive seasons in women’s basketball history (capping her WNBA MVP, Finals MVP and championship by leading the United States to an international title as the MVP of the 2018 FIBA World Cup), suggests she gained an invigorated sense of self-confidence through sharing her story.

Her success is an expression of agency, the agency that sexual assault aims to strip from its victims.

Denying access to abortion likewise represents a violation of body autonomy.

Women athletes and abortion rights

Legal and logistical restrictions against abortion prevent a person from freely and fully owning their bodies. In contrast, athletic performance communicates bodily independence.

From a pull-up jumper after a hesi-dribble to a smooth and slithering drive through the lane to a weak-side recovery to protect the rim to a step-back three, Stewart’s game demonstrates a dedicated mastery of her body.

Other women of the WNBA also exhibit physical capacity and creativity on the court that belies the norm.

Women athletes, therefore, can serve as particularly powerful spokespeople for abortion rights. Women’s participation in sport, especially a sport like professional basketball that features ingenuity, intelligence and intensity, showcases freedom of bodily choice.

Yet, women athletes have avoided directly fighting for abortion rights. Instead, support for reproductive rights has been presented less provocatively, advocating for the right to choose but without naming this choice.

With her shirt, Stewart specified the choice that all must have the right to make, unfettered and unashamed.