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The WNBA’s Best Team Is A Social Justice Powerhouse

The Minnesota Lynx tell GOOD why they’ll continue to take a stand on controversial social issues

Thirty-five minutes before a Minnesota Lynx game in July, head coach Cheryl Reeve was entrenched in a passionate discussion that had nothing to do with the opposing Dallas Wings’ threatening backcourt.

Reeve was talking to a security officer at the Target Center, hoping to discourage the police officers assigned to the game from walking out in response to Lynx players donning t-shirts honoring Philando Castile and Dallas police officers, just days after they were shot and killed.

At a pregame press conference, Reeve and the team’s four captains spoke about “highlighting a longtime problem of racial profiling,” as 2014 WNBA MVP Maya Moore put it. Forward Rebekkah Brunson explained that they were “wearing shirts to honor and mourn the loss of precious American citizens and to plead change for all of us.”

But four off-duty cops scheduled to work the game were not dissuaded and left the stadium.

Did that experience cast any doubt on Reeve’s outspokenness?

“None,” Reeve tells GOOD. “Matter of fact, it actually proved our point. … We very thoughtfully and carefully expressed our thoughts about a situation that’s very real, and if they chose to walk out, to me it’s a short-sighted, knee-jerk reaction that will fuel the idea that you can’t have conversation about it.”

Poised to enter the WNBA finals against the Los Angeles Sparks on Sunday with a league-best 28-6 record—a victory would be Minnesota’s fourth championship in six years—the Lynx seem equally adept at applying full-court pressure to social change as to their opponents.

The team’s attention to social justice can be traced back to 2012, when Lynx standout Seimone Augustus spoke out against a proposed same-sex marriage ban in Minnesota. She and long-time partner LaTaya Varner married in 2015. Reeve says that at that time, she also was growing increasingly fed up.

“Growing up, you don’t always see the inequities and injustices, but as you get older, finally, you say, ‘Darn it, that’s enough! I want to stop this cycle,’” Reeve says.

“We think that as leaders in the community, we have a responsibility to use our voices to create opportunities for change where needed, to shine the light on marginalized groups or social injustices,” she says. “It’s something I’m just as passionate about as I am about coaching, and any chance we get we’re gonna do that.”

Reeve has made good on her promise several times this year, notably refusing to talk basketball to ESPN’s Holly Rowe during a sideline interview, instead complimenting the reporter on her battle against breast cancer. And last week when Reeve was honored as the WNBA’s coach of the year, she used her acceptance speech to call out the media for its lack of coverage of women’s sports.

“The statistic that is on my mind these days is that women make up 40 percent of those participating in sports,” Reeve said, after commending her staff and team. “Yet the coverage is just 3 to 4 percent. I’m hopeful that all of us in the room today can walk out wanting to do better for women in sport. … Not because we’re women, but because we’re tremendous athletes and we deserve the coverage.”

Reeve’s influence is obvious to fans.

“Coach Cheryl Reeve is absolutely opinionated and a fierce advocate for what she believes in, especially the media thing,” says 13-year season-ticket holder Erica Mauter. “And because her level of success and personality are conducive to the media—she can hold her own on sports talk radio—she has the credibility to kind of give them the business.”

[quote position="right" is_quote="true"]You don’t always see the inequities and injustices, but as you get older, finally, you say, ‘Darn it, that’s enough! I want to stop this cycle.'[/quote]

As for the players, Mary Jo Kane, director of the Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport at the University of Minnesota, says she sees the shift toward athletes speaking out on social issues as generational.

“When Michael Jordan came out with a shoe line—one of the first black athletes to have a shoe deal—he was asked to take a stand in the North Carolina primary and endorse an African-American running for Senate. He declined to do so, saying that Republicans buy shoes too,” Kane says. “A generation or two ago, if players were kneeling or refusing to stand during the national anthem, it would have been the end of a career.“

But in recent years, athletes have spoken out on a host of issues—such as Trayvon Martin and the racist comments made by former Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling, who was ultimately banned from the NBA for life. Athletes have knelt during the national anthem to protest police brutality and even have endorsed presidential candidates, as LeBron James did last week, pledging his vote to Hillary Clinton.

The Lynx, thanks to their success on the court, loyal fans, and an U.S. Olympic team featuring four Minnesota players and Reeve as an assistant coach, have increasingly found themselves in the limelight and have used the opportunity toward similar ends.

“Now that we have a little bit of celebrity status, we want to use our platform for good,” Augustus says, noting the many causes that directly affect WNBA players, including LGBT issues. “We say we want to start the conversation.”

That’s what happened after the July 9 game, which fueled much debate and inspired similar protests by players across the WNBA, even in the face of league fines for uniform policy violations—penalties which ultimately were rescinded by the league office.

“For every negative comment, there were 10 positive comments,” Lynx guard Renee Montgomery says, adding that her five nephews make the issue of police brutality personal for her.

At the next home game, fans showed up chanting “Black Lives Matter,” many in shirts resembling the ones the Lynx wore, but with a new hashtag—“#WeSupportMNLynx.”

Fans in Section 111, known for becoming rowdy, were even louder that day, Mauter says, expressing their gratitude to the team for its leadership. “I didn’t think I could love them any more, but I do.”

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