Sylvia Fowles is proud of the WNBA’s progress since she joined the league 12 years ago.
But she sees something different in the new generation of WNBA stars.
“They are more outspoken and blunt,” Fowles says. “These girls won’t take no for an answer.”
It’s more than pay equity for WNBA players. They support Black Lives Matter, LGBTQ+ communities and causes, Me Too, and Justice for Breonna Taylor, who was killed in her Louisville home by officers in March. WNBA superstar Maya Moore skipped two seasons, in her prime, to work on criminal justice reform, playing a role in overturning the wrongful conviction of Jonathan Irons.
Fowles isn’t an extrovert, and she isn’t particularly active with her verified Instagram and Twitter accounts. But her select words carry considerable weight, given the respect she’s earned both domestically and internationally, as one of the most decorated basketball players ever: Three-time Olympic champion, two-time WNBA champion, including Finals MVP both times, WNBA MVP, six-time WNBA All-Star, three-time WNBA Defensive Player of the Year, two-time Women’s Chinese Basketball Association champion, three-time Turkish Cup winner and two-time EuroLeague champion.
Yet there are so many reasons Fowles shines as a voice to amplify on Women’s Equality Day, officially declared in 1973 by Congress as a commemoration of the passing of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution that granted women full and equal voting rights 100 years ago.
“We Got Next”
Remarkably, Fowles recalls an instance she decided not to cast a vote, during a WNBA Collective Bargaining Agreement, as an example of how far women’s basketball has gone during her tenure.
The WNBA launched in April 1996 by proclaiming, “We Got Next.” But there had been other women’s professional basketball leagues in the United States with modest measures of success. Financially backed by NBA owners, the WNBA continued and generated momentum after a successful 2013 season in which Candace Parker was named MVP, Maya Moore was named Finals MVP, Elena Della Donne was named Rookie of the Year and Fowles was named Defensive Player of the Year. Television viewership, attendance, and web traffic on the league’s website all spiked.
The players were excited about a new Collective Bargaining Agreement, and many — including Fowles — had recommendations.
“We came up with all these brilliant ideas, and we took it to the board,” Fowles recalls. “They said, ‘The WNBA will fold if we don’t cooperate.’ I can remember myself and a lot of other women, we just decided that we weren’t going to vote.”
Many of today’s superstar athletes are not shy, empowered by massive social media followings that give them a platform that rivals — and sometimes exceeds — that of media organizations or their own teams. In the WNBA, Skylar Diggins-Smith has 1 million followers on Instagram, more than the WNBA’s official account, and nearly 10 times that of her team, the Phoenix Mercury. Parker has 667,000 followers on Instagram, nearly five times more than the Los Angeles Sparks’ account. Neither hesitates to share their views on social justice and women’s rights, among other topics of passion and interest to them. Many players were critical of Dream co-owner and also U.S. Senator, Kelly Loeffler, who wrote a letter to WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert objecting to the league's promotion of Black Lives Matter.
But earlier in her career, Fowles says the mindset of veteran stars was different.
“This whole program and blueprint of what elite athletes should go off of was almost like, ‘Take what we give you type of things,’ ” Fowles says. “I knew a lot of veterans were unhappy, but they weren’t very opinionated.”
There was a palpable fear among the WNBA players, at that time, that they could squash the league’s momentum by asking for too much — a common dilemma women have faced for generations.
“You don’t want to be taken for granted, but at the same time, you also don’t want to be seen as ungrateful either, with people feeling we are greedy or selfish,” Fowles says. “We still should have voted. I don’t know if that would have made a difference, but we should have all been on the same page.”
The WNBA players union highlighted that the CBA included a 12th roster spot, salary cap increases, and reduced revenue sharing thresholds, yet many players — including Fowles — were dissatisfied with the results.
That, Fowles says, is something she hopes for the younger generation, especially on Women’s Equality Day.
“It’s important to understand the people who paved the way to make women’s equality known. It’s been a struggle,” she says. “Know who paved the way and not take it for granted.”
She was referring not only to WNBA veterans but women’s rights activists such as Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.
Sylvia was born in Miami, the youngest of five children raised by their mother Arrittio, who usually worked three jobs.
“Everything I am today,” Sylvia says, “is because of my mother.”
Though Sylvia was the youngest, she was counted on to iron clothes, do her sister’s hair, and get her siblings off to school on time each morning.
“I was like, ‘I’m not the oldest. Why I got to do all these things?’ ” Sylvia recalls. “But she saw something in me, at an early age, that I could be counted on. She always pushed me to do things that were out of my comfort zone.”
Sylvia starred in high school and at Louisiana State University, before heading to the WNBA. Though shy, Sylvia never shied away from being herself.
“You’re supposed to be this cookie-cutter woman. They want you thin enough, or to dress feminine and wear smaller shorts, but, at the same time, you can’t be outspoken,” Sylvia says. “But I’m the type of person who doesn't really care what people have to say. At the end of the day, I’m just me.”
Sylvia has a unique perspective on women’s equality, given her extensive experience playing basketball in other countries, namely Russia, Turkey, and China. She didn’t have much of an opinion on her time with Spartak Moscow because she mainly focused on basketball and interacted with her club.
But in Turkey, Sylvia says women are usually seen as less significant as men, something that was reinforced by an incident with a male coach in one game.
He started yelling at her, though Sylvia didn’t know what he was saying and why he was saying it. The coach persisted, and she confronted him during the next timeout.
“I was like, ‘Why are you talking to me like this? Don’t fuss me out because I’m not that type of person,’ ” Sylvia recalls.
The coach didn’t back down. In fact, he got close to Sylvia’s face.
“That’s a no-no,” she says. “I was like, ‘Back up!’ ”
Sylvia was stunned by what happened after the game.
Her teammates insisted Sylvia — the only non-Turkish player — needed to apologize to the coach.
“I said, ‘I don’t know how you do things here, but you don’t jump in someone’s face like that,’ ” Sylvia says. “I wasn’t brought up like that.’ That gave me a perspective.”
Remarkably, her team won that game in a blowout. After losing respect for that coach, Sylvia did not continue playing for that club.
In China, Sylvia says the women “don’t have a voice.”
“They have to listen and go with the flow,” Sylvia says.
The systematic approach of the country also applies in basketball, so coaches there didn’t alter game plans.
Hope For The Future
Given all those experiences, Sylvia says she’s hopeful for the “big strides” for women in the U.S.
“But there are so many other things we can be doing, too,” she says. “It needs to start when you’re young, and it needs to start with more males coming to watch women’s sports, teaching sons early that women can do the same things.”
Like, own a funeral home.
Fowles is studying mortuary science, and she’s scheduled to graduate with her degree at the end of this year.
“I’m close,” she says. “Very close.”
But those post-playing career plans are yet another indication of the breadth of Sylvia’s interests and talents. And Sylvia has the rare ability to concentrate on the task at hand, as showcased by the fact that she won her 2017 WNBA MVP award at the age of 32.
“Wherever she is, that’s what she’s focused on,” Lynx head coach Cheryl Reeve told Sports Illustrated. “We lost the championship in 2016, and we thought we needed to make Sylvia a focal point. We identified ways that she could be even better.”
Bob Starkey, an assistant coach at LSU, told ESPN.com that Fowles has an “insatiable desire to get better.”
“She has so much depth to her that a lot of people don't know,” he said in the story. “She is an excellent artist, very creative. She's very generous and gives back to her community. She has such a big heart, and never forgets anybody.”