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How the Most Socially Progressive Pro League Got That Way

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Today, lesbian players and their families are embraced by the league and its fans, and the W.N.B.A. amplifies progressive conversations around gender and sexuality. After the Storm won the championship this month, ESPN showed Sue Bird, Seattle’s star point guard, hugging and kissing her girlfriend, the U.S. women’s soccer star Megan Rapinoe.

Clarendon, who identifies as nonbinary, compelled an inclusive shift this summer when the ESPN play-by-play announcer Ryan Ruocco used the correct pronouns when describing Clarendon’s baskets and rebounds. For Clarendon, it’s a natural evolution of how basketball has always allowed them to challenge gender norms.

“As someone who’s realizing that I’ve always been nonbinary, it’s been hard to find the words and the language and the space to fully be that,” Clarendon said. “I realized how much basketball saved me, and gave me that without me necessarily realizing it. It allowed me to be so queer.”

The vibe of challenging norms blossomed in other ways.

Before Colin Kaepernick first took a knee during the national anthem in 2016, members of the Lynx, then the reigning champions, sought to peacefully advocate social change.

Recent police killings weighed heavily on Augustus and her teammates.

Alton Sterling was killed by the police outside a Baton Rouge, La., convenience store Augustus frequented as a child. A police officer in suburban St. Paul, Minn., killed Philando Castile during a traffic stop. While visiting her in Minnesota, Augustus’s father had been pulled over by the police. He could have been killed like Castile, she thought.

The team and coaching staff convened, deliberating how best to uniformly convey their feelings. They settled on wearing black warm-up shirts that read, “Change starts with us — Justice & Accountability” on the front. The back featured the Dallas police shield, in recognition of several police officers who had recently been killed; the names of Sterling and Castile; and the phrase “Black Lives Matter.”

Four off-duty Minneapolis police officers working security at the arena walked off the job.

The moment also created a swell of unity throughout the league. Some players like Bass, following the lead of her Mercury teammate Kelsey Bone, began to kneel during the national anthem. The Mercury, Fever and Liberty wore similar shirts. The league initially fined the teams and players, then rescinded the penalties less than a week later after an outcry from players and fans.

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