August 27, 2020 

How the Mystics keep pushing for racial justice

Tired, in pain, but Washington — specifically, the WNBA team — is leading the country

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The Washington Mystics’ Ariel Atkins spoke to ESPN’s Holly Rowe on Wednesday night’s ESPN2 broadcast.

The Washington Mystics are hurting.

Players such as Ariel Atkins have made that clear throughout the WNBA season, regularly speaking about George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and social justice in their media sessions. But three days after police officers in Kenosha, Wisconsin, shot Jacob Blake, a 29-year-old Black man, seven times in the back, the Mystics reached a point where they decided not to play basketball.

Their decision had ripple effects throughout the league, and the WNBA ultimately postponed Wednesday’s slate of games, including the Mystics’ scheduled matchup against the Atlanta Dream.

“You choosing a human or you choosing a game,” Ariel Atkins told ESPN’s Holly Rowe on national television. “And when I kind of broke it down like that, it’s like, Think about that. The fact that we even have to make those two comparisons.”

At the Mystics’ morning shootaround on Wednesday, they had a team conversation in which they planned to play, according to head coach and general manager Mike Thibault. They also decided to hold a media blackout after the game in which they would only discuss what happened to Blake, not what happened on the court. (The team previously held a media blackout in June 2019 in response to gun violence in Ward 8, the part of DC that is home to the Mystics’ Entertainment and Sports Arena.)

After every shootaround, a Mystics player speaks to the media, and on Wednesday, it was Alaina Coates’ turn. The first question was about the team’s push for a playoff spot, and she briefly discussed how the team needed to execute better in certain facets of the game. But it was clear that Jacob Blake, not the Dream, was on her mind.

“But honestly, with the climate of what’s going on in the world right now?” Coates segued. “I mean, although we’re in the bubble and we’re playing this season, especially with what just happened with Jacob Blake, we’re just trying to figure out how to make another statement to the world because right now, nothing’s changing. It keeps happening. … Black people are still suffering from police brutality. And we’re just trying to figure out what we can do at this point.”

The team decided to pair the media blackout with something “graphic and mind-boggling,” as Thibault phrased it, to match the news reports of what had happened to Blake. On Wednesday afternoon, the players designed shirts for every member of the team that had seven holes in the back, painted with red to resemble blood, to match the wounds Blake sustained. The front of each player’s shirt had a letter so that when they stood in a line, they spelled out “JACOB BLAKE.” The staff’s shirts each had the number seven on the front.

The team wore those shirts to the arena, and soon after they arrived, they met with the Dream players and staff on the court for over an hour to discuss whether to play. The two teams playing after them, the Los Angeles Sparks and Minnesota Lynx, joined in when they got to the arena, and Thibault indicated that at least one of the two teams in the evening’s late game was also involved.

At one point, the prevailing thought was that the teams would play and pause every seven minutes to honor Blake. But, when the Mystics left the multi-team discussion and huddled together, “the true feelings came out,” Thibault said. “And the heart wasn’t in it.”

Upon hearing that the Mystics did not want to play, the other teams quickly decided to do the same. At 7pm, the time the Mystics-Dream game had been scheduled to start, the four teams took a knee at midcourt and locked arms in solidarity. The gesture was streamed live on ESPN2, and Atlanta’s Elizabeth Williams read a statement on behalf of the players that said in part:

“This is the reason for the 2020 season. It is in our DNA. We have been saying her name. We are lifting the names of Black and Brown women whose murders have been forgotten. We will continue to use our platform to speak of these injustices that are still happening and demand action for change. Black Lives Matter. Say Her Name. Say His Name.”

The teams stood and mingled with one another for several minutes on the court. Coates hugged Lynx guard Odyssey Sims, and Emma Meesseman of the Mystics and Monique Billings of the Dream, who otherwise would have been battling for position in the paint, shared an embrace.

As the teams dispersed, the Mystics gathered behind Atkins, their 24-year-old union representative and an emerging leader for them on social justice issues, as she spoke with Rowe about the decision not to play.

“It’s hard to be vulnerable in these moments, but … if we do this unified as a league, it looks different,” Atkins said, her voice shaking with emotion at times. “Because this league is close to, if not over, 80% Black women. … We matter! And I think that’s important; I think people should know that. And I’m tired of telling people that! I know I matter. We know we matter.”

One common thread on Wednesday night, including in Atkins’ and Thibault’s statements as well as the team’s nonverbal communication, was the presence of forward Tianna Hawkins’ 5-year-old son Emanuel. He has been a ubiquitous part of the team’s life in the bubble, and he took part in all four teams’ gesture at midcourt on Wednesday. In the words of The Next’s Bailey Johnson, that created “a powerful image of a young Black boy at the center of a moment of silence for the shooting of a young Black man.”

Using Emanuel as an example, Atkins told Rowe that her team’s decision went far beyond basketball, to issues that affect their families and millions of Black families in the United States every day. “When most of us go home, we still are Black, in the sense that our families matter,” she said. “Like, we got this little guy [Emanuel] right here that we see every day. His life matters. He needs to know that he can do what he wants to do whenever he leaves his house when he grows up, within reason … He matters. And that’s what people need to understand, that we’re not just basketball players. … We’re so much more than that.”

Atkins placed her hands on Emanuel’s head after she spoke with Rowe, and Meesseman held his hand as she walked off the court. Thibault spoke of how Hawkins worries about her son and how the Mystics collectively “feel that we need to ensure his future somehow.”

On this day, the strike was how the Mystics players felt they could best stand up for the future of Black people in the United States. Thibault did not weigh in on their decision, promising to support them in whatever they decided.

With their six other teammates, Washington Mystics players (from left) Sug Sutton, Stella Johnson, Ariel Atkins, and Kiara Leslie wore shirts spelling out “JACOB BLAKE,” each with seven holes in the back to represent Blake’s wounds. Screenshot from the ESPN2 broadcast.

The Mystics will continue to have conversations among themselves and with the other eleven teams going forward. Thibault couldn’t say on Wednesday night what it would take to return to the court. Coates acknowledged that the WNBA’s single site in Bradenton, Florida, has been a double-edged sword, allowing players to make a living and do what they love but also distancing them from their families and communities during this challenging time. “We can’t just up and freely … leave,” she explained. “The most that we have right now is to make these statements when we have these TV games and use our platforms, on social media and any other platforms that we may have. So … yes, it is a struggle.”

ESPN analyst LaChina Robinson added on the broadcast, “This was [the players’] way of putting their arms around their community from a distance.”

Wednesday was a long day for the Mystics. The injustices they’ve seen have worn down several players and hurt all of them.

“It’s frustrating. It’s really hard,” Coates said. “You want to have faith in humanity; you want to keep the faith and have hope that things will change. … It’s like a weird looming dark cloud. You hate to see it. You wake up, you see somebody trying to de-escalate something [and] get shot in the back … [Blake’s] kids were in the backseat of his car, they watched him get shot, and now this man is paralyzed. …

“Yes, basketball is important to us right now, but it’s pretty much taking a backseat at this point. … We’re going to continue to keep fighting. It doesn’t matter what anybody has to say.”

Written by Jenn Hatfield

Jenn Hatfield has been a contributor to The Next since December 2018 and is currently the site's managing editor, Washington Mystics beat reporter and Ivy League beat reporter. Her work has also appeared at FiveThirtyEight, Her Hoop Stats, FanSided, Power Plays and Princeton Alumni Weekly.

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