Why is the WNBA fining players for wearing anti-violence T-shirts?

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)

My friend Earnest has a saying: “The speech is free, but the bail costs money.” The WNBA is making three of its teams and their players pay up for making public statements in the wake of recent shootings by and of police officers, in a move that’s raising questions about consistency in the way the league addresses social issues.

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From Doug Feinberg of The Associated Press:

The WNBA has fined the New York Liberty, Phoenix Mercury and Indiana Fever and their players for wearing black warm up shirts in the wake of recent shootings by and against police officers.

All three teams were fined $5,000 and each player was fined $500.

The Liberty have worn the plain black shirts four times, including Wednesday morning against Washington. The Mercury and Fever wore them Tuesday night. While the shirts were the Adidas brand — the official outfitter of the league — WNBA rules state 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,” WNBA President Lisa Borders said in a statement provided to The Associated Press on Wednesday night.

While the fines themselves might seem small, Howard Megdal of Excelle Sports reminds us that a “$500 fine means far more in a league where the maximum salary for veterans with more than six years of service is $111,500, as is the case in the WNBA, than in the NBA, where the minimum rookie salary this past year was $525,093.” That said, what’s raising ire and questions here isn’t the money; it’s the message the WNBA’s sending by collecting it.

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 on Tuesday night.

“For me personally, we agreed we want to do it for the rest of the season with the black shirts we have on and meeting in the middle with the WNBA having Adidas-represented shirts,” Liberty forward Tina Charles said, according to the AP. “Because of our time schedules we aren’t allowed to be in protests. We aren’t able to go out to city halls and say how we feel so I think the shirts represent our voice and I think the Minnesota Lynx did that very well.”

The WNBA, however, viewed the players’ compromise as continuing deviation from the uniform policy, and thus, the fines were levied.

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver has struck a similar note in the past, saying on multiple occasions that while he supports players “voicing their personal views on important issues,” he would prefer that players “abide by our on-court attire rules.” And yet, when NBA players have made such 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., to Nicolas Batum wearing a “Je Suis Charlie” T-shirt to honor the victims of the terrorist attack at French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo — Silver has not levied fines against them for doing so.

The point may be an order-of-operations, procedure-based one; the WNBA issued the warning, three teams persisted, and they got dinged for it. Even so, the disciplinary decision has raised questions about consistency in how the WNBA approaches public statements on social issues, especially following the league’s outpouring of support in the aftermath of last month’s mass shooting at Pulse, an Orlando nightclub catering to the LGBTQ community:

That apparent discrepancy, and the way it’s being adjudicated here, looks to be pretty unpopular with a number of WNBA players, including Seattle Storm forward Alysha Clark:

… and Mercury center Kelsey Bone:

… and Mercury forward Mistie Bass:

… and Los Angeles Sparks point guard Chelsea Gray:

Until the league’s brass can offer some satisfactory answers to its player population as to what makes their show of support in this case different from the one the league offered after Orlando, or why the league decided they merited censure when the NBA decided their male counterparts didn’t, it seems likely that we’ll continue to hear these players’ voices ringing out … and that the WNBA might wind up wishing it hadn’t chosen to stand firm in enforcing this particular rule at this particular time.

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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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