WNBA diversity: A call for change for student-athletes at HBCUs

A woman’s love for basketball Photo courtesy: Adobe Stock

The dust has finally settled and the results are in from this year’s WNBA draft and it’s left several deserving women and their families elated with good news but now quiet chatters are filling online discussions. 

According to NCCA.com there has only been a total of seven women from HBCUs drafted into the WNBA in its entirety of the 28 years of existence. Yet, none of the women from FAMU’s women’s basketball team has ever been drafted directly into the WNBA. 

Just as their fellow peer athletes have gained a support system the women deserve the same. Players from HBCUs have an even heavier cross to bear as they are often overlooked talent compared to that of players from other Universities. 

The WNBA was established in April of 1996, and held its official first season in 1997. The annual draft takes place during Spring, lasting just a few days and consisting of a total of three rounds that leaves women athletes near and far on the edge of their seats, eagerly awaiting good news. This year, one player from an HBCU, Angel Jackson from Jackson State University was drafted during the third round to the Las Vegas Aces. Prior to this year, four former HBCU players were drafted in 2022, after a 20 year drought of no women from HBCUs being drafted. 

They are at a lower advantage than that of their counterparts of other sports as there are only three rounds for women’s basketball, two for men’s and seven for the NFL. Thus, making it more difficult to be noticed, drafted, and given a good contract with great benefits.

Howard alumnus Denique Graves was the first woman ever drafted into the WNBA during its first official draft and has remained in position as the highest draft selection overall since. Free agents became a thing for the WNBA in 2003, and has since drafted more women in addition to the three official rounds of the WNBA draft. However, even with the free agent offerings, there is still a vastly slim number of former HBCU players within the WNBA. 

Women athletes are faced with major setbacks based on gender, societal standards, cultural differences, and the overall competitiveness of working their way to the top. This year alone, less than ten players from HBCUs declared for the WNBA. There could be several reasons why as the WNBA has specific draft declaration rules that include being either 22 years of age or having attended undergrad for four years prior to declaring for the draft. 

At times it is frowned upon for women to partake in sports leading to critiquing of their appearance, personality, background and so much more. This does not occur on just a professional level; it occurs at the college level. An example is that of an incident that occurred between newly drafted Angel Reese and a rival team member that sparked outrage as people felt she was judge too harshly, while others believed she was wrong or that the motive behind the uproar was due to her racial background as a black woman and all the negative stereotypes and trophies were piled on times ten. 

Another issue that professional athletic women face is that of the traditional norms they break within society. It is expected for women to be the more domicile gender, and for most to seek partnership and union and to start families. When young women do not seek such and decide to pursue nontraditional roles or careers and otherwise it’s met with a lot of chatter and sometimes great disdain. Many professional women athletes have proven that having a family and maintaining a career is possible. 

The world of sports is highly competitive, and recycled players as quickly as they arose to their stardom. Within the WNBA, the average career spans from around 5.1 years and the longest recorded career within the WNBA is currently held by Sue Bird who played from 1997 to 2022 just recently retiring. 

Plenty could be argued as to why HBCU players have been severely overlooked during the WNBA draft from the politics of the situation to the resources and exposure readily available for players at an HBCU in comparison to that of players at larger, and more nationally recognized Universities. 

Shanasa Sanders, a former college player that was drafted to play overseas and alumnus of Stetson University reflected on her time as a student athlete and the disparities that come along with being a black woman trying to break through into the mold of the sports world. 

Sanders addressed the elephant in the room surrounding race as a black woman and being a black athlete stating “Being a student athlete at a predominantly white institution made me very alert regarding my surroundings,” Sanders said. “ I understood there were many people of color in the area and the magnitude of my existence being there. I feel that I was held to higher standards on and off the court. The stigma of my race is that we aren’t good enough, or it’s expected for us to fail. I had to prove everyone wrong. I wanted to be the best and I practiced and played according to my goals.”

Although Sanders graduated from a PWI, she nearly attended an HBCU before landing elsewhere just before the start of her college career but believes that regardless of where students attend undergrad, as young women, especially being women of color there are often more roadblocks placed in their way than anyone else at times. 

Sanders shared advice she would give to current athletes. “The advice I would give to student athletes would be to stick with their craft,” Sanders said. “ Practice, practice, practice and stay committed to the sport. There will be highs and lows in your career and in life, but you must find ways to persevere.”

The performance of athletes has often been linked to their overall energy, mood and self-esteem, (Source needed) and by being overlooked or by-passed during seasons of highlighting talent and HBCU players are acknowledged but celebrated nearly as much as their counterparts at other Universities. Women in the WNBA and smaller basketball leagues face pay disparities as well, with the reasoning being that the leagues have lower revenue. 

With constant odds being stacked against them, significant pay differences, possible short-lived careers and being overlooked how will the WNBA thrive? Better yet, what differences or changes could be made on the executive’s end to rectify the problem of its small number of drafted talent out of HBCUs? 

So many women at HBCUs across the country carry this dream deep within but only few are given the opportunity to pursue it beyond higher education. Hopefully one day a lady Rattler will be one of the first to break the mold and be drafted into the WNBA, creating a bubbling legacy of many to follow for years and decades to come. Advocacy and opportunities are needed to reach this goal, and it starts from the top of the tree to the roots deep down within the soil of eager players wanting to create a namesake and living for themselves as professional athletes.