Washington Mystics forward Myisha Hines-Allen took a few extra seconds before she answered what has become a daunting question: “How are you, really?”
“I’m surviving,” Hines-Allen, in her third year with the Washington Mystics, said during a Zoom media availability Thursday, Sept. 3.
The Mystics were coming off their third game in six days after the WNBA players’ wildcat strike on Aug. 28. Hines-Allen and teammate Ariel Atkins were the catalysts for another display of unity inside the league’s single site at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida, when the Mystics announced they would not play, mirroring the NBA’s same action in a playoff game earlier that day.
The team arrived at the court in white shirts with seven gunshot wounds painted on their backs. It was a stark reminder that just days prior, Kenosha police officer Rusten Sheskey fired the same number of shots into Jacob Blake’s back at point-blank range in front of his three children—ages 3, 5 and 8—who were all in the car.
Blake survived, but he wasn’t supposed to. It was time for the Mystics to take another stand.
Every action leading up to the announcement they would not play in their scheduled game against the Atlanta Dream was intentional; all of the players’ actions this season, whether inside the bubble or within their respective communities, have been intentional. Shortly after the WNBA announced it would move its 12 teams into a “bubble”—a restricted single sitewhere all players would stay for the season to limit COVID-19 exposure—to start the 2020 season originally scheduled to begin in mid-May, it revealed, in partnership with the Women’s National Basketball Players Association, this season would be dedicated to social justice. A number of players opted out of playing this year, citing concerns about COVID-19 and that the season would interfere with their ongoing social justice work. But the ones that decided to participate are part of a collective effort to keep the Black Lives Matter movement in America’s collective consciousness throughout the course of the now 22-game season.
“Black Lives Matter” adorned the courts, and, after Las Vegas Aces’ Angel McCoughtry petitioned for Breonna Taylor’s name to be on the backs of their jerseys, the WNBA continued to Say Her Name by dedicating the season to Taylor, a 26-year-old emergency room technician who was killed in her sleep by members of the Louisville Metro Police Department, which issued a no-knock warrant.
Players continued to set the standard of player, and league, activism, delivering impassioned speeches before games, a number of them dedicated to Black women who died at the hands of law enforcement.
“We are dedicating this season to Breonna Taylor, an outstanding EMT who was murdered over 130 days ago in her home. Breonna Taylor was dedicated and committed to uplifting everyone around her,” New York Liberty’s eighth-year guard Layshia Clarendon said before tipoff of the first WNBA game of the season. “We are also dedicating this season to ‘Say Her Name’ campaign, a campaign committed to saying the names and fighting for justice for Black women, Black women who are so often forgotten in this fight for justice, who do not have people marching in the streets for them. We will say her name. Sandra Bland. Atatiana Jefferson. Dominique Remy Fells. And Breonna Taylor. We will be a voice for the voiceless.”
Those in the bubble have to balance a rigorous, competitive schedule with the realities of being a Black person in the United States. The WNBA is largely made up of Black women—of the 144 players holding roster spots in the WNBA in 2019, at least 127 are Black or women of color, according to statistics from Swish Appeal’s Tamryn Spruill—and when issues of racism and violence wielded against Black bodies are discussed, the onus always and unfairly falls on these women, including some of the league’s biggest stars. One of the WNBA’s most consistent players, Minnesota Lynx’s Maya Moore, who was playing the best basketball of her career, famously opted out of the 2019 season in pursuit of criminal justice reform and turning over the wrongful conviction of Jonathan Irons, whose 50-year prison sentence for burglary and assault charges was overturned July 1.
Natasha Cloud, a fifth-year guard for the Mystics, was one of the players who opted out of playing this season in the bubble. In the time since, Cloud—who has advocated for various social justice issues in previous seasons—has continued work within her community and assisted athletes, including her teammates, with their own forms of activism. Atkins weighed the same decision but ultimately joined Washington in the bubble, and she has, along with Hines-Allen, become one of the team’s emerging leaders. Star Elena Delle Donne and free agent addition Tina Charles are not in the bubble due to health reasons. The strides Atkins and Hines-Allen have made in this short time are in part due to the support from teammates from afar, including Cloud.
In an op-ed for The Athletic, Cloud detailed how she challenged the team’s two leaders to think about sitting out their next game.
“On Tuesday night, I was thinking about trying to play right now, and I was like, ‘I know if I were there, I would’ve sat out. Whether the team followed me or not, I would not have played,’” Cloud wrote. “And I don’t want to step on anyone’s toes, because again, I’m not in the bubble. And I made the decision to opt out exactly for this reason—because I can’t compartmentalize having the luxury of dribbling a basketball while people who look like me are being shot and killed every single day, many by the hands of police.”
Cloud began communicating these feelings explicitly with teammates inside the bubble and texted Atkins, which sparked a deeper conversation with Hines-Allen that ultimately led to the team’s collective decision.
“They really challenged me to just say, ‘No, this is not the time,’ and as much as people think that we were going to solve racism sitting out one game, that’s not the case,” Atkins said in a recent media availability. “Racism is a problem that’s been going on for so long; we’re not the ones that are going to change it, if you want to be quite frank, directly basketball doesn’t affect politics, but we do understand we’re visible. We do understand that people see us, and we understand that people hear us when we speak.”
Atkins’ voice was being heard. The united front of the players both in and away from Florida was again being recognized, but just as the WNBA has been at the forefront of the social justice movement in sports, its players want more. More for themselves. More for their families. More for their communities.
“We’re still demanding justice,” Atkins said. “We’re still fighting for the lives of the people that are survived by the victims who lost their lives at the hands of police authority. So, I mean, I’m personally, I’m alright. I’m here fighting for what I can and trying to make sure everybody understands that we aren’t just basketball players, we care about those families. We hear those families, and we want them to know we’re there for them.”
It’s not lost on any of these women that when they put on a jersey to honor Taylor, when they say her name, her family is reliving the moment they lost her.
“It’s not just about how heavy our hearts are but understanding that these families have to go through this every day,” Atkins said. “So, being aware of that and not being ignorant to that fact and understanding that, of course, we’re basketball players and I’m thankful to do this, but this work isn’t just about being seen.”
This work dates back years to when Cloud and the Mystics fought for gun reform and when the Minnesota Lynx said enough after the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, Black men who were killed by police in the span of a week in July 2016. This is why Moore decided to sit out another WNBA season. Players both in-season and continuing the work on their own have set a new standard in player activism. Their way was paved by sport martyrs like Olympian’s Tommie Smith and John Carlos and former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick. WNBA players have innovated ways to continue the movement and bring the message to more people—These players are the vanguard when it comes to athlete protests.
As the league draws in more fans and viewers than ever before, including 63% more viewership from 2020’s opening weekend than the 2019 regular-season average, it remains mostly about the message. The one that these women, these Black women and Black bodies everywhere matter. Their wildcat strike was another statement they needed to make.
“When we take off our jerseys, when we leave this bubble, we’re going to step into that real world and it could be us whose dying at the hands of police brutality,” Hines-Allen said. “We just have to learn how to step away from basketball and realize we have a platform, we have a voice, let’s use it. I think it was perfect timing to do it also. This is bigger than basketball. We’re bigger than basketball so let’s continue to use our voice to try and make change.”