From Next to Now: The WNBA in 2018

By Cat Ariail

When advertising its inaugural 1997 season, the WNBA announced, “We Got Next.” The slogan represented a clever adaptation of the playground basketball expression. Unintentionally but appropriately, it also captured the perpetual liminality of the league. For much of its twenty-two year history, insecurity has characterized the league, with professional women basketball forever waiting for what might be next.

However, in 2018, NEXT became NOW.

The exciting play and unapologetic attitudes of an increasingly diverse and determined population of professional women basketball players not only inserted the WNBA into the cultural conversation, but also positioned the league for further progress in 2019.

Ahead of the 2018 season, league observers expected the Minnesota Lynx and Los Angeles Sparks again to reprise their rivalry in the WNBA Finals. An early season thriller between the two squads seemed to confirm this supposition. Yet, instead of predetermined dominance, competitive chaos characterized the W in 2018. As the Minnesota and Los Angeles stalwarts relatively sputtered, an emerging cohort of new stars, along with some living legends, proved more than ready to show that their time is NOW, resulting in the highest-quality season in league history. Highlights included:

  • The GOAT, Diana Taurasi, becoming the first WNBA player to score 8,000 points.
  • Sue Bird, still doing work, becoming the WNBA’s all-time leader in games played.
  • The inaugural season of the Las Vegas Aces featuring more than expected success, much due to the excellence of Rookie of the Year A’ja Wilson.
  • Liz Cambage, putting up a 53-spot to set the single-game scoring record, the climax of her season of infectious dominance.
  • Allie Quigley going in ham in the WNBA All-Star 3-Point Shooting Contest, scoring a record 29 points in the overtime round.
  • Courtney Vandersloot dropping dimes to set the WNBA single-season assist record.
  • Coach of the Year (and fashionista) Nicki Collen leading an under-womanned Atlanta Dream squad to the two-seed.
  • Dewanna Bonner returning from maternity leave only to lead the league in minutes played.
  • Breanna Stewart, enough said.
  • A one-legged Elena Delle Donne leading the Washington Mystics to the WNBA Finals.
  • More Diana Taurasi.
  • More Sue Bird, in a mask.
  • A WNBA Finals sweep for the Seattle Storm
Masked Sue Bird, a highlight of the 2018 WNBA season. (photo courtesy of sbnation.com)

Such thrilling on-court performances were matched by off-court political purpose. At the outset of the 2018 season, then-commissioner Lisa Borders launched the “Take a Seat, Take a Stand” initiative, donating $5 from each ticket sale to non-profit organizations that support progressive, women-centric causes. Yet, more important than this league-sanctioned activism was the informal activism of players.

In 2018, clapping back at trolls on Twitter and Instagram is a mundane, and often inane (hey, KD!), activity. However, when professional women basketball players, lacking the privileged status of their male counterparts, use social media to shame and silence misogyny, the action acquires political significance. Sport in the United States remains an institution that preserves and promotes masculine power. As such, women athletes, incrementally allowed into this privileged realm where they are understood not to belong, are expected to exhibit apologetic behavior, showing gratitude for their opportunity to play by shutting up and dribbling in silence (and, often, while looking sexy).

By speaking out, WNBA players disrupt this paradigm. Instead of apologizing, they assert their right to play. By using their voices (or fingers) to combat sexist (and often racist and/or homophobic) trolling, they take up cultural space that they are not supposed to occupy. For instance, A’ja Wilson has used a clever combination of humor and humility to troll trolls, while Skylar Diggins-Smith consistently has called out uninformed critics. In doing so, these players and others advance their own agency, encouraging awareness of the often-overlooked, unconsidered priorities on women, women of color, and queer women.

For all its ills, social media offers WNBA stars the ability to self-define their identities. By controlling their own brands, players escape the expectations of conventional femininity long-imposed on women athletes. In 2018, women basketball players more boldly used social platforms to defy social proscriptions and self-determine what it means to be an athlete, a hooper, a woman, and an American.

It thus is critical not to allow the mundanity of social media to mask the progressive possibilities it provides for women basketball players, especially women of color and queer women athletes who have been misrepresented by popular media because they play a traditionally-masculine sport in a league that has been much-maligned. Social media is more than self-indulgent promotionalism; it also produces important symbolism that is a form of activism.

The subtle but significant activism of WNBA players also extends well beyond the internet. Activism happens every time they take the court. In-game play powerfully represents the capacity of women. Activism also comes from reaction. Most notably, Liz Cambage has not hesitated to express her emotions on the court, showing fierceness and frustration. She also has protested the policing of her emotions, insisting on her right to react as a passionate, and often pissed-off, athlete. In rejecting the strict, gendered expectations of on-court comportment, Cambage and others are not simply asserting their right to be treated as hoopers, regardless of gender, rather, they also are exhibiting their autonomy and, in turn, the autonomy of women, especially women of color, more broadly.

The progressive passion of Liz Cambage. (photo courtesy of si.com)

Activism also occurs when players refuse to take the court, as demonstrated by the Las Vegas Aces. Due to a veritable travel nightmare, the Aces decided to forfeit a scheduled game against the Washington Mystics, citing medical studies that suggested players, suffering from severe sleep deprivation, faced a significantly higher risk of injury.

Their decision inspired a sort of “controversy,” especially since the Aces were on the fringes of the playoff race and, seemingly, should want to endure such sacrifices in order to possibly secure a needed win. The Aces, however, resisted the constructed demands of sports culture. In choosing not to play, they centered their own thoughts, emotions, and feelings, a radical move that was antithetical to the proclaimed “values” and “traditions” of sportsmanship. Yet, such “values” and “traditions” are part of the ideological infrastructure that preserves sport as a patriarchal space. These empty norms do not serve the needs of women athletes or women’s sport. In making their decision, the Aces previewed the possibility an alternative sporting order, one organized around the humanity athletes, women or not, not demands of institutions. The support expressed by opponents, such as Sue Bird, indicate an awareness and appreciation of the significance of the Aces’ stand.

Aces in the airport. (photo courtesy of twitter.com/CarolynSwords)

This ethos also should guide the WNBA Players’ Association (WNBAPA) as they negotiate for a new Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA).

Most likely, the league will weaponize the precarity of the WNBA, using the league’s forever “next-ness” to demand reflexive gratitude from the players for having the opportunity to play professional basketball in the United States. Inequitable salaries and an insufficient share of basketball-related income (BRI) will be defended, cast by officials and owners necessary sacrifices in order to ensure the survival of the league. Then, next time, the players can (maybe) receive larger salaries and an increased share of BRI.

However, as the above examples illustrate, the WNBA – or, more specifically, WNBA players – have moved from NEXT to NOW.

Not coincidentally, it has been WNBA players’ increased willingness to resist the traditional strictures of American sports culture that has situated their sport for sustainability. Throughout 2018, professional women basketball players showed off their ability and asserted their autonomy. CBA negotiations provide an opportunity for WNBA players to force the league to fulfill its name – the Women’s National Basketball Association. The WNBA should be driven by and designed for the women on the court, not the mythical demands of sports culture.  

The rhetoric from the executive of committee of the WNBAPA indicates the promise of actualizing this political project. When announcing that players had elected to opt out of their current contract and enter negotiations for a new deal, Nneka Ogwumike, president of the WNBAPA, wrote in the Players’ Tribune:

To me, opting out means not just believing in ourselves, but going one step further: betting on ourselves. It means being a group of empowered women, in the year 2018, not just feeling fed up with the status quo, but going one step further: rejecting the status quo. And it means taking a stand, not just for the greatest women’s basketball players of today, but going one step further: taking a stand for the greatest women’s basketball players of tomorrow.

For the WNBA in 2019, it is not about what might come NEXT but what can be achieved NOW. NOW communicates the sense of permanence, as well as authority, that the WNBA, by following the examples of its players in 2018, can begin to realize in 2019.

Cat Ariail is an instructor of history at Middle Tennessee State University. She received her Ph.D. from the University of Miami, where she researched issues of race, gender, citizenship, and nationalism in mid-twentieth women’s track and field in the United States and Caribbean. She also cannot wait to celebrate the Atlanta Dream winning the 2019 WNBA title.

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