Into the WNBA Bubble
Trymaine Lee: "Say her name." When the WNBA, the Women's National Baseball Association, begins its season later this month in the so-called "bubble" in Florida without fans in the seats, those words, "say her name," will be on the back of their Nike warm-up shirts to honor Breonna Taylor and countless other women victims of police brutality and racial violence. On the front of those shirts and also on the court itself will be the words "Black lives matter." The WNBA and the players' union are dedicating this season, this strange, shortened, in-isolation season to social justice.
Gabby Williams: It was the last thing on my mind, was playing basketball, 'cause we're all people first.
Lee: I'm Trymaine Lee, and this is Into America. Pro athletes across all sports are raising their voices in this moment. In the WNBA, superstar Maya Moore is sitting out a second season to fight for prison reform after helping to free a man named Jonathan Irons.
Archival Recording: Who was 18 when he was convicted and given a 50-year sentence for burglary and assault. This 4th of July weekend, he is a free man. (CHEERING)
Lee: Today, we go into the basketball bubble with another star in the WNBA, Gabby Williams, who is making her presence and her activism felt on the court and off.
Williams: To a lot of people, we're just entertainment. But now you have to listen to us speak. I have to live. We experience this every day.
Lee: Gabby Williams is a power forward for the Chicago Sky. She was a college basketball star for Connecticut, picked fourth in the 2018 draft. She's French American. And like many women players, she competes overseas in the offseason. When I spoke to her, she'd just arrived in Florida, the single site where all 12 teams, all the players will train, live, and play for the next three or four months. Gabby Williams, thank you so much for joining us. We really appreciate it.
Williams: Yeah, of course. Thanks for having me.
Lee: So, Gabby, you've been all around the world, winning championships, big courts. And now, you're in the bubble. (LAUGHTER) What is the bubble like? You gotta break this down for us.
Williams: Well, it's not as much of a bubble as I thought it was. I'm in the villas. I'm living with Courtney Vandersloot, Allie Quigley, and Stefanie Dolson. And we have neighbors that aren't WNBA players.
Lee: Just people that are just there.
Williams: Yeah. So there's people here, which I thought was not part of the agreement. When we walked to, like, go pick up our food, we saw people in their garage that aren't a part of the league. So that's a little concerning. But to be honest, I mean, it's nice. It's a nice campus. The villa is really nice. I've seen some videos going around on Twitter of issues people are having with the rooms like bugs and things like that, but ours has been pretty good.
Lee: How concerned are you? You had privacy concerns obviously. But then we're in the midst of a pandemic. And then you have accommodation issues. Is this any way to play? I mean, are you already feeling the weight? Is it adding to the stress?
Williams: It is. It is, and I'm not sure this is gonna fly. Because if we have neighbors, especially the condition that Florida is in, that's a good chance someone is gonna catch it. And it's gonna spread fast with the kind of quarters that we're in. So, yeah, I mean, it makes me think that we're putting our season at risk.
Lee: Obviously, a lot of folks want you guys to get out there and play. But do you think a lot of thought when into the actual planning of how this will actually work?
Williams: A lot of it is, "We'll figure it out as we go." And I think a lot of it was rushed because, you know, we have more of a deadline than the NBA players since we all go overseas. So I think it was rushed.
Lee: We reached out to the WNBA. They told us that, quote, "Stringent health and safety protocols have been adopted to keep the players as safe as possible and that in areas of the campus that are not exclusive to the WNBA," quoting here again, "physical distancing of over 10 feet is readily available."
Regarding player complaints about the condition of the rooms, the league told the Hartford Courant newspaper it is working to address issues players have raised about one of the housing locations and moving some players to other accommodations. The rest of my conversation with Gabby was all about playing sports while also pushing hard for social justice.
So obviously we are in the midst of a pandemic right now. But for a lot of people, the other issue that is pushing into our lives, and disrupting folks, and emboldening some folks is what we're seeing in terms of the rallying for Black lives in America.
And we've seen athletes responding in different ways. And I know you've been pretty vocal. Is it a mixed feeling that it took the death of George Floyd and protests for the leagues, not just the WNBA, but to finally really allow players who are connected to these communities and connected to these issues to really stand up?
Williams: It's a combination of things. Black Lives Matter movement is not something that just came in May. You know, it's been around for so many years. But I think it's gained so much movement, people are just realizing that we haven't made the change that we thought we have. We aren't in the state that we thought we were.
And I think the league realizes that. I think the league sees some of the things that they messed up with in the past regarding these things. And I think us as players, we made it clear that we were not coming to this bubble unless we knew the league had our back with racial justice.
Lee: Does it feel like now they actually have your back, that without risking your career, your reputation you can stand up and say what they need to say?
Williams: I personally feel confident enough to say whatever I need to say, to do whatever I need to do on the court. And I don't think my job is at risk or that I'll be fined. And if I do, that's something that will happen, and I hope it doesn't. But I do feel comfortable speaking exactly how I feel and doing exactly what I want to do.
Lee: What's it been like in the locker room with your colleagues, friends, teammates having these conversations and the pressure knowing that there are a lot of people who just want to see athletes, especially their star athletes, just entertain us, right, just dribble?
Williams: To be honest, it's not on our mind. This is traumatizing. This is traumatizing for us as a community. And also now being in this bubble, this is gonna be really hard on our mental health and how we are as people. And there's been moments where where I've just sat there and just been like, "I hate this. I hate being this. I hate seeing this. I just want out," you know?
And that's tough, but I've been thankful to have my teammates to rely on and to lean on. And I think we're just focused on checking on each other, making sure we're listening to each other's ideas, to each other's concerns. You know, we have to take care of ourselves before we can take care of the rest of the community.
Lee: Do you think that white fans especially are ready to have this conversation? Because now, they can't just say, "We want to see 'em run fast, jump high." You have to listen to what we have to say. Are they ready?
Williams: I don't know, but I think that's the thing, is we can't be sitting around and waiting for them to be ready anymore. That's why we are in this condition in 2020, 'cause we've just sitted around and just thought that they weren't, just thought that, "Well, we don't want to make them uncomfortable."
And now, we're realizing, like, "Okay, we have to have this change now. So they're gonna have to be uncomfortable. We have to force it on them." I think we have a lot of allies as well with our fan base, but it's just something that we have to get people ready for. It doesn't matter if they are or not. It's happening.
Lee: When you're talking with your white teammates, or opponents, or just colleagues, what's it been like trying to get them to understand what's happening here?
Williams: I think in the league for the WNBA, I've never felt uncomfortable talking to a white teammate about this. And I think they've always felt comfortable coming to me with questions or concerns. And especially on my team in particular, I feel like we're just so bonded and it is such a safe space.
I think a part of it has to do with the WNBA also being a lot of LGBTQ. And so we've faced a lot of discriminations as a whole league, you know, as well as the misogyny that we face. It's not so hard for them to get it or for them to have our backs on this as it would with an NFL team.
Lee: And that brings me to this idea of coaching, and owners, and general managers, and front office folks in the professional leagues. Have you seen the WNBA make a good faith effort to, like, actually hire more Black coaches--
Lee: --and executives? Nah?
Williams: No. And I think you can just go down the list and you'll see. (LAUGH) I mean, we in Chicago, we're one of two Black coaches in the league, head coaches. Yeah. I know we have a Black majority owner, (UNINTEL), who's amazing. And our owners have had our backs. But, yeah, the WNBA, I don't see enough Black faces in power.
Lee: How does the league respond? Like, when you put that question, saying, "You know, we need more representation in, you know, coaching and executives," what's their response?
Williams: I think they're just kind of opening their eyes to it. So we'll have to see. It's just a matter of keeping the conversation going and making sure they know how much this matters to us and how important it is to have this representation and to feel like someone has our back. So it's just a conversation that we have to keep pushing forward.
Lee: So, Gabby, we've heard about this historic partnership between the league and the players and players' union to be more engaged and active with social justice issues. What does that actually look like? Like, what will the fans see from this?
Williams: It's giving us an opportunity to truly say what we want to say directly to the league, directly to the source versus just amongst ourselves or to our communities. And it's making change from the ground up. So I think it's gonna be us hiring more Black coaches, having more people in the front office, things like that, and keeping the conversation going.
Lee: We'll be right back.
Lee: When you think about the pandemic and how it's impacted Black folks disproportionately and then you think about the ongoing police violence, do you ever think to yourself, like, "Maybe we shouldn't be playing basketball"? Do you ever consider that?
Williams: Yeah. So I've had that thought. I think we've all had that thought. It just doesn't feel right. Especially in that moment at the beginning right after George Floyd, when the protests first began, it was the last thing on my mind, was playing basketball 'cause we're people first.
To a lot of people we're just entertainment. But now you have to listen to us speak. And I have to live. My little brothers have to live. We experience this every day when we step off of the court, even when we're on the court. There was definitely that moment. I wanted to take care of myself and my community first. I realize, you know, how powerful could it be with all these Black women in the bubble, and I started to think, "Okay, that could be really powerful if we did something as a collective."
Lee: When you talk about Black women operating as a collective, in our society, you know, Black women have had to carry the weight not just for our communities. You think about politics, Democratic party. You think about the front lines of protests, often filled with women. But often we forget their names.
And obviously we know the impact of police violence on Black men. But the idea of "say her name," and Breonna Taylor, and Sandra Bland, and so many women that we've never heard of, what does it feel for you as a Black woman to have this platform and be surrounded by other strong Black women especially, and allies, but Black women in particular, standing up to remind us that Black women too bear the brunt of a lot of the violence as well?
Williams: Right. Like Malcolm X said, you know, the most underappreciated person in the country is the Black woman. And I think it's all derived from this narrative of the strong Black woman, which we often wear as like a cape or like a superhero costume. You know, "Oh, she's a strong Black woman, so she can handle whatever we throw at her."
So we've never taken care of our strong Black women 'cause they've been able to just handle it as we've been taught. It's time that we take care of our Black women. And us taking care of each other and letting ourselves be vulnerable right now is gonna make us even stronger and more effective.
Lee: How easy or how hard is it to be vulnerable, and self-care, and take the time for yourselves when so often you have to stand up tall for everyone?
Williams: It is tough because mental health, it's not an issue that's talked about a lot in the Black community, which I think was oppressed upon us. But, yeah, we've always been taught that something is wrong with us or not right with us. But now, I think we're realizing, like, look, we just need to feel okay. We just need to be okay. And if we feel better, then we'll be able to help the people around us more, which is our ultimate goal.
Lee: What does that actually look like in practice? For you, is it mediating? Like, what is your thing With all the other stresses and balancing being a world class athlete and a teammate, what does the self-care look like?
Williams: For myself, yeah, I do meditate. But also, it's traumatizing to look at all these images of people who look like you or look like your brother or your dad or whatever it is being killed, or harassed, or arrested. So I try to focus on the positive, like, "Okay, look. We made change here. We changed this reform. We changed this policy. We got this person out of office." Good is coming out, and change is happening. So I try to focus on that, and that makes me feel good. And I'm happy. I mean, everyone is fighting for people who look like me. And it gives me hope for the future, like, things are going to get better.
Lee: Moving forward, what does the activism look like? Because you're about to, you know, get back into basketball, right? So how do you keep the pressure on? How do you continue to be a part of the movement when you actually have a job to do?
Williams: Yeah. I mean, (UNINTEL) utilizing our platforms. That's never gonna change, I think. You know, we know what we want to talk about. If you want to talk about basketball, too bad. We're talkin' about this. I'm trying to go beyond the performative. I think it is important to have them, and I think it's good to have our message shown.
But this year, I think we're all planning to play for charities of our choice, maybe get the league to match it. I still work with my people back in Chicago with the Obama Foundation and news programs there. But I'm trying to see what we can do beyond the performative, beyond just the T-shirts, you know? What kind of change can we all do? What kind of change can we all literally just play for?
Lee: I want to ask you. So you have arrived at this moment where you feel like, you know, you're fully realized, you're committed and dedicated to the cause and to yourself, making sure that you're balanced. But going back, did you always have these impulses? Or was it like a gradual growth to who you are right now?
Williams: No, I've always been like this. Yeah. I have always been very, very outspoken. At UConn, it was a little bit difficult. I remember once it was Black History Month, and I was like, "Oh, we should educate people on what the Black Lives Matter movement is." I think this was around the time Eric Garner had passed.
And so I put together some videos with the team just teaching people on Black history, Black women history. And a lot of fans were really upset of what we did. You know, "all lives matter" and that, blah, blah, blah. And within my team and within our staff, I felt very safe. I felt like I could do whatever I want, but I realized the university was not gonna have my back.
So I did have to tone it down a bit. But, no, I've always been very outspoken, always for the cause, always very passionate about it, and very much I don't care if you're not a fan of me anymore. I don't care if I lose you as a fan. This is the most important thing to me.
Lee: You've played overseas. What's your sense of how the Black Lives Matter movement, or the Movement for Black Lives and all the protests, and all the push for equality, how is that playing overseas? We've seen some of the big crowds. Do you have friends or family over there that you've been talking to?
Williams: Yeah. Well, yeah. I'm half-French, so my family's in France. And my mother's actually white, and her cousins were white, but they all also have mixed kids as well. And I think this has really opened their eyes to the racism in France, and they're realizing the lack of people to look up to who don't look like them in France and how limited that is.
Lee: What has it been like engaging with white family on this issue who have always loved you but may not have totally understood your experience as a Black woman?
Williams: My mom has been incredible as far as listening. And she's doing the most she can to educate herself, and she understands that just because, you know, she is white, her kids are gonna be treated much differently. And she understands that she has to learn this.
You know, this isn't something that she'll ever experience. My mom used to work a lot of basketball tournaments, and she received counterfeit money sometimes. And a couple weeks right after George Floyd, my little brother used a counterfeit bill that she had no idea was counterfeit.
And my mom just realized, like, my brother was lucky. He was lucky. And it's those experiences that she doesn't think about all the time that we think about that she's kind of having to just change the way she thinks, just like everyone else needs to.
Lee: When you think about where we are now and the collective, you know, cross-cultural movement that has been building, do you think that things will actually change?
Williams: I do. I really do this time. Seeing the monuments come down, to change the name of the Redskins, I think just as a collective we are realizing that this country is not what we thought it was and it never has been. So I do feel hopeful because I'm seeing people go to the problem. I'm seeing less things that are just performative. And I'm seeing people understand the root and the history, that this isn't new, that this is calculated and it has been calculated for centuries. And we're realizing we have to go to the infrastructure to change it.
Lee: Gabby Williams, thank you so much for your time. I know you're busy, you're in the bubble. But you found time for us, and you are certainly more than an athlete, right? So thank you so much for your time.
Williams: Thank you so much for having me.
Lee: And a final note. Earlier this week, the WNBA disclosed that seven out of 137 players tested positive for the coronavirus. Those players will stay in isolation until it's medically safe to return to the game. Into America is produced by Isabel Angel, Allison Bailey, Aaron Dalton, Max Jacobs, Barbara Raab, Claire Tighe, Aisha Turner, and Preeti Varathan. Original music by Hannis Brown. Our executive producer is Ellen Frankman. Steve Lickteig is executive producer of audio. I'm Trymaine Lee. We'll be back tomorrow.