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More Than a T-Shirt: Athletics and Activism

Athletics and Activism
  • Character
  • Core Values
  • Female Leadership
  • Leadership
  • Life Lessons
Nan Hambrose

Ask any athlete and they will be able to tell you, maybe even show you, their favorite t-shirt.

It might be the one they wore when they played their very best and now wear it for every game looking for the same results. It may be a souvenir from a big tournament. It could be a shirt handed down from a beloved teammate when they graduated or a sibling after their playing days had ended. We all have one or maybe two. I have two, one from the first time I played in the NCAA tournament and one from the last time. I am not sure why I hold onto them after 27 years, but I do.

While my t-shirts are important to me they weren’t impactful like those worn recently by female athletes. In July of 2016, four members of the Women’s National Basketball Association’s (WNBA) Minnesota Lynx appeared on the podium at a press conference to discuss police brutality. This would be just a month before Colin Kaepernick took his knee during the anthem. The four women knowingly violated league policy by wearing black t-shirts. Emblazoned across their chests were the words, “Change Starts with Us: Justice & Accountability.”  

Athletes have long been expected to entertain and entertain only. Never was that more clearly articulated than when Fox News host, Laura Ingram, told Lebron James to, “shut up and dribble.” Well thankfully for all of us our athletes have now begun to fulfill their responsibilities as role models better than ever before, by wearing very powerful t-shirts.

No group has been more active in rallying support for a variety of social justice issues than the players in the WNBA. During a recent fall season, their shirts spoke volumes: Say Her Name, Black Lives Matter, Arrest the Cops Who Killed Breonna Taylor, Vote, Vote Warnock were among the statements they made before, during, and after their games by way of their t-shirts. The most notable of their unified statements came in summer while competing in the WNBA bubble. In protest of the shooting of Jacob Blake in late August of 2020, the Washington Mystics wore t-shirts that spelled out his name. On the back of the shirts were painted markings representing the seven bullets fired into Blake’s back by police. The team took the court that night for the national anthem, got on one knee locked arms, and when the anthem concluded they left the arena. No one played that night in the WNBA. Professional sports teams united in this protest and the NBA schedule fell silent as well.  

In the later weeks of the WNBA season players across the league could be seen wearing shirts that would have a lasting impact. Two words, “Vote Warnock”, would change the tides in a key election for a U.S. Senate seat in Georgia.  Warnock was the democratic candidate in a runoff election against Kelly Loeffler, the republican hoping to keep her seat in the Senate. Loeffler had been appointed by the governor of Georgia when the previous Senator had stepped down prior to his term ending.  

Loeffler, who was part owner of the WNBA Atlanta Dream and has opposed the efforts of the Black Lives Matter movement, would eventually fall victim to the power of a t-shirt. WNBA and NBA players alike canvassed for Warnock and brought out the vote. Professional athletes from most major sports could be found wearing the game-changing shirt in the weeks leading up to the run-off. In early January, Loeffler lost the run-off election to Warnock, giving Georgia its first Black Senator. In February the Atlanta Dream was sold and Loeffler was no longer part-owner of the team that helped oust her from the U.S. Senate. I am thinking those shirts may win the Social Justice Statement of the Year Award.

Recently WNBA players, like all of us, watched as Georgia passed new voting laws. Laws that are viewed by many as tactics to suppress voters and efforts to keep Blacks from turning out in the record numbers that they did in 2020. I promise you the WNBA has a t-shirt just waiting to be printed to address this issue as well as other social justice issues.

Husky student-athletes are encouraged to develop and demonstrate character and leadership in all that they do. I am certain you will recognize that when you see our students in the areas of training and competition through both their attitude and their attire.

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