‘Deal With It, or Don’t. This Is Who I Am’: Layshia Clarendon Is Shaking Up the Sports World
The WNBA star speaks out on women’s pay in sports, LGBTQ rights and representation, and the ‘special place in hell’ for Trump’s cronies.
A sneaker company’s advertising campaign does not normally resonate to the degree that Adidas’ most recent blitz does, let alone come across as so authentic and downright honest. Then again, most ad campaigns don’t feature Layshia Clarendon.
The 27-year-old, California born and bred two-time gold medal winner and point guard with the Connecticut Sun of the WNBA is one of several female athletes featured in a two-minute spot released on International Women’s Day and called: “She Breaks Barriers.”
In an empty gym, while the 5' 9" Clarendon gently swishes a few layups, she says in a voiceover, “I’m not just a ‘shut up and dribble’ athlete,” a clear reference to Laura Ingraham’s condescending demand that LeBron James refrain from discussing anything that takes place beyond a basketball court.
As an openly queer, gender-nonconforming person of color, Clarendon has been a devout advocate for LGBTQ issues and social justice causes. Those type of politics, especially in comparison to the blandly inspirational and non-confrontational text that Nike plastered on images of Colin Kaepernick, have rarely been placed front and center by Madison Avenue.
“There hasn’t been representation like that,” she says in the video, grinning. “Deal with it, or don’t. This is who I am.”
Reached by phone at her home in the Bay Area, Clarendon was using her downtime from the grueling WNBA season to work out, hit the speaking circuit, and continue calling college games for the PAC-12 Network. Many of her fellow WNBA stars don’t have that luxury. Because of the relatively paltry salaries—the average player earned about $75,000 during the 2018 season, with veterans maxing out at $113,500—over half the league’s players are playing overseas, working year-round.
During her rookie year with the Indiana Fever, Clarendon earned between $40,000 and $45,000. (She can’t recall the exact amount.) So Clarendon too went abroad after the season ended, playing for a team in Prague. Afterwards, she realized it wasn’t worth it. The lack of time to rest and recuperate led to a nagging back injury, and left her feeling like she wasn’t enjoying playing ball. Instead, she decided, “I'm going to take a different path,” Clarendon said.
She did. In a 2015 article on The Players Tribune, Clarendon discussed both her sexuality and her faith. “I identify as black, gay, female, non-cisgender and Christian," Clarendon wrote. While this makes her “an outsider even on the inside of every community to which I belong” after years of struggle, she came to understand and accept that all of those elements are wholly compatible:
I had to realize that this is who I was created to be; this is who I am and that’s okay because I was uniquely made. God welcomes all who seek Him, and it says, “whosoever shall believe.” Anyone. Jesus didn’t just die for the straight people.
When the state of Texas was considering anti-trans legislation similar to North Carolina’s bathroom bill, Clarendon co-wrote an op-ed for NBC News decrying its abject bigotry. Similarly, in an Esquire op-ed, as someone whose gender is often misidentified, she called for greater support for trans allies.
“There is no space for the in-between. You have to be either male or female, gay or straight. When you don't fit those rigid molds, you are confronted everywhere you go that there is no space for you,” Clarendon wrote.
In 2017, she publicly backed Jemele Hill, then under fire for tweeting that President Trump was a white supremacist.
Last year, Clarendon took her alma mater to court, alleging that an employee of the University of California-Berkeley athletic department, Mohamed Muqtar, had sexually assaulted her when she was an 18-year-old freshman. It wasn’t an easy decision to make. "When you're sexually assaulted, you think you’re weak, or you're the only one this happened to, or you were dumb for letting it happen to you,” she said. “There’s so much blame as a survivor. I wanted to take that power back. I shouldn’t be carrying the shame; he should be carrying the shame."
Muqtar, age 61, has since been fired by the university, but the lawsuit is still ongoing. Per ESPN, Cal-Berkeley conducted an internal investigation which substantiated the charges leveled by Clarendon. Though Muqtar declined to comment when contacted by ESPN, another alumna has since come forward alleging that Muqtar sexually harassed her. Like Clarendon, she was 18 years old. In addition to ensuring that he wouldn’t pose a threat to anyone else on campus, Clarendon wanted to stand up for the all victims of sexual assault who had been forced into silence.
"You see how hard it is for people to step up," she said. Many can’t afford to spend years waiting for the gears of justice to slowly turn, Clarendon explained. As a well-known athlete, Clarendon’s character can't be as easily impugned nor could someone claim she’s just out to make a quick buck, all of which has reaffirmed “how messed up the system is, that because of who I am... I was taken seriously,” she said.
Clarendon’s commitment to activism has come with a cost, even if she wouldn’t have it any other way. Not playing overseas meant she had to struggle just to keep up with her living expenses during her first few pro seasons, particularly in San Francisco. (Sharing a home with her longtime partner—the pair married in 2017—made paying rent a lot easier.) But even now, Clarendon can’t always afford the kind of extensive training and nutritional staff that’s become de rigueur for top pro and even amateur athletes.
“It’s definitely frustrating, and can be demoralizing at times," said Clarendon. Living on the opposite coast as her team’s training staff and facilities means she has to scramble just to find a decent place to work on her game. Sometimes, that means hitting up her local gym in Chico, California.
At one point, she was going through shooting drills and her foot slipped because the court hadn’t been properly cleaned. While she didn’t suffer an injury, it was yet another reminder of the additional hoops a WNBA player has to jump through. “Seriously? I’m a professional athlete,” Clarendon said. “This is ridiculous. These are the conditions I'm fighting through to try and get better every day?”
Issues like these are partly why the Women’s National Basketball Players Association (WNBPA) opted out of its collective bargaining agreement with the WNBA in November. If the two sides can’t cobble together a new deal, a work stoppage looms at the end of the 2019 season. As vice president of the WNBPA, Clarendon remains confident they’ll find common ground when it comes to salary compensation, player safety health and wellness, and greater WNBA transparency, such that they can avoid hitting the picket lines.
On Wednesday, the National Basketball Players Association (NBPA) offered solidarity with the WNBA and WNBPA as it entered into negotiations. “WE STAND WITH OUR SISTERS!" the statement read. [All-caps, theirs.]
Marketing and financial support are essential to the league’s long-term future, according to Clarendon. "I think we take for granted how much we’re told what’s cool and what to watch,” she said. As a point of comparison, beyond the actual games, the hurly-burly of free agency and the draft, and the social media buzz all leads to a product that can be consumed by diehards and casual fans alike year-round (Again, the fact that many WNBA players are off in a different time zone for half the year doesn’t help.)
“People don't know our stories,” said Clarendon. "That's what we're missing on the other side—the drama and the stories that drive viewership." That said, she’s aware that ingrained sexism remains a significant factor when it comes to the growth of the WNBA. “I think it something we're constantly fighting for: to be seen as equals.”
The relative size of the WNBA’s platform also plays a role when it comes to the players’ activist efforts. While many NBA and NFL stars have been lauded for speaking out against police brutality, they’ve been more than matched by their WNBA cohorts. If you weren’t already a WNBA fan, though, you might not have heard about it.
So Clarendon has taken it upon herself to tell those stories, speaking out wherever and whenever she has the chance. At times. it’s meant immersing herself in the latest atrocities perpetrated by the Trump administration, like Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’ defunding of the Special Olympics in the proposed 2020 budget.
“There is a special place in hell for those people," she said. "It really knows no bounds. It's just remarkable." It’s thin gruel, but for Clarendon, the ability to feel a sense of outrage or shock at least proves that she hasn’t become “completely numb” to this kind of casual, daily cruelty.
Claredon’s role—or “the queer to come to about any issues,” as she described herself—has only grown over time.
“I'm becoming more bold about being a gender-nonconforming person, and being unapologetic about who I am,” Clarendon continued. “I realized there are a lot of people out there like me that don't get to see themselves."
Growing up, the lack of representation was a problem, It wasn’t something should could clearly articulate when she was a kid who revered point guards like Sue Bird and Steve Nash, spent countless hours shooting buckets in her backyard, and “was born with a basketball in my hands," as she put it.
Now Clarendon realizes she was “looking for those role models and those people who just show you that you’re OK in the moment,” she said. “That's why a woman like Janelle Monáe is so powerful for a lot of women of color, because she represents this queerness and this otherness that we haven't had the opportunity to see.”
Whenever her activism or life in the public eye proves exhausting, Clarendon reminds herself that someone, a kid or even an adult, might see her and think, “Oh there’s someone like me in basketball!” Clarendon said, someone who succeeded, publicly, and beyond their wildest dreams. Appearing on TV covering PAC-12 games while wearing a suit and tie is both a radical and immensely valuable act. “I think it does liberate people more than we know."
Asked what she’d do were she (hypothetically) put in charge of the WNBA, Clarendon is chock full of plans. For starters, she suggested a simple, daring proposal to attract LGBTQ dollars. The idea comes wrapped in a playful wink and nod, to be sure, and yet it absolutely would work.
"The ball's a rainbow!" she said.