WNBA commissioner sidesteps question on All-Star Game in Arizona - an anti-abortion state

For a league so outspoken about women’s rights, it might surprise people to learn that the WNBA will hold the 2024 All-Star Game in Phoenix.

Just last week, the Arizona Supreme Court voted to enforce a near-total abortion ban that dates to 1864, a decision that does not reflect the values of one of the nation's most progressive professional sports leagues.

WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert did not answer a question about if the league discussed moving the 2024 All-Star Game during her pre-draft remarks to media Monday night. The game is scheduled for July 20 and was announced in March.

The law — which was written before Arizona was part of the United States — is part of the continued ripple effect of the Dobbs decision, the 2022 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that overturned the constitutional right to an abortion. That ruling put the fate of reproductive rights back in the hands of individual states. In the nearly two years since the ruling, numerous states have issued total or near-total abortion bans, with some states going so far as to prosecute women who get abortions and the people, including doctors, who help them obtain one.

Throughout it all, WNBA players — as well as numerous other professional athletes, male and female — have been outspoken about their support for women’s reproductive rights.

WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert speaks before the 2024 draft at Brooklyn Academy of Music.
WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert speaks before the 2024 draft at Brooklyn Academy of Music.

And that will continue according to Engelbert, even if a major league event is being held in a state with a draconian law.

One thing I like about our players is our players want to be engaged, they don’t run away from things, they want to be engaged and want to force change in the communities in which they live and work, and they do it very effectively,” Engelbert said Monday during her pre-draft chat with reporters. “Obviously we have a team there (in Arizona) as well, and they’ll continue to make their impact on this particular issue, maternal health and reproductive rights.”

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In 2017, the NBA moved its All-Star game from Charlotte, North Carolina, to New Orleans after a so-called “bathroom bill” barred transgender people from using the bathroom that matched their gender identity.

But since that All-Star game the NBA has held events in other states unfriendly to both women’s rights and LGBTQ rights (the 2023 All-Star game was in Utah, for example), reasoning that they can’t constantly move things because the next state could have an equally bad bill on the books; All-Star games are typically scheduled a year in advance. Additionally, moving a major event out of state won’t necessarily force or encourage lawmakers to vote the opposite way.

The WNBA isn’t the only women’s pro league holding major events and keeping teams in red states, either: The NWSL plays in Texas and Florida, and numerous NCAA women’s championship events are scheduled for red states in the coming years, too.

Abortion rights groups have said abandoning states with these laws doesn’t help because the laws don’t necessarily reflect the people who live there.

“I’ve heard time and time again from reproductive rights workers that they don’t want folks to pull out from their states. They don’t want to be in isolation,” said Heather Shumaker, director of State Abortion Access for the National Women’s Law Center.

“Using any opportunity to be vocal about the importance of abortion access” helps, Shumaker told USA TODAY Sports last year. “Use your platform, whether that’s social media, wearing a wristband or armband — whatever tool is in your toolbox, use that to uplift attention on abortion access.”

Engelbert said that’s exactly what WNBA players intend to do.

“Our players won’t run away from it,” she said. “They’ll want to help effect change and use our platform and their platform to do just that.”

Nancy Armour reported from New York.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: WNBA commish sidesteps query on All-Star Game in anti-abortion state