Notre Dame star Brianna Turner confronts bubble life and social reform in WNBA

Anthony Anderson
Tribune Correspondent

Brianna Turner’s living in a so-called bubble, yet she can’t help being concerned with what’s going on outside the bubble.

The former Notre Dame women’s basketball star is living in a place where her own well-being is constantly monitored — “I think I’ve been tested for coronarvirus 50 times now,” she estimated Friday afternoon — yet she can’t ignore her concern for the well-being of others.

She’s not alone, of course.

Turner and the rest of the WNBA’s players presented a united front when they decided not to play Wednesday’s and Thursday’s scheduled games in response to the Aug. 23 shooting of Jacob Blake by police in Kenosha, Wis., and to a long list of other potentially race-related incidents that have sparked widespread demands for social reform.

Turner, though, brings a somewhat distinct perspective to the Black Lives Matter cause, because much of that movement is in response to the conduct of police.

Both her parents are career police officers.

She admits to having hurt feelings when police are criticized collectively.

About three months ago, triggered in part by the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Turner wrote a first-person piece published by ESPN detailing some of her conflicted emotions, and why she regularly speaks out anyway on social media.

She stated that she won’t stop until she sees “real change,” and added that what happened to George Floyd could easily happen to her own Black father when not in uniform.

In that article, Turner said there have been times she’s had trouble concentrating on basketball.

Since that article, it’s not gotten easier.

“I definitely underestimated the emotional toll that these incidents would take on me,” Turner acknowledged Friday by phone of becoming more involved. “Just like when I was at Notre Dame, you’re here to practice, to play, and the outside noise, you’re gonna (tend to) ignore it, but it’s increasingly become harder and harder to ignore what happens in reality.”

Not that the “emotional toll” she is referencing is about to make her dial back.

“I feel like these same situations are still happening,” Turner said. “We as a country should be frustrated, confused and looking for solutions. I’m not in a position of political power, but we need to be looking into qualified immunity, we need to make it easier to prosecute (police), we need to be looking into banning chokeholds, we need to look into the issue of no-knock warrants. I’m just trying to think of ways we can be better, like a lot of people are.”

Turner’s concerning herself with these things while continuing to play basketball at a high level.

She’s in her second season with the Phoenix Mercury and she’s coming off MVP runner-up honors last winter in Australia’s premier league.

The start of the current WNBA season was delayed in response COVID-19, with players reporting to the “bubble” at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., on July 6.

“It’s definitely surreal in some aspects,” Turner said of the players, players’ children in some cases and other league-related personnel being restricted largely to the game courts, practice courts and their nearby villas.

“You just wake up, go to work, go to sleep,” Turner said. “It’s pretty uneventful outside of the games and being tested. There’s really no manual on how we navigate this. We’re just taking it day by day.”

Training camps opened July 10 and the regular season started July 25.

Because the regular season began late, it’s been pared from 34 to 22 games for each team. It’ll end Sept 12, followed by eight of the league’s 12 clubs advancing to the playoffs.

The postseason is expected to conclude in October.

While there are nine former Notre Dame players active in the bubble — including Turner, Arike Ogunbowale, Marina Mabrey and Jackie Young all from ND’s 2018 national title team and 2019 runner-up club — the non-teammates among them don’t see each other much because of restrictions that include players not being allowed to attend games not involving their own teams.

“We don’t really cross paths because there’s like three different places to live on campus,” Turner said. “We might cross paths riding in a golf cart, but that’s about it.”

Nevertheless, she closely tracks her ex-Irish teammates’ progress.

“I’m very proud of each of them,” Turner said, “and I think it’s cool that Arike and Marina get to be on the same team (the Dallas Wings).”

What’s not cool to Turner is the lack of progress on the societal issues now at the forefront, as well as the notion that athletes shouldn’t concern themselves.

“We’re trying to stand up for racial equality and bring light to these issues, but they’re not new issues,” Turner said. “They’re systemic issues that people need to talk about, and when athletes talk about them, that’s mostly people with college degrees, and a lot of other smart people, so I’m not sure why we shouldn’t be part of the people talking about them.”

Phoenix Mercury forward Brianna Turner brings the ball up the court during a game against the Los Angeles Sparks July 25 in Bradenton, Fla.