Occasionally athletes make the headlines because of their visible and vocal commitment to progressive political causes. In 1967 Muhammad Ali refused induction into the U.S. army, saying that he had no quarrel with the Vietnamese people; he was vilified in the press and (temporarily) stripped of his heavyweight boxing title. In 1968, runners Tommie Smith and John Carlos, winners respectively of Olympic gold and bronze medals in the 200-meter dash, drew the ire of conservatives by raising their fists in the Black Power salute during the award ceremony. In 2016, quarterback Colin Kaepernick and later several other U.S. football players began kneeling during the national anthem (which is played before U.S. sporting events) to protest racist violence and show their support for the organization Black Lives Matter.
The most recent example of people in the sports world taking a courageous stand on principle concerns the fight to maintain women’s access to reproductive health care. As discussed in previous blog posts, in the U.S. there have been massive and increasing attacks on women’s reproductive health. Misogynist Republicans at the state and federal levels have been assiduously working to defund Planned Parenthood, despite the fact that for many low-income women, the organization provides their only access to health screening exams. In the face of this concerted assault, the Seattle Storm, a professional women’s basketball team which is one of the very few sports teams owned by women, has announced a pathbreaking formal partnership with Planned Parenthood.
On July 18, 2017 the Storm will have a “Stand With Planned Parenthood” rally before their game with the Chicago Sky. Five dollars from the sale of each ticket will go to Planned Parenthood of the Great Northwest and the Hawaiian Islands, and there will be a fundraising auction as well.
Interestingly, the Storm ownership group does not think that their action will be particularly controversial among their fans. In an interview with The New York Times, co-owner Dawn Trudeau noted that the team owners, their audiences and their players share a progressive outlook. Trudeau sees the partnership with Planned Parenthood as a way to “make a meaningful impact on the national health care debate.” According to the Times article, reaction among coaches and players on other professional women’s basketball teams has been very positive. Chicago Sky player Imani Boyette noted that “Planned Parenthood is vital for women who don’t have access to standard health care. I was a P.P. patient in high school because I didn’t have health insurance. Taking a stand for things that affect the underprivileged, as a league and [as] women of privilege, is how change happens.”
As readers of Sex and Herbs and Birth Control know, I am not uniformly positive about Planned Parenthood’s role historically or internationally. Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood, often consorted with racists and eugenicists in her efforts to get funding, and International Planned Parenthood often acts in culturally inappropriate ways. But at present in the United States, Planned Parenthood plays a crucial role in women’s health, and efforts to defund the organization must be resisted. As Boyette notes, Planned Parenthood is often the only recourse for women without health insurance, and is their best option for obtaining mammograms, Pap smears, STD-screening, and low-cost contraceptives.