Amid heavy criticism, WNBA rescinds players’ warmup shirt fines

Members of the New York Liberty await the start of a game against the Atlanta Dream on July 13, 2016. (AP/Mark Lennihan, File)
Members of the New York Liberty await the start of a game against the Atlanta Dream on July 13, 2016. (AP/Mark Lennihan, File)

After receiving heavy criticism for fining three teams and their players for wearing black warmup shirts in the wake of recent shootings by and of police officers, a decision that led the teams to engage in a media blackout and continued protests of what they perceived as an attempt to silence their voices, the WNBA announced Saturday that it was rescinding the penalties levied against the Indiana Fever, New York Liberty, Phoenix Mercury and their players.

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WNBA President Lisa Borders issued a brief statement on Twitter:

… and expanded on it in a subsequent league release:

All of us at the WNBA have the utmost respect and appreciation for our players expressing themselves on matters important to them. While we expect players to comply with league rules and uniform guidelines, we also understand their desire to use their platform to address important societal issues. Given that the league will now be suspending play until August 26th for the Olympics, we plan to use this time to work with our players and their union on ways for the players to make their views known to their fans and the public and we have informed the players that we are rescinding the recently-imposed fines.

The decision followed several days of widespread condemnation of the fines, which were first announced late last Wednesday.

The Fever, Liberty and Mercury were fined $5,000, and each player fined $500, for wearing plain black T-shirts during pregame warmups rather than their official league-issued shirts. While the shirts were made by Adidas, the league’s official outfitter, the WNBA ruled that wearing them constituted a violation of league policy “that uniforms may not be altered in any way.”

“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,” Borders said in a statement provided to The Associated Press.

The “engagement and passionate advocacy” to which Borders referred began when members of the Minnesota Lynx came out for their July 9 game against the Dallas Wings wearing black warmup shirts bearing the phrases, “Change starts with us” and “Justice & Accountability” on the front and the phrase “Black Lives Matter” on the back, along with the names Philando Castile and Alton Sterling, and the shield of the Dallas Police Department. Sterling, 37, was shot and killed on July 5 in Baton Rouge, La., while pinned to the ground by two police officers. Castile, 32, was shot and killed on July 6 in Falcon Heights, Minn., by a police officer after a traffic stop. Five Dallas police officers were shot and killed, and nine others wounded, when Micah Johnson, an Afghan War veteran reportedly angry over police shootings of black men, opened fire on officers at the end of a peaceful Black Lives Matter-organized protest against the police killings of Sterling and Castile.

“If we take this time to see that this is a human issue and speak out together, we can greatly decrease fear and create change,” said Lynx star and 2014 WNBA Most Valuable Player Maya Moore.

In protest of the Lynx players’ statement, four Minneapolis police officers who were working at the game as independently contracted security personnel walked off the job. Minneapolis Police Chief Janee Harteau said she did not condone the off-duty officers’ actions. The president of the city’s police union, Bob Kroll, commended the officers for their response. Minneapolis Mayor Besty Hodges called Kroll’s comments “jackass remarks”and said he “sure as hell doesn’t speak for me about the Lynx or about anything else.”

While the Lynx elected not to wear those shirts for their next game, when they traveled to Texas to play the San Antonio Stars, the Liberty did wear similar shirts for their July 10 game, bearing the hashtags #BlackLivesMatter and #Dallas5, both in solidarity with the Lynx and as an expression that, as Liberty guard Tanisha Wright said, “black lives are just as important as any other lives in America.”

The WNBA responded to these public statements by sending teams a memo reminding them of the league’s uniform policy, and warning them that violations of that policy could result in fines. As a compromise, the Liberty elected to remove the hashtags and simply wear plain black shirts bearing only Adidas’ logo, and not the team’s or league’s. The Mercury and Fever joined in wearing those shirts last Tuesday. The players viewed the change as a way of “meeting in the middle with the WNBA.” The league, however, viewed it as continuing deviation from the uniform policy, and thus, the fines were levied.

That struck many observers as questionable and perhaps even hypocritical, given the NBA has not issued fines in the past for making similar statements with their clothing — like when the Los Angeles Clippers and Miami Heat wore their shooting shirts inside out to protest incendiary racial comments made by then-Clippers owner Donald Sterling, or when LeBron James, Derrick Rose and the Los Angeles Lakers wore “I Can’t Breathe” T-shirts in solidarity with those protesting the death of unarmed black man Eric Garner at the hands of police officer Daniel Pantaleo in Staten Island, N.Y. — and that the WNBA had seemed to have no qualms about a league-wide outpouring of support following last month’s mass shooting at Pulse, an Orlando nightclub catering to the LGBTQ community.

WNBA players spoke out against the league-imposed penalties, with players from the Liberty and Fever refusing to answer questions about topics other than the Black Lives Matter movement, their desire to use their platforms as professional athletes to make statements, and the fines during a postgame media blackout last Thursday.

“We really feel like there’s still an issue here in America,” the Liberty’s Wright told reporters. “And we want to be able to use our platforms, we want to be able to use our voices, we don’t want to let anybody silence us and what we want to talk about. It’s unfortunate that the WNBA has fined us and not supported its players.”

With public sentiment rising against the league, and more players from more teams speaking out in solidarity with their colleagues, Borders tried to clarify her position in a Friday interview with the AP:

Borders spent the past two weeks talking with the union and its executive council, trying to come up with ways that both the league and its players could constructively address the Black Lives Matter movement. Nothing concrete was decided.

“We were making every effort to engage our players,” she told The Associated Press by phone Friday night. “We made an effort to support them and we were trying to get them to come to the table to have a conversation. The players have an open invitation with the league.

“Our players are important to us. We believe in them. We want them to be the people they are and we’re proud of them. We want to make sure they play well on the court and they are happy off the court.” […]

“We want the players to know that we have supported them in the past, support them today and will continue to support them in the future,” she said. “We’re not trying to stop them from expressing themselves.”

The league just doesn’t want them to do it on the court if it violates the WNBA uniform rules. […]

“The Adidas black shirts are not regulation,” Borders said. “They are sponsor appropriate, but the Adidas plain black shirt would not be a regulation-issued shirt.”

Evidently, between Friday night and Saturday afternoon, Borders decided that upholding shooting-shirt regulations was not the hill she’d prefer to die on.

“We are pleased that the WNBA has made the decision to rescind the fines the league handed down to the players on the Fever, Liberty and Mercury,” said Terri Jackson, director of operations for the Women’s National Basketball Players Association, in a statement. “We look forward to engaging in constructive dialogue with the league to ensure that the players’ desire to express themselves will continue to be supported.”

While we’re sure the players are glad to be getting their $500 back, the principle of the fight was much more important than the financial aspect, according to Indiana Fever forward and WNBPA president Tamika Catchings.

“It’s a huge win overall,” Catchings told the AP. “I think more than anything I told Lisa at times you’re going to agree to disagree. With this, I’m really proud of the players standing strong and for utilizing their voices. Change starts with us. We have a social responsibility as well.”

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Dan Devine is an editor for Ball Don’t Lie on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at devine@yahoo-inc.com or follow him on Twitter!

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