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‘Bigger than basketball’: How the Minnesota Lynx became the most outspoken organization in professional sports

“We’re not a team or an organization that’s going to censor what our players say,” said Rebekkah Brunson, a former team captain who’s now a Lynx assistant coach. “If you feel like something moves you and you need to speak about it, that’s 1,000 percent what you should do.”

Minnesota Lynx players stand for a special Black Lives Matter presentation before a game against the Phoenix Mercury at the FELD Entertainment complex on September 17, 2020.
Minnesota Lynx players stand for a special Black Lives Matter presentation before a game against the Phoenix Mercury at the FELD Entertainment complex on September 17, 2020.
Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

It’s been almost five years since Lynx captains Rebekkah Brunson, Maya Moore, Seimone Augustus and Lindsay Whalen decided enough was enough. Two days of intense conversations brought them to a Target Center dais on July 9, 2016, in black warmup shirts that read “Change Starts With Us — Justice and Accountability,” after the shooting deaths of Alton Sterling, Philando Castile and five Dallas police officers.  

With the support of Lynx Coach Cheryl Reeve, Brunson and Moore talked for the group, denouncing racial profiling and senseless violence while asking for healing, compassion and dialogue. Their message resonated with many while offending others; the four Minneapolis police officers working game security that night walked off the job. But it marked one of the earliest examples of a new phase of activism in professional sports, one where athletes — particularly Black athletes — stood up for social justice reform and change.

A few days later, at the ESPY Awards on ESPN, NBA greats LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony and Chris Paul demanded an end to racial profiling and police violence against Black men. Colin Kaepernick took a knee for the first time that September. In 2017, Timberwolves center Karl-Anthony Towns wrote a deeply personal reaction to the violence in Charlottesville for The Players Tribune.

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In 2019, Moore left the Lynx in the prime of her career and devoted two years to freeing a family friend (now her husband) from prison. More recently, Matt Dumba of the Wild and Eric Kendricks of the Vikings emerged as activist leaders for their franchises and leagues.

Now, with the conviction of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd and the killing of Daunte Wright by a Brooklyn Center police officer, Minnesota is once again the epicenter of everything those Lynx captains spoke up about. Brunson, a Lynx assistant coach, is the only one still active in the organization. Moore hasn’t played since 2018, Augustus left in free agency last year for the Los Angeles Sparks, and Whalen coaches the University of Minnesota women’s team.

Maya Moore’s selflessness and dedication to her cause should be applauded, celebrated.
MinnPost file photo by Bill Kelley
In 2019, Maya Moore left the Lynx in the prime of her career and devoted two years to freeing a family friend (now her husband) from prison.
These issues resonate even more with Brunson since she and her wife are raising a two-and-a-half-year-old son in Minneapolis. Brunson also chairs the team’s Change Starts With Us committee, which encourages Lynx players to use their social media platforms to stand up for matters important to them, just like she has. 

“We’re not a team or an organization that’s going to censor what our players say,” Brunson said. “If you feel like something moves you and you need to speak about it, that’s 1,000 percent what you should do. You should not ever be hesitant in using your voice because you feel like anyone in this organization is going to feel a certain way. We’ll support you in anything you want to do. Any endeavor, and shirt you want to wear, any photos you want post, any messages you want to send, you have our full support.

“I think we do such a great job of opening that door right away, so there’s no second-guessing. There are probably players in different situations who may want to speak about something or may be moved about something, but don’t use their voice because they may fear some kind of repercussions. We just want to let everybody that comes into this organization know we’re bigger than basketball. We’ve always been about character and family and support, and that’s not just on the court.” 

That support starts from the top. Owner Glen Taylor has never interfered with any Lynx initiative. The outspoken Reeve uses her platforms as much as anyone; it was Reeve who last year took on Minneapolis Police Officers Federation President Bob Kroll, telling reporters on a Zoom call: “The culture is rotten, and we’ve got to cut off the head of the snake to make real progress.” (Kroll retired in January.)

Rebekkah Brunson
MinnPost file photo by Craig Lassig
Former player and Lynx assistant coach Rebekkah Brunson chairs the team’s Change Starts With Us committee.
Last month, in a piece for Sports Illustrated, Reeve backed the rights of transgender women and non-binary athletes to play women’s sports. And at her pre-WNBA draft news conference via Zoom, Reeve wore one of the black warmup shirts the Timberwolves broke out after the shooting death of Daunte Wright, which read WITH LIBERTY AND JUSTICE FOR ALL with the last two words underlined. Before taking questions, Reeve offered condolences to Wright’s family. 

“Change, for those of us who want to be part of it, is a long, hard process,” Reeve said. “But we have to continue to use our voice, have the energy and find a way to create that change. We can’t let our guard down. We can’t stop. That’s what’s becoming obvious to this generation.”

The Lynx opened training camp in Minneapolis last Sunday, but most players arrived early to undergo COVID testing and quarantine, so they were here for closing arguments in the Chauvin murder trial. (Four players, among them All-Star Napheesa Collier and marquee free-agent signee Kayla McBride, will report late due to overseas commitments.) 

An informal workout at the Mayo Clinic Square practice facility was just breaking up when word spread the Chauvin jury had reached a verdict. The players dispersed, and Brunson picked up her son and headed home to watch it on TV. She didn’t know what to expect.

Lynx Coach Cheryl Reeve
MinnPost photo by Craig Lassig
Last month, in a piece for Sports Illustrated, Coach Cheryl Reeve backed the rights of transgender women and non-binary athletes to play women’s sports.
“I felt sick,” Brunson said. “It was the craziest thing. You shouldn’t feel sick when somebody did something wrong. You should feel confident that they’re going to be held accountable for that. But that has not been the history in this country…So I really felt nervous. I was anxious. As much as I knew the way that it should turn out, I didn’t have a lot of confidence in it.”

And when Chauvin was convicted on all three counts, Brunson felt relieved. To a point. “At the same time, I still face the reality that this does not really change anything,” she said. “One person being held accountable for the most grotesque of crimes, just one, does not make you feel very confident. But I’m just taking with this that maybe a new precedent was set.”

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The Lynx open the season May 14. Three days later, Kim Potter, the Brooklyn Center officer charged with second-degree manslaughter in Wright’s death, is due back in court. Games will be ongoing when Chauvin is sentenced June 25, and when the trial of the three officers charged with Chauvin begins August 23. 

There undoubtedly will be opportunities for Lynx players to speak out, and it will be interesting to see who does, and how. Keep an eye on veteran Natalie Achonwa, another free-agent signee, who reacted strongly to the Chauvin verdict on her Twitter account. Or maybe WNBA career rebounding leader Sylvia Fowles, healthy again after missing much of last season with a right calf strain.

“I think we’re in a good place because it starts from the head on down,” Fowles said. “When you know the organization’s got your back, you feel more freely in speaking your truth…It makes it way easier to get your point across.”