NBA Commissioner Adam Silver has made two decisions this week: one courageous, and one craven. These are two decisions that seem like they should be coming from diametrically different people. Instead, they are coming from the same mouth. The two decisions, however, tell us a great deal about a commissioner who is a canny political operator. They are also instructive about the current balance of forces in two central movements for social justice.
The more high-profile decision Silver made was his call to move the 2017 All-Star Game from Charlotte, North Carolina, because of the state’s draconian “bathroom bill” that prohibits local municipalities from passing ordinances to protect the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people. People can read the full statement from Silver here. It absolutely should be celebrated that Silver stood by the league’s “principles of diversity and inclusion” and chose to actually risk a backlash over these principles. I wrote in March about why it was critical for Silver to not let pass this opportunity to actually stand for something.
The second decision, arriving with far less publicity, was the one to fine players in the WNBA for wearing shirts against both police violence and violence against the police. These shirts were emblazoned with the names Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, in addition to a Dallas badge. They also read #BlackLivesMatter and #Dallas5. When the league sent out a memo warning players to not wear political slogans, the New York Liberty, Phoenix Mercury, and Indiana Fever switched to wearing just plain black T-shirts with nothing but an Adidas logo.
Now all three of these teams have been fined $5,000, and the players who wore the plain black shirts were fined $500 each. That $500 might not sound like a lot for a pro athlete, but when the average salary is $72,000, it has some bite.
In a statement issued to the Associated Press and then copied and sent to us at The Nation, WNBA president Lisa Borders said, “We are proud of WNBA players’ engagement and passionate advocacy for non-violent solutions to difficult social issues but expect them to comply with the league’s uniform guidelines.”
These fines were issued on Wednesday. Then, as fate would have it, the New York Liberty played the Indiana Fever on Thursday. Players decided to wear the original shirts bearing the names of Sterling and Castile, in protest of all possible fines. Liberty star Tina Charles then accepted her WNBA Player of the Month award with her warm-ups turned inside out. Afterwards, she wrote the following on Facebook:
Today, I decided to not be silent in the wake of the @wnba fines against @nyliberty, @indianafever & @phoenixmercury due to our support in the#BlackLivesMatter movement . Seventy percent of the @wnba players are African-American women and as a league collectively impacted. My teammates and I will continue to use our platform and raise awareness for the #BlackLivesMatter movement until the @wnba gives its support as it does for Breast Cancer Awareness, Pride and other subject matters.