As It Happens

The WNBA is at the forefront of sports protests in the U.S.

The women of the WNBA have been speaking out against social injustice in the U.S., for a long time, even before Colin Kaepernick first took a knee during the national anthem.
Minnesota Lynx forward Maya Moore dribbles in the first quarter against the Los Angeles Sparks guard Alana Beard. (Brad Rempel/USA Today Sports/Reuters)

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Colin Kaepernick. Steph Curry. LeBron James. Many male athletes have been making headlines this week for their protests of racism and against recent comments by U.S. President Donald Trump. 

The debate flared up this week, after Trump called for NFL players who knelt during the national anthem to be fired.

But over in the WNBA, female athletes have long been all-stars when it comes to standing — or kneeling — for justice. 

More than a year ago, members of the Minnesota Lynx wore black shirts that read "Change Starts With Us: Justice & Accountability" in support of the Black Lives Matter.

And a few weeks after Kaepernick first knelt during the national anthem, the entire Indiana Fever team did the same.

Members of the Indiana Fever kneel during the playing of the national anthem on Sept. 21, 2016, in Indianapolis. (The Associated Press)

Canadian Natalie Achonwa is a centre on the team. She spoke to As It Happens when the team knelt last year, and she joined the show again on Wednesday. Here's part of her conversation with host Carol Off.

What do you make of the fact that this movement is getting all this attention now, so long after what you did?

It's great, always, to add more voices to a cause … The big thing for me, is I just want to make sure the voices and the people that are involved now are in it for the right reasons.

I know we knelt, as a team, as a collective, unified, because we felt that there are prominent issues in the US with racism, with the killing of unarmed black men that we felt needed to be knelt for. And I'm hoping that the people that are joining in now on the cause still have that same vision of a better USA.

And what would be wrong reasons for taking a knee during the anthem?

Unfortunately, with (U.S. President Donald) Trump kind of interjecting himself into this protest, it seems that some have jumped in because Trump told them they can't kneel, so they want to kneel. Or because they just are doing it for the snapshot.

And in some cases, it's hypocritical. People that criticized (others) for kneeling — criticized Colin Kaepernick if you want to speak specifically about the NFL — and then here they are kneeling on Sunday.

Canadian Natalie Achonwa is a forward for the Indiana Fever. (Mark Humphrey/Associated Press)

In the WNBA, there is a history of this kind of activism. This doesn't come out of nowhere — the gesture that you and the others made a year ago. 

No, I think the Minnesota Lynx started with shirts prior to even Colin Kaepernick kneeling, and I think it's something that comes from our WNBAPA, our players' association... We bring forward social issues that are relevant to our group, as well as things we are passionate in. 

We really believe in our platform. And we really believe that we are more than just athletes. We are more than just basketball players.

Why do you think it took so long for male athletes to join in this protest?

Unfortunately I can't speak for them, because of course I'm not a male athlete. But I know that it was relevant to us as a league, and as a team, and to me personally, because a lot of us have a unique perspective.

We're first and foremost women, and we're also African-American — a big group of us. So we're able to speak from two perspectives — and almost a double-negative in society.

The Los Angeles Sparks remain in the locker room for the national anthem before the game against the Minnesota Lynx in Game 2 of the WNBA Finals at Williams Arena in Minneapolis on Sept. 26, 2017. (Brad Rempel/USA Today Sports/Reuters)

But I'm glad that the men are jumping on board now, because they do have a bigger platform. They are seen as having a bigger voice, because of the size of the NFL, because of the size of the NBA, and because of how long-standing their leagues are. 

A tough thing is to look outside of your own perspective, and to look beyond yourself. And with the salaries and the status that some of these players have, sometimes it's difficult to see — or remember because a lot of these players are coming from positions of poverty and lower status so sometimes it just takes a little reminding... Sometimes it might not directly affect you, but the way that we move forward is thinking about others, and helping others.