WNBA players unite, lock arms during national anthem to honor victims of 'blatant hate' in Charlottesville

Members of the Washington Mystics and Los Angeles Sparks link arms at center court before tipoff on Wednesday night. (Instagram/@la_sparks)
Members of the Washington Mystics and Los Angeles Sparks link arms at center court before tipoff on Wednesday night. (Instagram/@la_sparks)

Before tipoff of their game at Capital One Arena in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday night, members of the WNBA’s Los Angeles Sparks and Washington Mystics locked arms at half-court in a “demonstration of unity” four days after a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, culminated in a young man driving his car into a crowd of counter-protesters, striking and killing a young woman.

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The two teams held a pre-game moment of silence for those harmed during the weekend’s violence in Charlottesville, about 2 1/2 hours southwest of the Mystics’ home arena.

Heather Heyer, 32, was killed when a car driven by James Alex Fields Jr., 20, plowed into a crowd of people protesting the “Unite the Right” rally to oppose the removal of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. At least 19 others were injured in the incident. Fields fled the scene in his car, but was later apprehended, arrested and charged with second-degree murder. Two Virginia State Police pilots, Lt. H. Jay Cullen, 48, and Berke M.M. Bates, 40, also died Saturday after the helicopter in which they were flying to monitor the white supremacist rally crashed just outside Charlottesville.

“We fully support our players, who are offering a demonstration of unity that we hope America can emulate in the wake of the tragic events in Charlottesville,” WNBA President Lisa Borders said in a league statement. “We offer our sincere condolences to the families who lost loved ones and our support to those who were injured during the inexcusable violence that transpired.”

Terri Jackson, the director of operations for the union that represents WNBA players, offered a similar statement of support.

“The WNBPA fully supports our players and their efforts to come together as one to demonstrate unity and leadership in the wake of the recent tragic events in Charlottesville,” Jackson said. “Our members are strong, and passionate advocates of a world where hate is not tolerated.”

Later on Wednesday, members of the Seattle Storm and Minnesota Lynx also linked arms in a gesture of solidarity:

More such demonstrations could be in the offing around the WNBA over the next week, according to Doug Feinberg of The Associated Press:

The league sent out a memo to its teams which was obtained by The Associated Press on Wednesday night. In the memo the WNBA said it’s “suspending the national anthem protocol (which entails lining up in a dignified posture along the foul lines during the playing of the national anthem) beginning (Wednesday) and ending August 25.”

The memo went on to say the league was doing this to accommodate the support of the players’ voices and to “honor the victims of the Charlottesville tragedy.”

The WNBA was doing this at the request of Nneka Ogwumike, the Sparks star who is president of the players’ union.

“We just want to stand united in lieu of the socio-political climate, just to remind everyone that it’s important to stay together in the midst of some tumultuous times,” Ogwumike told Lindsay Gibbs of ThinkProgress before the game. “I think there’s a lot of people that have a lot of opinions, but when it comes to discrimination, that’s just not what we’re about.”

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The WNBA players’ actions come in the wake of President Donald Trump’s shifting and widely criticized response to the violence in Charlottesville.

Trump’s initial remarks on Saturday condemned “this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides,” a framing that elicited sharp rebukes from those who believed the president should have specifically chastised — or, at least, mentioned by name — the white supremacist activists behind the rally at which the incident took place. Two days later, Trump made a second statement, declaring that “racism is evil” and saying “those who cause violence in its name are criminals and thugs, including the [Ku Klux Klan], neo-Nazis, white supremacists and other hate groups that are repugnant to everything we hold dear as Americans.”

One day after that statement, however, the president held a fiery news conference in which he doubled down on his first take. Trump said there were “very fine people on both sides” of the white supremacist/counter-protester divide, that “there is blame on both sides,” and that taking down statues of Confederate leaders would lead to “changing history [and] changing culture.”

These comments met with praise from, among other parties, former KKK imperial wizard David Duke, and criticism from, among other parties, Cleveland Cavaliers star LeBron James.

Many other athletes joined James in declining to “stick to sports” and offering a strong response to the president’s comments, but the collective on-court gesture by WNBA players — who have in the past been at the forefront of athletes using their amplified voice and public platform to speak on significant social issues — stands apart. From Ava Wallace of the Washington Post:

“Our team recently had the honor of meeting Rep. John Lewis, and part of his mantra that especially resonated with us was the message of recognition of wrong and having the courage to speak out,” read a statement released by players from both [the Sparks and Mystics] just before Wednesday’s game. “When you see something that is not right, not fair, not just, you have to speak up. You have to say something; you have to do something.

“It is not a surprise that racism and bigotry exist in this country, but it is not something we stand for in any way. We feel great shock, sickness, and sadness with the degree of acceptance and normalization of this hatred, culminating in ways in the events in Charlottesville this past weekend.

“On behalf of both the Mystics and Sparks players, we feel pain and disbelief following the blatant hate displayed and the President’s response to it. There is no way to innocently protest alongside a hate-based group and to take pause on condemning the acts that took place is inexcusable.”

Mystics guard Natasha Cloud offered a pointed critique of Trump’s response to the violence in Charlottesville, and called for a better brand of leadership from the Oval Office.

“It’s terrible, the state with which our country is in right now,” Cloud told ThinkProgress’ Gibbs. “Things need to change. When things from the top — from the president — are unjust and unfair and demeaning and disrespectful, it trickles down to a low percentage, but it’s still a percentage in our country. And if it doesn’t get handled, I’m scared for where we’re headed.

“There’s going to be retaliation eventually if something isn’t done from a higher power — our president. He needs to get off his ass and do something.”

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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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