W.N.B.A.’s Seattle Storm Embrace a Role in Social Activism

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

By HOWARD MEGDAL

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SEATTLE — When the three women who make up Force 10 Hoops, the ownership group of the Seattle Storm, first purchased the team a decade ago, they did not see it as only a sports venture.

The co-owners — Lisa Brummel, Ginny Gilder and Dawn Trudeau — constitute one of only two all-female ownership groups in major American sports, and they understood the role that they could play in furthering the progressive causes they believed in.

“I definitely got involved in the ownership group because I saw that this was the intersection of three things that I love: sports, business and social justice,” said Gilder, a two-time United States Olympic rower whose efforts to fight for equality date to her protests as a Yale undergraduate in the 1970s.

Sports teams are typically cautious when they decide to endorse an organization or a cause. But the Storm, who hosted the W.N.B.A. All-Star Game that was won by the West, 130-121, on Saturday, showed their activist bent when they held a rally on Tuesday night for Planned Parenthood, raising $41,790 by donating ticket proceeds.

Teaming with Planned Parenthood, a frequent target of President Trump’s administration and the Republican-controlled Congress, is anything but a cautious choice.

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And as Planned Parenthood’s president, Cecile Richards, pointed out in an email, the Storm and the league speaking up for the organization reflected not only a historic moment, but also personal histories.

“It’s exciting to make sports history with the Storm,” Richards wrote. “This is the first time ever a professional sports team has partnered with Planned Parenthood.”

She added that Trudeau had “relied on Planned Parenthood for birth control years ago,” and that Imani Boyette of the Chicago Sky “relied on Planned Parenthood when she grew up without health insurance.”

The Storm’s owners sought out a sweet spot of consensus, and the success of the event confirmed their read of their own fan base in a city known for its $15 minimum wage. The decision to take advocacy from implicit to explicit came directly from the days after the presidential election last fall.

“For me, this thing with Planned Parenthood really came out of the sense of profound despondence in early November,” Gilder said. “The sense of such utter helplessness. We live in a state where I can’t vote a Republican out of office at the state level. So where do I personally make a difference? And sometimes, giving money just doesn’t feel like it’s enough.”

The decision to hold the Planned Parenthood event grew from this desire to do more, but the owners did not want the players to feel pressured to join. So the idea was discussed at the team’s annual dinner.

“We told them at that dinner that we were planning on doing this, that it was an owner initiative, that they had no responsibility to participate,” said Trudeau, a former longtime executive at Microsoft.

 

But many Storm players wished to participate. The team’s star Breanna Stewart has not shied from advocating causes she believes in, including a protest at Los Angeles International Airport of President Trump’s travel ban and saying recently that the real question is, “Why are you not speaking up?”

Stewart was joined by the longtime Storm star Sue Bird and their teammates Sami Whitcomb and Noelle Quinn in a public service announcement on behalf of Planned Parenthood.

The Storm’s event was not too surprising, however, in a league where social activism has become common. The Liberty and the Minnesota Lynx spoke out about police relationships with minority communities last season. The league’s president, Lisa Borders, frequently weighs in on Twitter about political issues. And the league, in which many stars are gay, has supported the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community through events.

Trudeau sees the effort by the Storm as reflective of that environment.

“Look, we’re citizens, too,” Trudeau said. “It’s like what we’ve seen with athletes in recent years. You’re living in this world. And you’re saying: ‘This isn’t right. What can I do?’ And all of us look at what assets, what tools, are available to us. I want to make a difference.”

The state of the Storm and the league, some argue, represents progress as well. Long before Brummel owned the Storm or held a senior executive role at Microsoft, she was selected by the Dallas Diamonds in the 1981 Women’s Professional Basketball League draft.

“When I was drafted into that league, the leagues were lucky to be in existence for more than two years,” Brummel said. “That was Step No. 1. The idea that not only the league would survive, but you would be an advocate for something was well beyond what was even imaginable. It was just about survival at that time.”

Contrast that with the present: a league in its third decade, and for the Storm an all-female ownership group, a female team president (Alisha Valavanis) and a female head coach (Jenny Boucek).

“Basketball is obviously what people would associate the Seattle Storm with,” Brummel said, “but I think as soon as you go down to the next level, when you look at both the business expansion things we’ve done and the social justice things, people expect us to do something like this.”

Brummel pointed out other efforts such as hosting the Pacific-12 Conference basketball tournament and a men’s pro-am league game, and partnerships with other women’s sports organizations at the pro and college level, including the Seattle Reign of the National Women’s Soccer League.

Yet all three owners stressed the need for balance between basketball and advocacy. The Planned Parenthood rally was expected to be the exception, not the rule. The primary goal of the Storm is to win championships.

But after spending Tuesday night surrounded by “people who share my values and our values,” as Gilder said, the Storm’s owners do not sound ready to leave the fight.

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