Leading from the Margins: The WNBA and the Emergence of a New Model of Sports Activism in the United States
Date of Award
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
After a first wave of activist athletes influenced the 1960s Civil Rights debates and faced negative professional and personal consequences, activist athletes largely disappeared from the American Politics landscape. The return of athlete activism in the last few years has been widely covered by journalists and scholars alike. In this dissertation, I argue that this trend is not a return to the activism of the past, but the emergence of a new model of sports activism. Building on recent developments in the persuasion literature, I show how in this new model, some leagues are in a unique and unprecedented position to generate business growth because, not despite, of their political activism. The dissertation defines the new model through the league that exemplifies it the most, the Women National Basketball Association (WNBA). In doing so, it improves our understanding of the mechanisms of persuasion by non-political messengers. While some leagues operate in this new model, others remain left in a model where activism often comes at a cost or fails to yield results. This explains the backlash faced by Colin Kaepernick after he knelt during the national anthem and the limited findings from the recent experimental research focused on the NFL. The dissertation explores the conditions under which this new model of mutually beneficial business and political successes can emerge for athletes and leagues. The new model, as defined throughout the dissertation, has three key characteristics: (i) it is emerging in leagues composed of largely minoritized athletes whose existence as athletes, because of their race, gender, or sexual orientation, is inherently political; (ii) it provides opportunities for business and political successes to feed each other, but only when leagues fully embrace their political nature; and (iii) it both relies on and generates an alignment between the athletes’ and fans’ values. Chapter 1 introduces the new model and examines how it compares to the traditional model of sports activism. I discuss whether and how much a model emerging in the United States, and largely driven by women’s sports, can extend to other leagues and countries. Chapter 2 describes the recent business and political successes of the WNBA and documents how they only came after the league fully started acknowledging its players’ identities. This case study provides the groundwork for understanding the connection between the business and political models of sports leagues and how they are moderated by the identities of players and fans. In Chapter 3, I use survey experiments to show that persuasive arguments from WNBA players can change minds on policy issues, including voting rights and transgender inclusion, but only among people whose values are not in opposition to the ones carried by the WNBA. I also find evidence that the players’ arguments convince a larger audience when the identity of the players is not emphasized. When group cues are introduced, respondents in the identity-unaligned groups often end up supporting the policy less. When respondents see both persuasive information and group cues, the polarizing effects of group cues appear to overcome the “parallelizing” effects of persuasive information. While Chapter 3 focuses on athletes’ influence on political opinions, Chapter 4 investigates their impact on actual political events. I explore the role played by the WNBA in the 2020 Georgia Senate race through the lens of campaign donations, Twitter, and media coverage data. I find evidence that the WNBA had a short term effect on donations and served as an echo chamber, helping to keep the story of the race on issues that were favorable to Warnock, especially social justice. Finally, in Chapter 5, I use survey experiments to show that this commitment to activism does not come at a cost for the WNBA. I provide evidence that activism has the potential to bring new, like-minded fans to the league, while generating few risks of losing existing fans. This is especially true when players emphasize their identities and values, which suggest a trade-off in how players highlight their identities in this new model of sports activism. If the goal is to change as many people’s minds on the issues as possible, Chapter 3 shows that activist athletes are better off not emphasizing their identities, but, if the goal is to bring in new fans into the league, Chapter 5 shows that players are better off if they do. The reason for this trade-off is straightforward and well-grounded in the persuasion literature: there are more progressives to turn into new WNBA fans than there are WNBA fans to turn into progressives.
Delevoye, Angele, "Leading from the Margins: The WNBA and the Emergence of a New Model of Sports Activism in the United States" (2022). Yale Graduate School of Arts and Sciences Dissertations. 583.