Basketball legend Sue Bird on how the WNBA became a force for social change
As one of the greatest collegiate, professional, and Olympic basketball players of all time, Sue Bird has seen it all on a hardwood court. But the past few years have brought several unique challenges off the court—a global pandemic, social justice battles, and a fight for a new WNBA collective bargaining agreement—that Bird and her fellow hoopers have risen to meet.
Speaking onstage Tuesday at Fortune’s Most Powerful Women Summit in Washington, D.C., Bird reflected on those challenges, which included having to play the entire 2020 WNBA season in a quarantined bubble in Florida—or as Bird called it, a “Wubble”—akin to the NBA’s own bubble in Disney World.
At a time of social upheaval in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, Bird and the WNBA sisterhood took a bold stance that cemented their status as America’s most progressive sports league. They repeatedly protested against police violence toward the Black community—even dedicating their entire 2020 season to Breonna Taylor—and took a stand against one of their own team owners, former U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler, for her criticism of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Bird said the experiences of last season showed her the power that WNBA players can have “when we unify our voice” and act collectively as one.
“We don’t necessarily have the individual platforms to make a message as big as we want to—but when 144 of us came together, some might say we helped flip a Senate seat,” she said, referring to Loeffler’s defeat in the Senate race. “We already knew that about our league, but it just hammered it home—and now we’ll never do anything if we’re not in lockstep.”
Bird also reflected on the WNBA’s new collective bargaining agreement, which saw the league’s players secure a sizable raise in their salaries and benefits including a bolstered maternity leave package, childcare stipends, and family-planning reimbursements for expenses related to adoption, surrogacy, and fertility treatments. She described the new agreement as “a big win” for both the WNBA’s players and the greater conversation around women’s workplace benefits.
“It’s time that these conversations are more public so they become the norm,” Bird said. “You don’t hear about them when you turn on ESPN; you don’t hear about it when you turn on CNN. I think that’s what’s amazing about the WNBA doing this: We’re going to be on TV, and it’s going to get talked about…And now it can encourage other people to level that playing field.”
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