On the topic of the WNBA’s season dedicated to social justice, Sky forward Gabby Williams was clear in her media day presser: Awareness matters, but must be followed by action.

“I think it’s great to have ‘Black Lives Matter’ written on the court, Breonna Taylor’s name, and all these things need to be shown. But they need to go beyond just awareness. It needs to go beyond performatives,” Williams said. “And us as a team, we all wanted to do something that felt personal and felt like we were taking action.”

Hours before its second game of the season, the Sky announced an initiative titled #SkyTakesAction. In partnership with former Bears linebacker and Athletes for Justice founder Sam Acho, Sky players will rally to donate funds to Chicago-based community organizations based on game performance: $10 for every point scored, $100 for every win, and $50 for every loss. Pregame warmup outfits designed to promote the initiative will raise awareness, as will custom auction items sold off by members of the team. Top donors will be spotlighted on Sky social media accounts, and receive a personal phone call from members of the team.

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Donations will be distributed to By the Hand Club for Kids, Black Youth Project 100 (BYP100), The Movement for Black Lives (M4BL), Firehouse Community Arts Center of Chicago, and Future Ties. For those doing the math at home, the Sky’s 88-86 season-opening win over the Las Vegas Aces raised $980.

 

“A lot of Zoom calls, a lot of Zoom calls,” Williams said with a laugh on how the initiative came together, adding that the deliberation process was collaborative and “organic.” The team focused on grassroots, minority-led and Black-led organizations that often want for funding, and align with the Sky’s values surrounding community empowerment. By the Hand, Future Ties and Firehouse provide after-school programming for under-resourced communities. BYP100 (which focuses on Black queer and trans representation) and M4BL seek to mobilize, educate and achieve justice for Black people through activism. Those interested and able can chip in here.

“We can't physically be there for these organizations but we want to teach Chicago fans, Chicago residents and hopefully inspire other professional sports teams to match our donations and educate ourselves on these organizations,” Williams said. “We want this to have longevity and to gain traction. We don't want this to be just a transactional thing where we send money and that's it.”

While bubbled at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., the Sky, like all WNBA teams, will also play with Breonna Taylor’s name across the backs of their jerseys. Games will be played after 26-second moments of silence honoring Taylor, who was killed by Louisville police in March, and other victims of police brutality and racial violence. “Black Lives Matter” appears on both courts that will host games in the Feld Entertainment Center, and players have been intentional directing media attention back to calling for justice for Taylor and others. It’s in line for a league that has been on the forefront of athlete advocacy for years.

 

And, amid a global pandemic that had shuttered live sports for months on end, the reception has been massive. Monday, the W announced that Saturday’s game between the Los Angeles Sparks and Phoenix Mercury was the most-watched opening day matchup since 2012 (averaged 540,000 viewers, up 20 percent from 2019). In turn, ESPN expanded an already historic WNBA television schedule for 2020 by 13 games, bringing the season-long total to 37 contests scheduled for broadcast on the network.

Williams acknowledged that it was a difficult decision to lace up for the season in a time when health risks abound and “as Black women in the world, we didn't feel heard, we didn't feel seen, we didn't feel visible and our hearts were heavy.” But the potential for exposure was front of mind, as well.

“Our decision to come to the bubble really was, if we're going to go, fighting for social justice is going to be at the forefront of our season,” Williams said. On the ratings spike: “It just kind of proves that all we need is visibility, and the league will do great… So for us now to have all these eyes on us and to see a court that says 'Black Lives Matter,' to see a shirt that says 'Say Her Name' to see the 26-second moment of silence. That's going to go hand-in-hand with the WNBA. So you can't watch a WNBA game without thinking about what we're doing.

“It's hopefully going to change the minds of all the fans watching who think that we're only athletes. Because when we step off the court we're Black women, we are Black women first and that's why this is so important to us, and I hope that we're teaching our young fans to kind of normalize this way of thinking.”

The Sky’s season marches on, and it’s one with high hopes, especially after avenging a heart-breaking 2019 playoff defeat to the Aces in the opener on Sunday.

But for the team, the place of primary focus will remain on affecting change. Especially at home — even while far away.

“We all want to see this city (Chicago) flourish, we all want to see this city do better and us as athletes, we have some of the biggest platforms,” Williams said. “So we want to make sure this goes hand-in-hand with our athletics, with our sport.”

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