The WNBA’s Seattle Storm continues to make history on and off the court. The basketball squad won its fourth league title last year in the “bubble” (or “wubble” as the WNBA community called it), tying it for the most trophies in the WNBA’s 25-year history. The team is also blazing new trails as a championship sports franchise by supporting Planned Parenthood and fighting for social justice. From the ownership group to the last player on the bench, the Storm, now led by a new head coach, Noelle Quinn, is poised to continue to redefine what it means to be a winner.
Never in sports history have we seen an entire franchise unite to take on political issues quite like the Seattle Storm. While the world has seen individual athletes do this with the likes of Bill Russell, Muhammad Ali, Billie Jean King, Colin Kaepernick, and LeBron James, rarely, if ever, has an entire organization shouldered this load.
“As women,” says star player, Breanna Stewart to The Nation, “we’re always put in a position where we have to fight for something. This is nothing new to us. But to have the comfort where your teammates have your back, the franchise has your back, the opposing teams have your back—it goes a long way. There’s strength in numbers.”
Stewart, the 2018 WNBA MVP and 2018 and 2020 WNBA Finals MVP (currently leading the Storm to the best record in the Western Conference, at 7-1) is second in the WNBA in scoring at 23.3 points per game and rebounding at 9.7. But she isn’t alone; at her side is outspoken WNBA legend Sue Bird, who is fourth in the league in assists at 5.9 per game, playing now in her 18th season.
However the games and statistics are almost secondary to the team’s mission outside the lines. Today, the Storm operates as diligently to change the world through social justice work as they do on three-point shots and pick-and-rolls.
“There’s more to life than basketball,” Stewart says. “What’s going on around us is bigger than what we’re doing on the court.”
Over the past few years, the world has seen an epidemic of deadly police violence and an increased number of hate crimes directed at people of color and those who identify as trans or queer. Much of the WNBA, its teams and players, have risen to the occasion to resist and fight back.
The Storm launched the new Force4Change initiative in 2020, the first of its kind for the team, the league, and likely professional sports.
“There are so many inequalities,” says Crystal Langhorne, a former 13-year WNBA veteran, two-time all-star and current director of community engagement for Force4Change. “They permeate every part of society, so it’s a huge task. Force4Change is trying to focus on certain areas, but there are so many to tackle. We really want to be aggressive and take the next steps to impact the community.”
In its inaugural campaign last year, Force4Change focused its efforts on working to increase turnout in the 2020 election. This year, while voting rights remain important, Force4Change is focusing its support on the region’s Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) community.
“We want to amplify Black women and women of color,” Langhorne says. “We want to amplify LGBTQ+ leaders of color, the BIPOC youth. We want to support trans youth. That’s our main focus for this year. There are so many things to think about: housing, education, healthcare. It’s important to try and understand why things are the way they are.”
To understand why the Seattle Storm has taken the lead this way, we must go back well over a decade. In 2006, Oklahoma City businessman Clay Bennett, bought the NBA’s Seattle SuperSonics and its sister WNBA franchise, the Storm. In 2008, of course, Bennett infamously shipped the SuperSonics to Oklahoma City where they became the Thunder. But in February of that year, Force 10 Hoops, an ownership group comprising, at the time, four tight-knit Seattle businesswomen—Dawn Trudeau, Lisa Brummel, Ginny Gilder, and Anne Levinson—bought the Storm, with the intention of keeping it in the Emerald City.
“We believed,” says Trudeau, who’s worked previously in both the tech and philanthropic fields, “that if the team had moved to Oklahoma City, it would be shut down. The Storm had such a great fan base, so we wanted to preserve the team and experience for people to see these amazing, powerful, wonderful women athletes.”
With Force 10 Hoops at the helm, the Storm, now Seattle’s lone professional hoops team, has grown from fledgling basketball franchise to powerhouse voice for change. In a largely white, ostensibly progressive city like Seattle, the team’s impact is immense, both as a sports franchise and beacon for political action.
“I think that’s because we stopped shutting up and just playing basketball,” Trudeau says. “That’s the best way to put it.”
In 2020, the Storm helped raise $100,000 for the NAACP legal fund. But the most recent example of the team pushing social boundaries is the recent hiring of Noelle to replace two-time championship coach, Dan Hughes, who retired midseason on May 30, Noelle is the first Black female head coach in team history and one of only a handful in the league’s 25-year history.
“Dan did a great job for the Storm,” Langhorne says. “But we’re really excited for Noelle. She’s a great person and she has a great basketball mind.”
While a coach can direct and delegate the work on the court, for the Storm there is often much more to do off of it. In 2016, during his campaign and after his subsequent election, Donald Trump made several significant threats against Planned Parenthood. As a result, the Storm knew it had to step up and respond. In 2017, Force 10 Hoops and the team initiated its first formal public political action. The team decided to donate game revenue in support of Planned Parenthood, just as Trump and his followers were threatening to shut it down.
“That touches back to our original reason for buying the team,” Trudeau says. “We wanted to promote opportunities for women, promote women’s sports and be part of our community. That was our philosophy from the very beginning.”
At first, Trudeau says, despite holding this philosophy dear, the Storm had focused largely on behind-the-scenes philanthropic offerings for these social and political aims. But with the rise of Trump, she says, the team took a collective deep breath and decided to jump into the debate more publicly—and to back it up with real action and resources.
“A good example of that,” Trudeau says, “is that when the league put ‘Black Lives Matter’ on the court, we had a handful of season ticket holders say that if we supported that, they would forfeit their tickets. So, we said ‘okay.’ As it turned out, we gained a lot more than we lost.”
These days, the Storm’s focus on social justice is only sharpening. In 2020, via Twitter, owners and players officially endorsed Joe Biden and Kamala Harris. The Storm is also working to understand mental health issues and to become, as Trudeau notes, “an anti-racist” organization (“It can’t just be Black people that worry about Black people’s lives and health,” she says). In other words, the franchise is working to have its players’ backs, at all times.
“For way too long in sports,” Trudeau says, “players have been thought of as ‘athletic widgets.’ They’re not supposed to demonstrate their humanity. They’re supposed to just focus on sports. But we have always felt like these are human beings first. If you treat people as human beings first, they will be able to be their best. That’s what it comes down to.”
Langhorne, who played for six years with the Washington Mystics before donning the Storm uniform for seven more seasons, acknowledges that her job as the director of community engagement for Force4Change is made significantly easier and given much more impact thanks to the team’s passionate, forward-thinking trio of owners. In many ways, she says, they set the example for the league.
“When you look at our ownership group,” Langhorne says, “there’s a very strong group of progressive women leading the way. They’re white women, but I feel like they have a good feel for the change that needs to happen. For example, when Black Lives Matter first came out, it was still a hot topic. But our ownership group talked to us as a team and told us, ‘We have your back. Whatever you want to do, whatever you feel.’”
In 2019, the WNBA voted to increase pay and institute maternity leave for its players. In 2020, while playing in the bubble, WNBA players and staff members made a flurry of political statements. The league and the 144 players dedicated the season to the slain Breonna Taylor and the “Say Her Name” campaign, wearing Taylor’s name on the backs of their jerseys. Along with the NBA, the WNBA also postponed games in protest after the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wis.
Additionally, the league and its Atlanta Dream franchise worked in the bubble to oust Kelly Loeffler, then an owner of the Dream and a Republican senator from Georgia who slandered the BLM movement as part of her reelection campaign. In her place, the Dream players worked to elect the Rev. Raphael Warnock, who became the state’s first Black senator. This also helped to turn the Republican Senate to a Democratic-led one. While it was crucial for the hometown Atlanta players to speak out against Loeffler and for Warnock, it helped that the league’s eventual champions, the Storm, were also heavily involved.
Looking back,” says Stewart, “it’s like, ‘Wow!’ We flipped the Senate. We wore Breonna Taylor’s name on our backs, and we’re continuing to educate ourselves. We did a lot. And to be able to win while advocating for what we believe in, that’s just the way the Storm operates.”
Stewart, who also holds a position on the WNBA’s new social justice council and opened eyes in 2017 after writing this piece for the Player’s Tribune about her own experiences enduring sexual abuse, is a key voice for the league, the Storm, and basketball at large.
“Right now,” Stewart says, “we’re focused on creating justice and getting justice for those who deserve it so that these horrific events don’t happen again. With my #MeToo piece, that was when I first felt how far the strength of this league goes. We’re all here for one another.”
This June, the Storm will celebrate Pride month, as the organization does each year. It’s one of now many efforts to bring a platform to issues long considered taboo in the sports world. For Langhorne, who retired as a player in 2020 after the bubble championship and took her position with Force4Change, four words succinctly sum up the reality of the Storm’s situation. She knows what it takes to make a real difference and, in this way, the Storm remains in prime position to affect future change.
I mean,” Langhorne says, “everyone loves a winner.”