Essence Carson participates in ‘WNBA: The Full Court Press for Social Change’ event at Oberlin College

Photo Credit: Stephen Gosling/NBAE/Getty Images

As everyone by now knows, the WNBA stands for more than simply being a showcase of some of the best women’s basketball players in the world. It stands for being an agent of change in society at large – something it proved over and over again throughout last season from its IMG bubble.

A virtual event recently took place at Oberlin College in Ohio that highlighted this reality and how WNBA players have been leaders in the fight for social justice.

It featured Essence Carson, a WNBA veteran currently with the Connecticut Sun as well as the Sun’s Player Development Coach Avwee Storey. Kathleen Kunkler, who works at Morgan Stanley as a financial advisor, Sports & Entertainment Director and Senior Vice President.

Oberlin College athletic director Natalie Winkelfoss delivered opening remarks, in large part highlighting the work WNBA players have done to push the conversation of social equality forward.

The WNBA has strong female leadership, as does Oberlin College.

–Natalie Winkelfoos

Storey began his remarks at the virtual event by recalling growing up in Chicago and being given a hard time by police.

I’m an inner-city kid from Chicago. I think about the first time I realized I was Black. And that was very difficult for me. Very young, Chicago. Police officer giving me just all kinds of issues, just not understanding why.

–Avwee Storey, Sun Player Development coach

He then recalled what it was like to experience everything that happened last year while still having to prepare for a 2020 WNBA season. A shortened season, but a season nonetheless.

Storey recalled how hard it was to explain what was happening in the wake of the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor by police. He admitted that basketball was the last thing on his mind and that he did not want any parts of preparing for a basketball season, especially considering no one knew at the time what things would look like in terms of the pandemic.

Once he had confidence that he’d be safe in the bubble, he felt he could bring his daughter with him to Florida.

Thinking about going into the bubble and thinking about our season was definitely the last thing I was thinking about. I have a 12-year old daughter, thinking about how to explain and how to help her understand where my tears were coming from.

–Avwee Storey, Sun Player Development coach

Once it was decided we were having a season and we’re going down to Florida … didn’t want any parts of it at all. Just for one, Covid, not knowing what our season really looks like in a place that we’ve never been before. It was all difficult. But, one of the biggest takes from that bubble experience, we were all safe. I felt safe. I felt safe enough to bring my daughter with me.

–Avwee Storey, Sun Player Development coach

Carson’s first words had to be very relatable for any Black individual – the idea that the color of one’s skin could be seen as a “burden” to the larger society.

I’ve lived in this skin my entire life. So, the Black experience … has been something that as inspirational as it could seem or could be, it … definitely at times would seem like a burden.

–Essence Carson, Connecticut Sun

She remembered not only last season, but also last year when the entire world protested for the cause of Black Lives Matter after the police killings of George Floyd in Minnesota and Breonna Taylor in Louisville.

Carson last year reflected a watershed moment when people recognize that Black individuals being the targets of police is a widespread problem – and that it has to end.

As you saw, just out in society, things came to a head. It’s like when the oppressed gets just tired of being tired. And we would be a fool to ignore what was going on around us.

–Essence Carson, Connecticut Sun

Then, Carson admitted that in the preparations for a 2020 WNBA season, the players had a demand for the league (that the league agreed to) that the season in the bubble would be one where raising voices for social change was as every bit as important – if not, moreso, than the actual basketball played at the two IMG courts.

This led to “Black Lives Matter” being painted on both courts as well as every jersey including the name of Breonna Taylor on the back. In addition, WNBA players forced a short postponement of the season after the shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin.

We pretty much said hey this isn’t going to happen. The season won’t happen unless we’re able to leverage what we do have in order to influence things for the better.

–Essence Carson, Connecticut Sun

Carson used the word “ultimatum” to describe how the players approached its talks with the league.

She then mentioned the creation of the WNBA’s Social Justice Council. She says that integral to the forming of the council was ensuring it was wholly representative of what the W – truly looks like – a league that is 80-90% Black women. A big reason for this, she says, was because racism is not only a problem that is confined to the United States.

Pulling together the players for the Council, you want them to represent everyone. It’s not always going to be …superstars, it’s not going to be everyone from a certain region of the country or from a certain team. You want this to be reflective of … community.

–Essence Carson, Connecticut Sun

You get people that aren’t only from the United States, but that are from all over the world. Because these experiences aren’t only confound to the borders of America. They happen all around the world.

–Essence Carson, Connecticut Sun

Sometimes, what can keep some from being activism or fighting for what one believes in has nothing to do with one’s belief system but everything pertaining to if it will cost someone opportunities in the future. Carson believes that one must not be afraid of losing out on opportunities if it means one is helping the greater good.

You can’t be afraid of losing something or sacrificing something in order to make sure that there’s a better tomorrow.

–Essence Carson, Connecticut Sun

The conversation then turned to the topic of the Atlanta Dream, an organization that last year made mainstream headlines after comments made by one of its owners in Kelly Loeffler, who was an appointed senator from Georgia.

She made caustic and hurtful comments critical of the Black Lives Matter movement (including referring to it as “Marxist”) as well as on the subject of open carry by Black Americans. WNBA players responded in the bubble by wearing T-shirts that said “Vote Warnock,” as in Raphael Warnock of Ebenezer Baptist Church who was challenging Loeffler for the seat.

Warnock’s bid was successful as he won a runoff election against Loeffler in early January. Since then, rumors have swirled about a possible sale of the Dream.

I guess I was a little perturbed with her understanding of what Marxism is.

–Essence Carson, Connecticut Sun

Carson commended the Dream’s players for not shying away in the face of a controversy involving a woman whose signature is on team paychecks when they could have easily decided not to touch the issue.

The moment that you turn a blind eye or turn your cheek to that is the moment you say it’s ok.

–Essence Carson, Connecticut Sun

They’re champions in their own right.

–Essence Carson, Connecticut Sun

Carson mentioned how she got nervous at the presser after Stringer asked her to speak

She was then asked about how the Loeffler controversy drew parallels to the Don Imus controversy of 2007. Imus, who died last year, was read a report on his show about the 2007 national championship game between Tennessee and Rutgers (Carson’s alma mater) which Pat Summitt’s Lady Vols won 59-46.

We all know what Imus referred to the Rutgers team as … then proceeded to call the Tennessee team “cute.” Carson remembered those days from 14 years ago and the whirlwind of attention that ensued as a result.

We were getting so many different press requests that they thought it was a good idea just to have press conference so that the team … we were young, so that we wouldn’t be overwhelmed.

–Essence Carson, Connecticut Sun

It’s different when you have to get up at, like, 4:30, 5 o’clock in the morning and do a talk show for CNN.

– Essence Carson, Connecticut Sun

Carson says she first found out about the Imus controversy after it was told to her by a teammate. Then, the whole team, off the high of the national championship game that year was called into coach C. Vivian Stringer’s office.

She remembers when coach Stringer asked her to speak at a press conference organized by Rutgers, and felt she had to set an example for her teammates.

I have to make that … I have a understanding of everything that’s going on, understanding of how everyone feels here. Not only myself but how do each of my sisters feel. It doesn’t matter if they’re not Black.

–Essence Carson, Connecticut Sun

According to Carson, the importance of using one’s voice is not only limited to how it is used in that instance, but how it can be a springboard to eventually affect that much-sought after change.

You’re not only using it for yourself, you’re using it for all the people that aren’t heard. All the people that people blatantly ignore. So, here’s your moment to represent and to speak for them. And when you do it, make sure you do it in a way, in such a way that it will never be forgotten … and that it will eventually lead to some change.

–Essence Carson, Connecticut Sun

One subject that constantly comes up among the WNBA family is how men can find themselves coaching jobs in the W, but a woman has yet to break through and become a head coach in the NBA (even though San Antonio Spurs assistant Becky Hammon has made chips and cracks in that glass ceiling).

Storey remembered how it was to cross over from the NBA side over to the WNBA – and managed to understand that basketball is still basketball when all is said and done regardless of which gender is on the court.

It was an honor to be able to work with my first WNBA team, which was the Washington Mystics. And to be able to talk to these women and to really understand the game of basketball no matter who’s playing it. It’s still basketball.

–Avwee Storey, Sun Player Development coach

Carson’s message to young Black athletes that may want to continue the example set by LeBron James, Colin Kaepernick, Bubba Wallace, Serena Williams and the WNBA players in the Wubble last year could be boiled down to three little words.

Don’t stand down.

–Essence Carson, Connecticut Sun

“…understand that you are fighting for a better tomorrow, not only as Black athletes, but as a Black person.”

–Essence Carson, Connecticut Sun

Your voice matters even if sometimes it feels like you’re not heard.

– Essence Carson, Connecticut Sun

Storey believes that those trials and tribulations that come with sports, particularly as a Black athlete, builds character and allows you to go through things with the “utmost confidence.”

It just builds as a person. It builds you stronger to deal with any kind of scenario situation that you face in your life.

– Avwee Storey, Sun Player Development coach

One element of what the WNBA players did last year was understanding that there were players in the bubble that felt overwhelmed by what was going on. And since they were isolated in competing the 2020 season, it was a lot for many players to be stuck in Florida as opposed to protesting with the masses. That is why many players, including the Mystics’ Natasha Cloud, sat out last season.

Carson says that focusing on what was happening inside and outside of the WNBA’s “bubble” was no issue for her since she is used to multi-tasking as she mentioned later that she works with Motown Records in the offseason. But for others, it was a struggle. She says meetings were organized with mothers of the deceased as well as with politicians so they felt as if they were doig more to aid the movement.

Some of my counterparts did struggle with that. And that’s to be expected. That feeling that … it was almost like a burden to them that they weren’t able to be outside of the bubble and … out there demonstrating and being physically on the front lines.

–Essence Carson, Connecticut Sun

As far as that music is concerned, Carson commented how she wants listeners to her songs to hear her – and that her music is, in large part, a reflection of her experiences she has seen in life. A key to this is, as she says, drawing up emotion and how that can start a domino effect that can lead to change.

I try to be as authentic as possible because you want things to evoke emotion, because when you evoke emotion, then it most likely will lead to action. Then you take action and it most likely will lead to change.

–Essence Carson, Connecticut Sun

Unfortunately, there are some individuals that have lamented that the Black Lives Matter movement is doubling as an anti-white movement. The images from the streets of last year’s protests should have told anyone that Black Lives Matter is anything but anti-white as there were scores of white allies marching in the streets of Minneapolis, Louisville, Seattle, Portland, New York City, Atlanta and other cities around the world. The Reverend Al Sharpton even mentioned this when he spoke at George Floyd’s funeral.

Carson wanted to let people know if the importance of white allies – something the WNBA is full of from Sue Bird to Breanna Stewart to Diana Taurasi to Elena Delle Donne – four of the W’s all-time greats and future Hall of Famers.

I don’t want people to feel that this is a anti-white movement. This is not what that is. And a lot of times, it’s often confused.

–Essence Carson, Connecticut Sun

We do need allies to push this forward, to continue this movement to create change … If only a certain section, a certain facet of society moves forward, then you look at the majority and they’re not moving. So, it looks like, well, what’s the point. What is the point if the majority doesn’t see what’s going on or feel moved by what’s going on or see that there are injustices or even equates them to injustices.

–Essence Carson, Connecticut Sun

Storey echoed Carson’s sentiments on needing white people to understand that racism is not only a problem, but THE problem that we must reckon with as a society.

This movement, Black Lives Matter, really just equality for all people – it cannot happen without the support of the majority. It can’t.

– Avwee Storey, Sun Player Development coach

Storey says white athletes have a unique opportunity to get to know non-white players since they already spend so much time with them as teammates and says they should ask questions that may be uncomfortable.

You need to find a place, or find something in you to be comfortable enough to ask those questions, because they’re very important to ask. You won’t know if they don’t make sense until you actually ask them.

–Avwee Storey, Sun Player Development coach

Later on, the conversation shifted to how NBA resources and money dwarf those of the WNBA. Storey says he is working to shift that dymanic.

The resources that the NBA has that is different, or don’t have necessarily on the women’s side will be changing through me. I am here to make change. I am here to put all of the opportunities in front of our ladies just as the same on the men’s side.

–Avwee Story, Sun Player Development coach

He remembered his experience playing in the NBA when his playing days were over and he had to figure out what he wanted to do after retirement. Storey’s message is to use its resources and access to the fullest while one has a chance.

Take advantage of the resources you have now so when the ball is done, when you’re done bouncing the ball, you know exactly where you’re going after you’re done. Because it’s a period that I suffered once I was done playing. I had a cushion, but it was two years before I figured what the hell I wanted to do with the rest of my life.

–Avwee Storey, Sun Player Development coach

Job opportunities for players after they retire was an element players fought for in its new CBA and Carson says she will transition to music full-time after her playing days have concluded. Carson says the fight for Black women is one that they are used to which is why standing up for what they believe in, as WNBA players displayed, is something that is second-nature since they are constant targets of, not only racism, but sexism as well.

Black women have been on the front lines so much, whether we’re recognized for it or not. And … playing in a league that is majority women of color, you know, to me it was just bound to happen.

–Essence Carson, Connecticut Sun

We are that community … whether it’s the gender pay gap … the resources that we don’t have and, of course, we’re making huge strides. But, it’s like, you have to fight tooth and nail for every single thing that we get in this league.

–Essence Carson, Connecticut Sun

So, if we’re going to fight in that way, fight for ourselves, it’s only right that we continue to fight for those that, sometimes, seem like they can’t fight for themselves.

–Essence Carson, Connecticut Sun

We’re already trying to fight over scraps on our side…It’s not really much to lose in comparison to what everyone else on the outside in our communities are losing.

–Essence Carson, Connecticut Sun

Storey remarked that the women of the WNBA were “lightyears” ahead of their male counterparts on the issue of speaking out against social injustice. He then talked to young student athletes on the importance of taking care of oneself amidst a rigorous schedule where athletics have to be balanced with academics.

Find time to meditate. Find time to build yourself up, find time for yourself. It’s a lot of things that are pulling you – your peers, your coach. All these different things … your family … but you have to find time for yourself.

–Avwee Storey, Sun Player Development coach

You are your product. So invest in that.

–Avwee Storey, Sun Player Development coach

Another element of the CBA that is not as ballyhooed now but deserves its fair share of attention is mental health services. Carson wanted to let young athletes as well know that putting one’s mindset in a good place mentally can be a huge difference in if one has a game one will want to remember or want to forget.

One thing that we’re talking about more as athletes is mental health … Find time for self-care. All of that is important. It affects your game. Not only does it … give you that peace of mind and that clarity, you’ll be surprised at your performance.

–Essence Carson, Connecticut Sun

We spend so much time stressing our bodies day in and day out, that’s the life of an elite athlete. That’s the life of a warrior … We’ve made stressing like our second-hand nature.

–Essence Carson, Connecticut Sun

She closed her remarks at the virtual gathering by encouraging athletes to pursue other passions outside of sports if those interest them (as Carson has with music) and how that can be a source of self-fulfillment and self-love as well.

If there are other things that you’re interested in, take some time. Read up on them. Study them. It’s ok to love more than one thing. It’s okay to have several different passions.

–Essence Carson, Connecticut Sun

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