Basketball superstar Sue Bird cleared many hurdles alongside her teammates over the course of an unusual season to win her fourth WNBA championship with the Seattle Storm earlier this month.
But long before her victory on the court, she joined her WNBA teammates in leading a bigger fight, through activism on social justice issues.
As a vice president of the WNBA players union, the point guard worked with her colleagues to figure out how to play safely during the pandemic in the "wubble," the bubble the WNBA built in order to play out the season. While union leadership hammered out contracts with the league, Bird says one demand topped their list of "nonnegotiables":
"Our season was going to have to be played with social justice messages, on our jerseys, on the floor — forefront. And to [the league's] credit, right from the jump, they were in," Bird said in an interview with NPR's Michel Martin on All Things Considered.
The WNBA has long been overshadowed by the attention centered on the NBA, and the rest of the men's sports world, when it comes to both victories and controversies around athletes who speak out about social justice issues.
When the Milwaukee Bucks chose to sit out their August playoff game against the Orlando Magic in protest of the police shooting of Jacob Blake, it set off a powerful domino effect in the pro sports world. Other teams joined the strike, threatening to cut short a costly NBA season. Games resumed just days later, with the league agreeing to form a "social justice coalition" to promote voting and advocate for criminal justice overhauls.
Yet as NPR's Code Switch team wrote, it was the years of activism by female athletes who paved the way for the "unprecedented" strike.
"We understand what it's like to have to band together and fight for respect," Bird says.
Female athletes, Bird says, are used to being judged on virtually everything.
"When you're a male athlete you're allowed to just play your sport. But everything about us, regardless of our play on the court, we're judged on. We're judged on what we look like, we're judged on who we love. And it's been that way for many, many years," she says.
Bird says players in her league are practiced at presenting a united front in social justice conversations with league executives because they recognize the power of their intersectionality, instead of letting race, gender and sexual orientation divide them.
"Throughout WNBA seasons, we always have a Pride night. And whether you're gay or not, you stand by your teammates," says Bird. "And I think this is just another example. I'm not Black. But of course, I'm going to stand by my teammates, by the women in this league, and fight the fight."
In July, WNBA players announced ahead of the first tip-off that they would dedicate the season to Breonna Taylor and the "Say Her Name" campaign, which brings awareness to Black female victims of police violence. Bird, along with her Storm teammates and opposing team The New York Liberty, held a 26-second moment of silence in honor of Taylor, who was 26 years old when she was killed by Louisville, Ky., police in her home in March.
Players designed "We Are Breonna Taylor" shirts and sent proceeds to the Breonna Taylor Foundation. After the WNBA postponed games in August following Blake's shooting, Washington Mystics players wore T-shirts with seven bullet holes printed on the back in honor of Blake, a Black man who was shot several times in the back by police in Kenosha, Wis.
About 70% of the players in the WBNA are Black. It's that demographic that Bird thinks makes the WNBA get less attention than other women's sports — namely, soccer.
In an interview with CNN last week, Bird said, "Soccer players generally are cute little white girls."
"I think basketball players, we're all shapes and sizes. It's [majority] Black women, a lot of gay women. We're tall, we're big," she said. "People are quick to talk about it, judge it, put it down. And soccer, you just don't see that just based on how they look."
But it's that very reason — the league's diversity and its struggle to see the spotlight — that Bird thinks makes activism a priority for the WNBA.
"What this summer has taught I think all of us in the WNBA is that we have a voice and we do have this platform. And we also have these unique experiences that we can share — and again, all in the name of having a positive change on our country."
NPR's Robert Baldwin III and Tinbete Ermyas produced and edited the audio version of this story.
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
The WNBA made headlines throughout the year as they and other leagues tried to figure out how to play safely during the pandemic. But it was also known for several star players speaking out in matters of civil rights and social justice. One of those players is Sue Bird. She plays guard for the Seattle Storm, and she just won her fourth WNBA championship. And now that she's got a little free time, we thought we'd take some time to reflect on this most unusual season. And Sue Bird is with us now.
Sue Bird, welcome. And congratulations on everything.
SUE BIRD: Thank you. Thank you so much for having me.
MARTIN: So let me just start with their most recent championship. This is your fourth WNBA title. That goes along with four Olympic gold medals, two college championships and a host of other accomplishments. I hope you have a big room to keep all your trophies in.
MARTIN: I know it's been a couple of weeks, but I just want to ask, like, has it sunk in? How does it feel? I know that's kind of a vague question, but, you know, how does it feel?
BIRD: It actually hasn't, I don't think, fully sunk in because, you know, in past seasons when we've been fortunate enough to win, usually what follows is, like, a parade and all these different moments in the city of Seattle, just different - just opportunities to, you know, spend time with the fans.
Like, I can't even remember exactly, but you're just in the community more, and you're able to celebrate it day after day, week after week, which is amazing. But obviously, with where our country is with the pandemic, that hasn't been the case. We did have, like, this - we had, like, a Zoom parade (laughter).
MARTIN: Yeah, that was - I was going to ask that. Has the pandemic changed the experience of winning?
BIRD: So the slight difference - don't get me wrong - with no fans, there's not as much noise. It's - literally, it comes down. It's that simple. So when the confetti drops, and you're excited with your team, it did take away from the experience - not having the fans there - for sure. But once we - once you kind of, like, got past that part, and you are - you know, usually when you win, you do some media. You take some pictures. You go and, like, hang out with your teammates, and you party a little bit.
That all felt the same. But it's been, like, once we left the bubble, the post-championship stuff, like I mentioned - that's been obviously just completely different and in some ways has taken away from the excitement. It just went from, like, a hundred to zero that quick.
MARTIN: During the course of the season, a lot of major events took place that affected players no matter where they were, whether they were in a bubble or not - I mean, the coronavirus pandemic, of course, but also the social justice issues that kind of came to the fore - race and police violence. For instance, the league joined with NBA players in refusing to play games in August after police shot and paralyzed Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisc.
There's been a long history of individual athletes taking a stand on political and social issues, not always in a way that is well-received. But now we're seeing people - teams and leagues as a group take a stand on these issues. And I was just interested in how that came together for the WNBA. Like, what were some of those conversations like?
BIRD: Well, first of all, there was a ton - I've never been on so many Zoom calls in my life just leading up to a season, both from, like, a negotiation standpoint, in terms of just basketball, and then also from a standpoint of what we wanted the season to stand for and what our non-negotiables were. And the first one on the list, of course, was that our season was going to have to be played, you know, with social justice messages on our jerseys, on the floor, forefront. You know, the league was going to have to support us in that.
And to their credit, right from the jump, they were in. I'm a vice president with the players association, and so in our little executive committee, which is made up of seven people, hearing them talk about, you know, when I take my jersey off, I'm Breonna Taylor - You know, understanding that women a lot of times are left out of these conversations, wanting to have say her name be a huge part of our messaging. For me, it was a learning experience. But like I said, I think it impacts our league so directly that it was a non-negotiable.
MARTIN: I am fascinated, though, by the fact that, you know, 75% of the players in the NFL are African American or identify as African American. The percentage is pretty similar to the WNBA, I would think. But it seemed as though these issues were more divisive within that league. Whereas my read of it from the outside is that it seemed as though your league had a way to discuss these issues among yourselves so that you could present a united front.
I didn't see that kind of division, at least among the players, that we sometimes saw in other leagues as they were trying to sort this issue out. I was just wondering if you had any thoughts about why that might be.
BIRD: Absolutely. I think the word that comes to mind is intersectionality, and that's where our league kind of lives. And it's interesting because as a female athlete, I don't know what it's like to be a male. I don't know what it's like to be a male athlete, so it's not about comparison. But I do know what it's like to be a female athlete. And a lot of times, we're just left out of all the conversations. So it's kind of twofold.
One is, we understand what it's like to band together and have to fight for respect. It kind of all dawned on me one day. It's like as a female athlete, you know, people who have been telling us recently to stick to sports and that kind of mantra - we've actually tried to, you know? And I think when you're a male athlete, you're allowed to just play your sport. You're allowed to do your thing.
But everything about us, regardless of our play on the court - what we're judged on. You know, we're judged on what we look like. We're judged on who we love. And it's been that way for many, many years. And so we're used to this. This isn't foreign to us. We know how to organize in this way.
And it's because, you know, throughout WNBA seasons, we always have a pride night. And whether you're gay or not, you know, you stand by your teammates. And I think this is just another example. I'm not Black, but, of course, I'm going to stand by my teammates, by the women in this league, and fight this fight.
MARTIN: So before we let you go, do you think this most unusual period has changed - it's caused some people to kind of rethink what was important to them? I just wondered, has it given you any thoughts that you perhaps had not had before about your trajectory? I mean, obviously, you know, you're a superstar in your sport. You are - you just won your fourth championship, as we said. You're clearly a leader in your field, and you're also a cultural figure. I just wonder whether - what your trajectory going forward might be, if you don't mind my asking.
BIRD: No, no, no. That's an interesting question. I've never really thought of it in that way. I think this pandemic, everything going on from a social injustice standpoint, I would hope has changed people, right?
And I think for me, what has happened is the education of it all - you know, being able to learn, being able to sit and listen to people talk and hear their stories. I think, you know, what this summer has taught, I think, all of us in the WNBA is that we have a voice, and we do have this platform. And we also have these unique experiences that we can share - and again, all in the name of having a positive change on our country.
MARTIN: What about running for office?
BIRD: Oh, no, no, no.
MARTIN: Why not?
BIRD: You know...
MARTIN: I can think of union leaders, I can think of actors, I can think of athletes who - Bill Bradley is kind of a pretty good basketball player who kind of made a mark in public service.
BIRD: Yeah. It's not that I don't have a lot of respect for those people you've listed - a ton of respect for the offices which they've held and which, you know, a lot of politicians hold. I just don't know if it's for me. That's pretty much (laughter) - that's, like, the simplest answer, but it's the truth.
MARTIN: OK. Well, we'll check back with you in a little bit and see how that's going.
MARTIN: That was Sue Bird. She plays in the WNBA for the Seattle Storm, and they recently won the WNBA championship this year.
Sue Bird, thank you so much for joining us. And congratulations once again on everything.
BIRD: Of course. Thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.