Get Ready, Guys: Breanna Stewart Is Basketball’s Future
Advocating for sex assault survivors, fighting for gender pay equality, refusing to shake Trump’s hand—Stewart is redefining what it means to be a superstar athlete and advocate.
The WNBA’s reigning Most Valuable Player, Breanna Stewart, is living halfway across the globe, still putting up numbers with Dynamo Kursk, a team in the Russian Women’s Premier League. But when she decides to weigh in on a pressing issue, the time zone doesn’t matter.
Early on the morning of March 25, the NCAA’s dedicated March Madness Twitter account tried to pretend it was anything other than a profitable brand, firing off a post with a brief clip from the TV show Parks and Recreation. The brand was attempting to express how angry it was at having to wait three days until tournament play resumed. (Note: Brands do not have feelings.)
Of course, what the brand seemingly forgot is that there were plenty of games that very evening, thanks to the NCAA Women's Division I Basketball Tournament. Despite it being a ham-fisted attempt at humor, Stewart isn’t one to suffer fools gladly.
Because a woman said something online (as expected), a swarm of Reply Guys pounced into the fray, thirsty as hell to unpack the etymology of the term “March Madness,” welding their blinkered logic like a cudgel, and thus missing the point entirely.
When it comes to athletes and activism, it makes a huge difference if a sport’s greatest player is at the forefront. It’s a role that Stewart has grown into over time as the now 24-year old discovered her voice and realized the power she has to effect change. Over the course of the last year and a half, Stewart came forward to tell her own story of sexual assault and advocated for survivors; she’s aided voter turnout efforts; and she has fought for increased pay and visibility for WNBA players. What’s all the more remarkable is that she’s done so while dominating the league.
Last season, the 6' 4" forward racked up 21.8 points per game, shot 52.9 percent from the floor nailed 41.5 percent of her threes, and snagged 8.4 rebounds, 2.5 steals, and 1.4 blocks per game to boot. Sporting a 7' 1" wingspan, she’s dominating in the paint and proving to be a devastating finisher in the pick and roll. The comparisons to the Golden State Warriors’ star Kevin Durant have been around since Stewart was rolling over opponents at UConn. As an amateur, she won four straight national championships and was named Most Outstanding Player each time—a feat no other collegian, male or female, has ever pulled off—while losing a grand total of five games. (Oh and she also won a title with the Seattle Storm this year and a gold medal at the 2018 Summer Olympics, is a two-time All-Star, this year’s finals MVP, and a former Rookie of the Year. In brief, there’s not a lot of room left in her trophy case.)
And yet, those who don’t follow the WNBA have missed out on both her ascent to greatness, and her commitment to social justice. Reached via email, Stewart agreed that sexism is part of the reason why WNBA players’ activism—including her own support for gay rights and the Black Lives Matter movement—garners so much less attention than their male counterparts. (Though the WNBA is attracting more viewers and better ratings, coverage of women's sports in media remains abysmal.) But that problem is hardly new, nor is it “unique to sports,” she said.
“It’s so critical for more women to control media and produce and curate stories that help to shine a light on the incredible work women are and have always done to move us forward,” said Stewart.
She’s witnessed firsthand what happens when women don’t seize the means of production. In one of her first forays into public political speech, the then-21 year old rookie was onstage to receive the Best Female Athlete award at the 2016 ESPYs.
“Now that I’m in the WNBA, playing with other amazing female athletes, I’m trying to understand why we, as professional female athletes, don’t receive anywhere near the fame,” Stewart said in her acceptance speech. “This has to change. I know that everyone in this room loves and supports women and girls in sports and wants to be a part of that change, right?”
But if you recall the ceremony at all, odds are it’s not because of Stewart’s insistence on gender equality. Rather, the lasting images came from the opening of the broadcast, when NBA stars LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Paul, and Carmelo Anthony called on athletes to embrace the activist legacy of Muhammad Ali and Jackie Robinson and stand up against a slew of social and political injustices.
In October 2017 Stewart started following her own advice. The decision to go public was partly inspired by Olympic gymnast McKayla Maroney, who a few weeks prior had revealed that she had been preyed upon by serial child molester Larry Nassar. Published on The Players Tribune, Stewart’s story is simply titled “Me Too.”
There, she painstakingly recounts how, for a period of two years, from age 9 to age 11, she was sexually abused by an older male, her aunt’s husband. (According to Stewart, her father told her that her assailant confessed his guilt to the police following his arrest.) In sparse, harrowing prose, Stewart unpacks the way he reeked of dirt and cigarettes; her inability to sleep, wracked with fear that lingered long into the night; and the things she’s both forgotten and can never forget:
I’ve cried. I cry most after I tell someone who’s important to me. Talking about what I went through, explaining all of it—it guts me. I’m forced to relive it. That’s when it hits that what happened is real. It wasn’t just an awful nightmare. It wasn’t some other life I lived at another time.
I’m angry he took advantage of me as a child. I’ll never get that time back. And what memories I still have, I’ll never be able to erase them. Sometimes I wish for a few more black holes.
Though she refuses to forgive the person who did this to her, she’s also adamant that telling her story publicly is both a responsibility and part of the healing process. “Every time I tell someone, I feel a little more unburdened,” she wrote. “This is bigger than me.”
Asked what made her decide to go public, Stewart said: “I came to a point where I knew that even if I could help save one person, it was worth it. And it has been rewarding. A weight was really lifted.”
Since then, victims and survivors of sexual abuse haven’t stopped thanking Stewart. Some fans have told her their lives were irrevocably altered, and definitely for the better. “It was hard to do, but the response has been incredible,” she said. “We hear so much bad news these days, but it’s amazing the kind of energy you get back when you are vulnerable and make an effort to connect with people.”
In 2018, Stewart teamed up with the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) and was named to its National Leadership Council. RAINN’s logo and phone number was etched on a pair of sneakers she wore on court in June 2018, and then sold in an online auction with the funds redirected to the organization. Similarly, RAINN sells a Stewart-endorsed T-shirt with the phrase “Stronger Than Everything” printed on the front.
“I’m beyond proud to work with RAINN to let survivors know just how strong they truly are,” she said when the shirt was announced. Last August, Stewart set aside part of her MVP acceptance speech to encourage voter participation, and appeared in ESPN The Magazine’s body issue. According to Stewart, she did so because she’s started to feel confident and comfortable in her own skin.
“I've really embraced myself, being tall, understanding my body, and the story that your body portrays. I have a story, and I hope people can see that,” she said.
She’s also taken direct action. When the Trump administration issued an executive order banning immigrants from seven majority-Muslim countries, Stewart saw the thousands who had gathered at Los Angeles International Airport, and joined the throng, standing side-by-side with the protestors.
It wasn’t a question of choice, Stewart explained. “I see it as my responsibility to use my time to learn and my voice and platform to stand up for equality in all forms,” she said.
Unless he’s a closet WNBA fan, the president won’t get the chance to hear Stewart’s voice. Like the Golden State Warriors before them, shunned by a fit of presidential pique, the Storm made it clear they had no desire to subject themselves to a staged grip-and-grin. Unsurprisingly, the White House never contacted the team. For Stewart, it wouldn’t have made a difference either way, and once again, she didn’t waste any words.
“We didn’t get an invite to the White House for winning and I would not plan to go if we did,” she said.