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Rebel (jersey) with a cause: Why the Mystics’ jersey succeeds where the Wings’ jersey failed

With designs that wed performance and values, the new WNBA jerseys aim to encapsulate the priorities of WNBA players — athletic excellence and sociopolitical engagement. But, as the Dallas Wings discovered, actualizing this ideal is difficult. The Washington Mystics, however, demonstrate the powerful potential of this project.

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Elena Delle Donne models the Washington Mystics’ excellent ‘Rebel’ edition jersey.
@WashMystics on Twitter

Approximately two weeks ago, the WNBA debuted three new Nike jerseys for all 12 franchises.

Following the ethos preached and practiced by WNBA players — that the WNBA is about basketball yet also bigger than basketball — the jerseys not only feature new and improved technical designs but, with the Heroine, Explorer and Rebel editions, also intend to represent the ideological values of the league and its players. The Rebel editions, in particular, aim to promote socially-, politically- or historically-conscious messages.

Yet, as the Dallas Wings organization discovered with their now-discontinued Rebel jersey design, historical consciousness cannot be represented without actual historical consciousness. In the United States, reaching to the past for present-day inspiration is not easy or innocuous but perilous. Women’s history cannot be treated as a grab bag of motivational “herstories;” it is instead full of complications and contradictions.

In contrast, the Washington Mystics deftly navigated such complications and contradictions with their Rebel jersey messaging. As much as the Wings deserve criticism for their insensitive snafu, the Mystics should be praised for their carefully-crafted design.

Why the Wings’ Rebel jersey was grounded

As the new WNBA jersey were circulating the Internet, inspiring an impressive number of social media impressions, former Swish Appeal contributor Jasmine Baker alerted the women’s hoops Twittersphere to the problematic character of the Wings’ Rebel edition jersey. By celebrating the World War II-era Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs), the Wings were celebrating a racially-discriminatory organization.

Kelsey Bone, a former WNBA All-Star, bluntly articulated the problem.

Because Nike, the WNBA and WNBA organizations chose to invest the new jerseys with ideological meaning, the Wings jersey was made extra problematic. Designed to capture the values of the WNBA and its players, the history that the Wings jersey honors instead is an affront to the vast majority of WNBA players.

As Baker illustrated, a “simple Google search” would have made one aware of the WASP’s WASPy-ness.

While the WASPs can be understood as a moment of progress for white, mostly Protestant, Anglo-Saxon women — as these women earned the opportunity to exceed the stereotypes of (white) femininity by contributing to the war effort as pilots — this progress was made possible by the exclusion of Black women. The ability of white women to perform a traditionally-unfeminine job was premised on the absence of Black women. In the United States, Black women long were (and often continue to be) expected, if not required, to perform work considered non-feminine. As such, a racially-integrated WASP corps would have threatened the (white) femininity of white WASPs. Instead, white women could (temporarily) defy gender norms without threatening the (white-defined) gender differences that organized much of American society.

This combination of gender progress for white women and the race-based exclusion of Black women was not unique to the WASPs. Rather, it is intrinsic to much of women’s history in the United States, including the history of women’s quest for the right to vote. Yet, with a jersey that prominently celebrates the 19th Amendment, the Washington Mystics successfully negotiated this historical minefield.

Why the Mystics’ Rebel jersey “rises” to the occasion

For much of the history of women’s suffrage, the politics of whiteness have been weaponized. From the post-Civil War period until the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920, white women suffragists and their organizations marshaled white supremacist arguments in order to advocate for women’s suffrage, implicitly and explicitly promoting the idea that white women needed the vote so that their “virtue” would “protect” the nation from free Black men. Among many other ways in which white suffragists marginalized Black suffragists, the pioneering parade in Washington, DC in 1913, which is one of the events that the Mystics’ jersey memorializes, sought to exclude Black women, although some marched anyways.

In short, the historical path to the 19th Amendment was complicated, fraught with racial politics that have plagued women’s movements into the 21st century.

Nevertheless, the Mystics’ Rebel jersey manages to highlight the 19th Amendment without ignoring its complicated history. Through their explanatory website, the organization notes that:

Black women played a crucial role in the suffragist movement, yet their full enfranchisement didn’t culminate with the 19th Amendment. It was, however, a start to a new decades long struggle to secure voting rights for all Americans. Trailblazers like Mary Ann Shadd Cary, Charlotte Forten Grimke, Ida B. Wells, and Nannie Helen Burroughs lifted as they climbed in the face of racism and worked to pass universal suffrage knowing they may not receive full enfranchisement granted by the 19th Amendment.

Regarding the inclusion of the first line of the 19th Amendment on the jersey, the Mystics’ website further emphasizes, “This uniform detail encourages a conversation around the complete history and impact of the woman’s vote.”

While celebrating Washington, DC as the “District of Change,” the Mystics organization realizes that change is still needed. “Rise” communicates the progress that has been made and, critically, the progress that still needs to be made, not only for women but also for people of color and LGBTQ+ persons.

The Mystics have successfully engaged with history, reckoning with its imperfectness all while recognizing those who have imagined an America that lives up to its aspirations.

Symbolism must be substantiated

A comparison between the Wings’ and Mystics’ Rebel edition jerseys expose the league’s partial, uneven status as a paragon of progressiveness. Despite the example set by many of its players, the WNBA and some of its teams still struggle to understand that truly embodying the “shared of values of diversity, equality and inclusion,” to quote the “explanation” offered by Nike, the WNBA and the Wings about their Rebel jersey, requires intentional, unceasing work.

The Mystics did the work; the Wings didn’t.

In speaking to TIME about the Wings jersey, Nicole Smith, who formerly served as Chief Marketing Officer for the organization, offered an appropriate summation of the situation:

It’s unfortunate and disappointing considering the robust Black female fanbase and the proportion of Black female players. However, it also highlights the global need for competency, humility, and responsiveness around culture and intersectionality. A solution will require an intentional culture shift where Black women are seen, heard, considered and, most importantly, valued.