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Because the 2020 WNBA season is ‘bigger than basketball,’ players may need to step away

WNBA players have dedicated the 2020 season to social justice. The energy they are putting into initiatives for change can take an emotional toll, especially for Black players. Last week’s departure of prominent players for personal reasons is understandable.

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Phoenix Mercury v Dallas Wings
It is understandable that Brittney Griner and other Black players in the WNBA may need to leave the bubble of IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida, to care for their mental and emotional well-being.
Photo by Douglas P. DeFelice/Getty Images

WNBA players decided to dedicate the 2020 WNBA season to social justice.

Throughout the season, they have said and worn the names of Black women killed by police — honoring the lives of Breonna Taylor and other Black women killed by police — and offered an endorsement of the Rev. Raphael Warnock, who is challenging Atlanta Dream co-owner Kelly Loeffler for the U.S. Senate seat she currently occupies.

No one would argue that players’ efforts have not been successful: They have expertly used their platform to center the names, faces, lives and interests of women of color engaged in the fight for justice and equality.

However, a summer that began with a police officer in Minneapolis, Minn., kneeling on the neck of George Floyd for nearly nine minutes closed with a police officer in Kenosha, Wis., firing seven bullets into the back of Jacob Blake.

All the while, the cops who killed Breonna Taylor still have not been arrested.

While the wubble has protected players from COVID-19, it cannot protect them from the pain caused by state-sanctioned anti-Black racism. In fact, the monotonous, isolating conditions at IMG Academy more likely intensify feelings of despair and depression caused by repeated incidents of police brutality against Black Americans.

The emotional challenges of being a Black athlete in 2020

It makes sense that WNBA players, more than 80 percent of whom are Black, would need a break from basketball. On Wednesday, the players joined their NBA brothers in protest following Blake’s shooting and elected not to play. On Thursday, they observed “a day of reflection, a day of informed action and mobilization.”

It also makes sense that, for some players, this two-day pause might not be enough to meet their mental and emotional needs. For some, it might be necessary to leave the bubble to better cope with the burdens of Blackness in a society rife with anti-Black racism.

On Aug. 22, the Phoenix Mercury announced that Brittney Griner had departed the bubble for personal reasons. A week later, after the league-wide walkout, the AP’s Doug Feinberg reported that Diamond DeShields left the bubble, also for personal reasons. Chicago Sky head coach James Wade subsequently shared that DeShields is not expected to return.

The reasons for Griner’s and DeShield’s departures rightfully remain private.

The burdens of the bubble, especially for Black players

Although their decisions may be unrelated to the mental and emotional effects of racial injustices, their departures do raise awareness of this possibility. While we applaud players for using their platform, it also is important to recognize the pressures and pains they are navigating.

On a recent episode of NBA player JJ Redick’s The Old Man and the Three podcast, Sue Bird, who is white and has extensive experience playing in Russia and other unfamiliar locales, discussed the challenges of the bubble’s conditions:

I think the hardest part is there’s no escape. There’s just literally no break; you cannot get away from basketball. So, if you’re the type of person that thinks about it a lot or that needs that. And, actually, what I think I’ve found in this experience is I am that person. I don’t think I understood that — how much I actually get away from it...You literally just can’t get away...It’s tough.

For Bird, devoting time and energy to social justice efforts, such as organizing the league’s endorsement of Rev. Warnock, can serve as an invigorating opportunity to detach from the game.

Black players don’t have this luxury. As Layshia Clarendon shared with ESPN regarding the Loeffler situation:

We were having internal conversations about how to keep approaching the Kelly Loeffler stuff. And [union president] Nneka [Ogwumike] and I both were like, “Sue, as a white ally, you have to take this on. We can’t muster any more of this. It’s too hurtful.” The weight of experiencing this as a Black player is different than Sue experiencing it as a white player. The stuff [Loeffler] said is just ridiculously hurtful, even if you haven’t played on her team, just calling people “mob rule” and all that.

In the NBA, even LeBron James, who consistently has insisted that he can best advocate for change while chasing another championship, admitted to longing for an escape, telling reporters, “I’ve had numerous nights and days where I’ve been thinking about leaving the bubble. I think everyone has, including you guys.”

‘If basketball is not it ... that’s what it is.’

As a fan, the 2020 WNBA season has been awesome, indulging in the near-nonstop basketball while admiring players’ commitment to issues that are “bigger than basketball.” However, things that are “bigger than basketball,” come with burdens, burdens that are exacerbated for Black women who are stuck in a bubble away from family and friends.

Nike’s newest ad claims, “You can’t stop sport. You can’t stop us,” invoking the idea that athletes across sports persevere and persist for a greater good, both in the arena and outside of it.

Yet sometimes, sport needs to stop because the athletes need to pause, breathe and maybe step away. Although it is excellent that athletes, especially WNBA players, want to make “actionable” change, as Commissioner Cathy Engelbert has emphasized in multiple recent interviews, it also is okay if these players need the time and space to just be.

Ariel Atkins might have said it best, telling EPSN’s Holly Rowe, “At the end of the day, I’m going to make sure that my family is good and if basketball is not it...that’s what it is. But we need to understand that these moments are so much more bigger than us.”