The work the New York Liberty do to support social justice never stopped after 2016.
That stand by players, who were initially fined for wearing pre-game T-shirts supporting Black Lives Matter, developed into an annual Comm-UNITY Day game in July or August centered on the players’ activism passions.
This year, given the unique circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic and the nation’s current reckoning over race and injustice, the Liberty continued that work with a virtual conversation for the 155-year anniversary of Juneteenth.
The conversation about freedom, justice, equality featured Liberty point guard Layshia Clarendon and Brooklyn Nets forward Garrett Temple on the panel. They discussed athletes’ responsibility regarding the movement for racial justice and returning to work during the pandemic, which looks very different for the NBA and the WNBA.
“Kyrie [Irving] could play or not and people are going to listen to what he says,” Clarendon said. “But our strength [in the WNBA] is in numbers.”
Clarendon, Temple compare athlete responsibility
The NBA and the WNBA are each planning to play next month in Florida after the COVID-19 pandemic forced sports to go on pause. Players in both leagues were on a call hosted by Nets star Kyrie Irving to discuss concerns. It focused on what it means to come back in the current climate as predominantly black leagues and potential distractions from the movement.
Temple said he sees that side of sitting out to focus on social justice, but believes being in Orlando is “an amazing opportunity.” Players are asking what can be done at the Disney World site, ranging from putting Black Lives Matter on the courts to reading PSAs on the broadcast during timeouts.
“Just to make sure that narrative continues to get pushed but also to do our jobs playing as black men,” said Temple, who is studying for the LSAT to potentially be a prosecutor or governor. “We have an obligation to be the voice for the voiceless.”
The WNBA is in a slightly different situation and less of a distraction, Clarendon said, because women’s sports — all of women’s sports, combined — make up 4 percent of media coverage. Being at IMG Academy in a 22-game single-site season provides the players more attention for their previous work in social justice.
“We are the people who have been doing this work the whole time who don’t always get recognition or the credit for it,” said Clarendon, citing the league being ahead of kneeling for the anthem in 2016.
“We are those black women that you should be following,” she said. “We are the black women that should be centered and followed in this moment.
“When these black women get back on the TV are you going to be supporting the W? Are you going to be watching? Are you going to be supporting us and the work that we’ve done?”
Clarendon said the players “refuse to just be the black bodies that entertain you” and are also focused on how to continue the narrative, from court design to continuing media blackouts like Washington Mystics’ star Natasha Cloud did last June.
Clarendon: Police aren’t equipped to handle issues
Temple said his brother has been pulled over and hand-cuffed and he has friends who’ve have gone through similar situations to George Floyd.
“Seeing it so many times, seeing friends go through it, it makes you feel as if you’ve been through it yourself,” Temple said. “But it still breaks my heart. You can see so many things happen. And the question is, ‘why now?’”
He supports defunding the police, and Clarendon agreed. She wants there to be more education around it and put it in basketball terms.
“They can’t dribble and we’re asking them to be the point guard,” she said, referencing the fact police officer’s aren’t trained in handling such issues as mental health, substance abuse and de-escalation.
Both try and buy from black-owned businesses, even if it’s difficult, and urged education around voting and voting rights such as LeBron James and Skylar Diggins-Smith are doing with “More Than a Vote.”
Liberty celebrate Juneteenth as part of ongoing education
Juneteenth commemorates the end of slavery in the United States, but has seldom been observed by the masses. Few learn about it in school, including Liberty COO Keia Clarke, a four-year starter at Canisius College in the early 2000s.
“I am African American and I didn’t even know about Juneteenth until I went away to school,” Clarke told Yahoo Sports. “I went to school in Buffalo, New York, and just stumbled on a festival. It was new for me kind of in my early adulthood to learn that this day existed and what it really meant.”
The annual holiday has seen heightened awareness this month following the killing of George Floyd by police and the weeks of protests that have followed.
“Without professional sports, without concerts, without even the mundane commute to and from work it was a heightened level of attention for sure,” said Clarke, who worked in marketing in 2016. She’s been with the team for a decade.
Clarke said it “only made since to begin to engage” around the holiday given the Liberty’s UNITY platform. The team has also participated in Juneteenth parades in White Plains, New York. And she hopes the Liberty providing the platform, which is available to view on YouTube, will not only show the franchise listens to its players and what they value, but also offers a branch of understanding for fans.
“What you learn from your favorite team could provoke a young person or even an adult to lean into it,” she said. “I’ll even venture to say, initiatives like this are meant to be celebratory to a certain extent because we’re sports and entertainment. These things should be fun and they should be light, but our audience is diverse so it’s also an educational point.
“It’s a teachable moment even for the non-black fans who now have an opportunity to learn about something they may not know a whole lot about just for understanding sake and for us to get along better.”
Clarke said moving forward the organization is looking at how to continue their action at the single-site WNBA season in Florida that’s scheduled to start late next month.
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