Much remains uncertain for Breanna Stewart, the former University of Connecticut star and WNBA MVP who, during the pandemic, has been prepping for a return to the Seattle Storm following a year lost to injury.
The WNBA and its players reached an agreement Monday on a shortened season with details still to be finalized.
Amid the postponement, America has over the past month seen an outpouring of powerful protests unimaginable at the outbreak’s onset.
“Our country is fighting two viruses at once,” Stewart said. “The coronavirus, but now we’re also facing up to racism, which has been around for centuries. It’s the virus of racism that is most in my thoughts right now.”
The 25-year-old has an unusual vantage point from which to view race. Stewart is white — and considered one of the best in the history of a sport deeply infused with African-American players and culture. As stay-at-home orders have loosened, she has ventured beyond the confines of her Seattle condominium to speak up in support of racial justice.
This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
I was with an ex-boyfriend once who is black. This was back in college, at UConn. We were on the New Jersey Turnpike. He was driving, I was in the passenger seat, and one of his teammates who is African-American was in the back. Well, we got pulled over. The policeman came right over to the passenger’s side, looked in and said, “Is everything OK?” and when he did that it felt like he was talking just to me. Then he asked for the IDs of the guys I was with, but not mine. And to the whole car he said, “Where are you guys going?”
We were thrown off, because we hadn’t been speeding or doing anything but regular driving, and we asked the officer why we’d been pulled over. The answer was, “Oh, you were following a car too closely.”
Following a car too closely? No way. This is an instance I’ve experienced firsthand, that taught me how people are judged differently. If it were two white guys and me, no way we get pulled over.
The memory is still in the forefront of my mind, and it still makes me mad.
It’s extremely important for white athletes to speak out for racial justice. Black people and the black community have been fighting this for years. To help make real change, white people need to be involved. White people need to stand up and support black communities in all ways, and have it be something that happens not just now, during this period of protest, but an ongoing battle. We’ll have to maintain energy and continue to speak out, continue to focus on something other than ourselves. It’s a must.
It’s not easy, reconciling the way I feel about playing for Team USA, that pride, with the shame I feel about racism that contributes to my own privilege and the oppression of black people. I mean, I’ve represented Team USA since I was 14, at all levels. And when you think of USA, you think of that verse, “The land of the free, home of the brave.” But that verse isn’t really true. It is not really the case for a lot of people. It’s just not.
Wearing that uniform for Team USA, we represent everyone in America and yet, under that umbrella, we are also representing people that are still involved in systemic racism and racial injustices. This is something I’ve thought about for a long time now. I think our country is the best country in the world, you know, but there’s just obviously a lot of things that we don’t do right.
You knew Seattle was going to protest. This is a city where people always try to stick up for what’s right and what we believe in. I wasn’t there when it really got started, but I could hear it. I remember it was a rainy day and since I live downtown, I could hear everything. I could hear the loud voices, the sirens echoing and bouncing off the buildings. The helicopters, out past midnight.
I’ve been listening as much as possible. A lot of Zoom calls with teammates, friends and the league about this. I was on a call with Alicia Garza, co-founder of Black Lives Matter. Got a whole legal pad of notes I’ve taken.
For a whole week I didn’t want to work out. I canceled all of my events and media I was supposed to take part in because, you know, I don’t want to get on my Instagram Live and talk about sneakers. That is not what is important in our lives right now. There are bigger things, and they deserve to be completely in the spotlight.
Will there be a WNBA season this year? We’re going to do our best to make sure it happens, and also make sure we’re able to use our voice and platform to highlight the social issues that need to be fixed at the same time. Will we be taking a knee during the anthem? You bet. I’m trying to get the league to put “Black Lives Matter” on the court we’ll be playing on. Let’s have that on one baseline, and “Say Her Name,” for Breonna Taylor, on the other baseline.
I’ve been to two protests so far, and they’ve both been really energizing, really positive and communal. One was a pretty small gathering at a local park. It was with a whole lot of people from Seattle’s basketball community, organized by Will Conroy, an assistant at Washington, and Jamal Crawford from the NBA. I went with Jewell Loyd, my teammate on the Storm. I needed that. Seattle has been my home for five years now and I just wanted to do what I could to help. I spoke up, along with many others. To be around all of these players gave me comfort, a sense of relief, just to feel that support we have for each other. So, in a really tough time, that was therapy.
If you look at how our world works, it seems like we’ve had racist things happen in the past and then waves of people sticking up for change, and then people kind of go back to their normal lives and things fade. I mean, in 2016, we organized Black Lives Matter protests in the WNBA, and we wore the T-shirts in solidarity, and at first the league was going to fine us just for wearing the T-shirts, because they said it’s not part of our uniform. All that happened. We spoke out then but now we are in 2020 and not much has changed. So, this has to be more than about just wearing a T-shirt. It’s about, how can we create real change this time, real change that actually sticks.