Forget the NFL ... women's basketball players take powerful stand on social justice

Minnesota Lynx players stand up for the National Anthem as the Los Angeles Sparks stay in their locker room during Game 3 of the WNBA Finals at Staples Center last week in Los Angeles.

Story highlights

  • WNBA players protesting during Finals
  • Social activism high among players
  • Protests predate NFL movement

(CNN)The NFL may be stealing all the headlines when it comes to its National Anthem spat with US President Donald Trump, but women's professional basketball has been consistently taking an even greater stand on its biggest stage.

For the first four games of their WNBA Finals series against the Minnesota Lynx, the entire Los Angeles Sparks team has remained in the locker room -- even staging a collective walkout before Game 1 to a clatter of boos.
On Wednesday, defending champion Sparks opted to stay on the court before their decisive Game 5 85-76 defeat by the Lynx team as Minnesota won its fourth title.
    "Their efforts are sometimes overshadowed by the men, but I think it's important that we recognize and credit them," Kristen Clarke, the president of the National Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights, told CNN Sport.
    Clarke notes that the personal experiences of black women in the WNBA (comprising nearly 69% of the league, according to The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport) lend themselves to being politically vocal.
    "The WNBA has a fair number of African-American women who understand what it means to be discriminated on the basis of their race and gender, so they lie on the intersection of a lot of the problems that have beleaguered our country," she says.
    "They have something to say about many of the crises that are unfolding across our country, and some of what they have to say is informed by their own personal experiences with injustice."
    Sylvia Fowles #34 of the Minnesota Lynx and Nneka Ogwumike #30 of the Los Angeles Sparks battle for position in Game 1.

    'Not even about the flag'

    Ahead of Game 2, Sparks guard Essence Carson said that people had forgotten what sports stars' protests -- be it men and women -- were really about.
    "You're standing for what you believe in, bringing attention to something that needs attention brought to," Carson told TMZ Sports.
    "I felt like everyone is so focused on the flag, and it's not even about the flag. It's about racial inequality, criminal justice reform, police brutality, and everything along those lines."
    Although WNBA Commissioner Lisa Borders must be mindful of her players' potential to alienate the league's niche fan base, she has been supportive of their right to protest thus far.
    "Our players are some of the most socially conscious that you will ever find," Borders told reporters in anticipation of the protest before Game 1 of the Finals. "You have seen that in the years before I got here, and I'm sure it will continue in the future."

    'Impactful'

    Indeed, the movement is nothing new for the WNBA.
    Kneeling or linking arms during the national anthem is not an unusual scene before games, with momentum for protest gaining popularity after each racially charged incident of note.
    In August, Sparks players linked arms with their counterparts on the Washington Mystics before a nationally televised game that followed a death during a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.
    The WNBA's continued protests, along with those in other sports, are playing a valid role in society according to Clarke.
    "I absolutely believe the protests have been impactful," says Clarke, who has worked closely with the New York Liberty.
    "They have helped to keep these issues front and center, and sustain a real dialogue in our country about police brutality and other crises."

    'We want to use our platforms'

    NFL players began to kneel during the national anthem last year, when then-San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick refused to stand during "The Star-Spangled Banner" before kickoff, sparking both support and backlash.
    Yet even before Kaepernick garnered mass attention during the 2016 NFL season, women's basketball has been at the forefront of social protest in the US.
    Before a game in July, 2016, teammates on the Lynx addressed police conduct in the wake of the killings of Philando Castile in Minnesota and Alton Sterling in Louisiana.
    Players wore black T-shirts during warmups with messages of support for the Black Lives Matter movement, and were followed by members of other teams including the New York Liberty.
    In addition, four teams staged media "blackouts" where they refused to speak about basketball, only accepting questions that dealt with issues related to the protest.
    Players were fined $500 each for violating the league's uniform policy, while their teams were fined $5,000 apiece.
    Yet WNBA players did not stay silent, challenging the fines on social media and in press conferences until they were rescinded days later.
    "We want to be able to use our platforms, use our voices," Liberty guard and WNBA Players Association vice president Tanisha Wright said in reaction to the fines.
    "We don't want to let anyone silence us in what we want to talk about. It's unfortunate that the WNBA has fined us and has not supported its players."

    "We'll deal with it when it happens"

    The NBA -- which has been subsidizing the WNBA since its inception in 1997 -- did not fine LeBron James and other star players from making a similar stance during warmups in 2014.
    Although the leagues are closely tied, each has its own set of standards when it comes to player conduct.
    While the NBA mandates that its players stand for the national anthem, commissioner Adam Silver did not commit to fining players for protesting when the new season starts this month, saying only "we'll deal with it when it happens."
    Regardless of who wins the championship on Wednesday, don't count on WNBA players quieting down next season.
    "All we can do is keep delivering our message in whatever way (we) feel comfortable in delivering it," says Carson, "and hopefully one day they'll finally understand the point of it all."