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Against All Odds, WNBA Reaches 25

Three WNBA players playing basketball, with one, Jordin Canada, taking a shot.
WNBA player Jordin Canada taking a shot. Lorie Shaull/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0)

While the world of sports talk got submerged recently in the mix of NFL draft blather, the first month of the Major League Baseball season and the manufactured drama of drug testing in horse racing, we missed a rather significant milestone.

On Friday night, the WNBA opened for business for its 25th season, a pittance framed in comparison to the history of men’s professional sports in the US, but important nonetheless in the story of American athletics.

That a women’s professional sports league has managed to survive for a quarter of a century against the unrelenting drumbeat of sexism, mixed with a touch of racism aimed at an organization whose athletes are majority Black is nothing short of amazing.

Yet, there they were, 144 women on 12 teams making a way, even thriving, if you will, in cities and towns from coast to coast.

Like the other leagues, the WNBA is an interesting mix of quick and deliberate, instinctual and considered, young and old.

And its story runs the gamut of setback and success. Backed with financial support from the men’s NBA, the league initially had to fight off competition from the American Basketball League.

Once the ABL was vanquished and there was one place for women’s professional basketball, the WNBA then had to deal with establishing its footprint.

The league doubled in size from its inaugural eight franchises to 16 in less than five years.

The rapid expansion proved to be unwise as teams in Charlotte, Cleveland, Houston, Miami, Portland and Sacramento all folded, while franchises in Detroit, Salt Lake City and Orlando relocated, in some cases twice.

When the dust settled, the WNBA lineup locked in on what appears to be a more manageable 12, though there is talk in some circles that the league needs to grow again to encompass burgeoning talent and interest.

Indeed, for some, the WNBA and its players have become something of cultural icons, a perception based in large measure from the way the parties have conducted themselves socially and politically.

Don’t forget that it was WNBA players who took the first steps forward in speaking out against the rash of police-involved shootings of mostly people of color, often at great financial peril given the dramatic pay gap between what men and women make athletically.

The players of the Atlanta Dream took things one step further last summer, rising up against their owner, Republican U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler, and her branding of Black Lives Matter as anti-American.

The Dream players endorsed her Democratic challenger, Rev. Raphael Warnock, and the rest of the league’s players joined suit. Warnock turned back Loeffler in the November election. Soon after, Loeffler sold her share of the franchise.

This summer, the players return to their home courts from the medically-protected Florida wubble of last year with the challenge of proving they deserve respect and attention for their athletic, not political prowess.

With all the WNBA has beaten to this point, you’d be wise not to ignore it or to bet against it.

And that’s how I see it for this week.

Get in touch:

Email: sportsatlarge@gmail.com

Twitter: @SportsAtLarge

Milton Kent hosted the weekly commentary Sports at Large from its creation in 2002 to its finale in July 2013. He has written about sports locally and nationally since 1988, covering the Baltimore Orioles, University of Maryland men's basketball, women's basketball and football, the Washington Wizards, the NBA, men's and women's college basketball and sports media for the Baltimore Sun and AOL Fanhouse. He has covered the World Series, the American and National League Championship Series, the NFL playoffs, the NBA Finals and 17 NCAA men's and women's Final Fours. He currently teaches journalism at Morgan State University.