Rookie Satou Sabally soaks it all in as WNBA's future face of social justice work

It was a Zoom call that proved one of the more inspirational moments for Dallas Wings rookie Satou Sabally. The youngest member of the WNBA Players Association’s Social Justice Council couldn’t contain her excitement when they decided to chat with Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw.

“I studied her a lot so I had a fangirl moment just talking to her, being able to listen especially,” an enthusiastic Sabally said during a separate Zoom call with Yahoo Sports. “So that was just amazing.”

Crenshaw is a professor and lawyer who in 1989 termed the phrase “intersectionality,” and in 2014 founded “Say Her Name” through the African American Policy Forum (AAPF). The WNBA and the players’ Social Justice Council are honoring it through the 2020 season and each week highlight a different Black woman who was the victim of police violence.

“Not everyone is obviously aware of hundreds of women who have been murdered by the police,” Sabally, 22, said. “And that’s a problem. And that’s what we want to highlight this year.”

Sabally is the Wings’ No. 2 overall draft pick out of Oregon and the league’s up-and-coming leader in the social justice movement. The 6-foot-4 forward said the council was a lot to take on given she’s a first-year player.

Her focus right now is on soaking it all in and staying educated. That’s what helped fuel her passion for politics, voting, justice and law in the first place.

Sabally’s passion stems from mom, circumstance

Sabally credits her passion to her upbringing and natural character. She is the daughter of a Gambian father, Jerreh, and German mother, Heike, and spent her childhood living around the world. Born in New York City, she moved to the Republic of The Gambia in West Africa at around 2 years old. They moved again to Berlin when she entered first grade.

“As a mixed child from a German and an African, I experienced a lot of different cultures,” Sabally told Yahoo Sports. “I experienced a lot of stereotyping [and] bias in my life. I grew up in Germany, which is primarily white, so I think throughout my life that has really shaped me.

“And I have a mom who has a really big sense for moral values in equality and who would always talk to me about so many things. I think that’s instilled in me now.”

At Oregon she studied crime, law and society as part of a general social science major with a minor in legal studies. The first-generation college student completed her courses last month to graduate in three years with honors. She was outspoken on justice issues in school, but didn’t intend to jump into a larger role so quickly.

“Somehow I always slip into this position,” she said laughing. “But without me even knowing, I’m talking again about things that interest me a lot.”

She counted law, justice and the structures of it all in that. It’s what led to her investment in voting rights, a prominent focus of the council.

 Satou Sabally of the Dallas Wings
Satou Sabally and the Dallas Wings are long shots for the playoffs, but their talent and scoring ability will only keep rising next season. (Photo by Douglas P. DeFelice/Getty Images)

Learning about voter suppression in 2016 a turning point

Last month, Sabally mailed in her ballot and voted for the first time.

“It’s cool. You seem like a little, little piece that is important and valid,” she told Yahoo Sports. “It’s just important to form the tip of the iceberg.”

She never voted in Germany and hadn’t registered in time for the 2016 presidential election. But it was that day, like for so many others, that drove her voice after a classmate insisted Donald Trump would win. Sabally didn’t believe it would happen, then it did.

“And then I had to start looking up everything. I looked up everything,” Sabally told Yahoo Sports. “Because I was like, there’s no way. And I started understanding voter suppression. I started understanding, OK, well, these people are excluded from voting just even because of their names. Because they have been in prison before. And that can’t be. You’ve been in prison, excluded from society, and then you come back and you’ve done your time. And you’re still not a part of the society.

She said she questioned how people could be excluded in such ways even after amendments were passed intended to protect their rights.

“That really results from racist structures in oppression that we can’t have any more,” Sabally said. “So I really even focused more on the legal side in terms of voter suppression and that’s what got me into that. Because I thought it was just crazy. That was the first time I started realizing, like, wow, how can this be? And OK, how can these people not be able to do what other people can, which is voting?

“That’s kind of what got me into it. It was the starting point and then everything just kind of got rolling.”

Say Her Name, voting focus of initiatives

The council virtually speaks with the families of victims to hear their stories, challenges and goals and learn talking points with assistance from the AAPF.

“It really is a trickle down effect I would say of the Social Justice Council and their advisers,” Sabally said. “We have a lot of people working in the background and helping us and pushing that information to the player reps and that information comes then to the players.”

From the very first TV break of the season, players have answered questions from ESPN’s Holly Rowe — the only media member in the “wubble” – by directing it to women they’re highlighting.

Sabally said voting will likely be a bigger focus for the players in the second half of the season. They’ll have to get creative in how they use their platforms and no plans are finalized, she said. If it were a normal season, teams could hold registration drives during autograph sessions.

“It’s really difficult because we’re also so far away from our fans except in this virtual reality that we’re all living right now,” she said.

They’ve already spoken with Stacey Abrams of Fair Fight and took a calculated stand in the Georgia senatorial race involving Atlanta Dream co-owner Kelly Loeffler.

The young star is quick to add that she has more to learn. That’s what the council, the Zoom calls and the research have been about. She is taking everything in and watching fellow council members Layshia Clarendon, Sydney Colson, Breanna Stewart, Tierra Ruffin-Pratt and A’ja Wilson.

For Sabally, the action part will come later.

What comes next for Sabally?

The Wings (7-13) are long shots for the WNBA title, though they will likely clinch the eighth and final playoff spot this week. Sabally, who is averaging 13.9 points, 7.8 rebounds and 2.5 assists per game, missed five games in the middle of August due to back issues and told Yahoo Sports she’s not 100 percent, but it’s “nothing worrisome.”

“When I’m sitting on the sideline the game really seems slowed down so it’s good to see it from the outside too,” she said. “[I’m] just staying positive and trying to get everything that I can from just soaking it in. Watching from the sideline is what I can do right now, so I’m doing it.”

Dallas is the youngest team in the WNBA, beating out the New York Liberty by a decimal point. It’s a team built to contend in a few years with second-year star Arike Ogunbowale (21.9 PPG), the league’s leading scorer and a future MVP candidate.

After the season ends, Sabally will play in Turkey. She’ll continue thinking about what else comes next, like possibly learning more of the legal side and continuing a formal education in it. Watching her peers on the justice council has shown her it’s possible to dribble, drive and kick-out meaningful messages.

“Now actually being around those people and seeing what they’re doing, how they’re moving and that I could just copy what they’re doing it just shows me that I can do the same things, too,” Sabally said. “A lot of times it’s like, ‘You should always focus on basketball. It’ll make you better.’ But I don’t think so because those are great players, those are MVPs who are doing the same thing. It’s great.”

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