As speculation began to materialize and news began to circulate that the WNBA was moving forward with a shortened 2020 season, players and coaching staffs alike began preparations for what will be its most unprecedented season in league history.
But for Atlanta Dream guard Renee Montgomery, the thought of playing basketball was a commitment she couldn’t bring herself to make.
Montgomery is one of many WNBA players who have taken to the front lines of social justice advocacy and immersed themselves in the fight against racial inequality and social injustice that stemmed from the recent killings of Black Americans such as George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery. In recent weeks, Montgomery has been active in Atlanta, handing out water to protesters, raising money through her foundation to facilitate the movement and beginning a dialogue with local representatives to facilitate discussions for legislative change.
When the WNBA announced a 22-game regular season to be held at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida, with player training camps beginning early next month, Montgomery couldn’t find the energy to attend. She couldn’t leave her community that was in need. Not now.
“Everyone was trying to prepare for the WNBA season and trying to think about the bubble and getting in the bubble and that just was not where my head was,” Montgomery said. “That’s kind of how I knew maybe I shouldn’t play this season.”
Last week, Montgomery became the first WNBA player to opt out of the scheduled season to focus on social justice.
The WNBA has given players a deadline of June 25 to decide whether they will play in the shortened season. Montgomery said that she knows of other players who want to sit out but can’t afford to financially, but added that she’d be surprised if more didn’t bypass the WNBA season.
“I do know I’m not the only one that feels this strongly about it,” Montgomery said.
Washington Mystics guard Natasha Cloud has since joined Montgomery in sitting out this season, stating Monday on Instagram that she has “a responsibility to myself, to my community, and to my future children to fight for something that is much bigger than myself and the game of basketball.”
Since confirming that there would be a WNBA season, both the WNBA and WNBA Players Association have emphasized a commitment to in-season social justice advocacy that “will include a devoted platform led by the players that will aim to support and strengthen both the league and teams’ reach and impact on social justice matters.”
The issue of social injustice is deeply personal for Brianna Turner. The Phoenix Mercury forward has been one of the league’s most active and vocal players on the issue, which has had an intergenerational impact on her family.
When Turner’s grandmother was in high school in 1965, the Ku Klux Klan burned a cross on her family’s yard after Turner’s great-grandfather sued, and won, the right for her grandmother to attend an all-white school.
But with millions of Americans unemployed due to the impact of the pandemic, Turner, who enters her second season with the Mercury, found opting out for the season hard to do.
“With this coronavirus pandemic, there’s 40 million Americans who don’t have a job right now. Who am I to give up this job, this awesome job?” said Turner, who added that she believes her story can be told better if she’s on the court with resources to amplify her voice. “I feel like for me, I can’t pass up this opportunity.”
When it comes to how the WNBA will execute its promises of social justice support, Turner said only time will tell. But she’s optimistic.
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Since my grandma (70) & great grandma (92) can’t join public protest due to mobility/ coronavirus concerns, my mom & I brought the protest to them. 4 generations of Black women settled in on the driveway, advocating for racial equality #BlackLivesMatter #SayHerName #BlackJusticeMatters
“I think they are committed to listening to our voices and having our voices heard,” Turner said. “I’m always interested to see how that’s going to happen once we’re all in this bubble space, but I do think that they have to listen to us. We’re all going to be in one spot.”
Chicago Sky forward Gabby Williams, who has also opted in to play this season, views the platform as an opportunity — a safe space for WNBA players, who have a track record of being some of the most outspoken athletes in sports, to come together and make an impact.
“As Black women, which is the majority of the league, we’re hurt and we’re fired up,” Williams said. “I think if we’re all in one place, it’s an opportunity for us to meet, to talk to each other, to organize together and really change what the league stands for.”
Both Williams and Turner said they plan to use their platform during the season, but said it’s unclear as of now how and which actions would deliver the strongest message.
In the past, players have worn shirts in support of the movement or taken a knee, but those options don’t immediately stand out for Turner given the conditions of the season.
“We’re going to be in a bubble, so when people take a knee, it’s usually during the anthem, and who is going to see me take a knee if there’s no fans? Maybe I’m not even doing it for the fans, maybe I’m doing it for myself, but I feel like I have to think about it.”
Williams, who has participated in peaceful protests in her home state of Nevada, said she’ll be looking to see how her teammates and other players want to demonstrate collectively.
“I think as a unit and together we’ll make a bigger impact as far as getting a message out.”
For returning players, questions still remain for those preparing to enter the WNBA’s bubble. Many of those questions pertain to protocols around COVID-19.
In recent weeks, cases of COVID-19 in Florida have spiked. On June 20, Florida saw a record daily high of 4,000 new cases reported, according to the Associated Press.
Should the WNBA decide that Florida is no longer a safe and viable location to host its season, the league has contingency plans for alternate host locations, according to reports.
Williams said she’s nervous about making the trip.
“Florida probably handled coronavirus the worst in the country,” Williams said. “I would just like to know more about their protocol as far as how often we’ll be tested, what happens if someone does have the virus. What happens if our athletic trainer or our doctor gets sick?”
Connecticut Sun forward Jonquel Jones announced Monday that she will be opting out of this season, citing the coronavirus as a primary cause.
“This was one of the toughest decisions I’ve made but the resurgence and unknown aspects of COVID-19 have raised serious health concerns that I do not feel comfortable competing in,” Jones said in an Instagram post.
Mystics forward LaToya Sanders has also opted out of this season, stating that her decision was “what’s best for my health and family.”
There’s also the concern and a general unease for players around the potential heightened risk of injury associated with returning to a high level of play in a short window.
“That’s one thing I don’t think people considered enough,” Williams said. “We haven’t played basketball for three months and you want us to come back to a training camp in a couple weeks. People are going to get hurt; some people already have gotten hurt.”
In early June, Las Vegas Aces guard Kelsey Plum, who had just signed a two-year contract extension in May, tore her Achilles tendon.
“I’ve been telling people I’m nervous for the health of a lot of players in the league right now and then that happened and it’s, like – that’s not the ‘told you so’ you want,” Williams said.
Williams, who is a team representative for the Sky, said the concern was one of the first things she brought up to her teammates, adding that she didn’t feel comfortable with how fast the league had moved to return given most players hadn’t played in months.
“When you go too fast, people are afraid of that, afraid of maybe an injury happening because they’re not acclimated yet,” Montgomery said. “That is a very real concern.”
For returning players, the ability to jump-start a return to in-season physical shape depended on the states where they decided to quarantine. In Texas, which has been reopened since mid-May, Turner has been able to work out in gyms for weeks. Williams, who was in Nevada, said she hasn’t had access to a gym yet. She’s placed her focus, for the time being, on preventive training with a strength trainer.
“Right now I’m just focusing on making sure my body is healthy,” Williams said.
Since the deaths of Floyd, Taylor and Arbery propelled a nationwide social justice movement, Montgomery has participated as an active advocate in Atlanta.
Through her organization, the Renee Montgomery Foundation, she raised $ 11,500 with the goal of “hydrating Atlanta and also feeding Atlanta with positivity and supplies.”
Since announcing her decision, Montgomery said, she’s now working on outlining how she plans to use her time off the court, but expressed a particular focus on state voting reform.
“I’ve actually been talking to state reps and different people of that nature,” Montgomery said. “The political space is nothing I even thought about, but I do understand that when we’re talking about voting or systematic things – those are things that get changed in the political platform.”
Since announcing her decision to sit out the 2020 season, Montgomery said, she’s been overwhelmed by the outpouring of support she’s received, ranging from WNBA fans to her coaching staff to “a lot of” players who reached out. The response is a stark difference from that recently seen in the NBA, where talk of sitting out the season, led by Brooklyn Nets star Kyrie Irving, has been the target of criticism from both fans and players alike.
“I hope WNBA fans never treat us like that, because I was so sad to see it,” Williams said. “People don’t understand, we’re not going on vacation when we’re going into these bubble seasons. It’s going to be hard physically and on our mental health.”
Williams added that she was especially disappointed by the pushback coming from other NBA players.
“I don’t see how you can judge somebody for not wanting to play,” she said. “I completely understand if someone would want to sit out this season – whether it be to make a difference or for their health and safety.”
In the coming days, Williams and Turner will depart for the WNBA bubble and continue to prepare themselves to compete in the most unorthodox season in league history.
As for Montgomery:
“I’m going to try and get some wins off the court.”