The Washington Mystics' 2020 season will always be synonymous with social justice
The Mystics' existing culture of speaking out led the way
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Washington Mystics guard Ariel Atkins talks with ESPN’s Holly Rowe about her team’s decision not to play on August 26, 2020, three days after Jacob Blake was killed by police. Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images
In any other year, the Washington Mystics’ last-second playoff push, which included four consecutive wins and rejuvenated play on both ends of the court, would likely be the defining memory of their season. But this year, there was even more at stake.
In the weeks after Minneapolis police killed George Floyd in May, WNBA players agreed to play the 2020 season—which was to be held at a clean site in Bradenton, Florida, due to COVID-19—only if it would be dedicated to social justice. After they arrived in Florida, the 2020 Mystics became the team that led the way on social justice, and that will be their legacy long after a champion is crowned.
WNBA players have been using their voices for years; many people credit the Minnesota Lynx captains’ decision in 2016 to wear t-shirts honoring Alton Brown and Philando Castile, two Black men who were killed by police, to a press conference with starting the push for social justice. The Mystics’ activism isn’t new, either, but they upped the ante this season.
The Mystics demonstrated several models for combining activism and sports in previous seasons, including a protest during the national anthem in 2017; Kristi Toliver’s pregame speech condemning a white supremacist rally in 2018; Natasha Cloud’s decision to warm up in an Everytown for Gun Safety shirt throughout the 2019 season; and media blackouts in 2016 and 2019. When the Mystics held their blackout last season to protest local gun violence, head coach Mike Thibault told the players that he was supportive as long as they kept pushing for change after the blackout ended.
The Mystics not only did that, but also continued their activism year-round into 2020. Cloud ultimately decided to sit out the 2020 season in order to “continue the fight on the front lines for social reform.” She has often been the most visible Mystic on social justice, writing a Players’ Tribune story about racism following Floyd’s death and leading a rally and march on Juneteenth to honor victims of police brutality. But forward Myisha Hines-Allen had the idea for the rally and march, and center Tina Charles donated her entire 2020 salary to Black Lives Matter, to name just a few players whose efforts may have gone under the radar.
For the 2020 season, the WNBA established a Social Justice Council comprised of players and dedicated opening weekend to Black Lives Matter and the Say Her Name campaign. The league also agreed to put the name of Breonna Taylor, a Louisville woman who was killed by police in March, on the back of every player’s jersey. In the preseason, Hines-Allen explained the importance of the latter gesture:
“To have her name on the back of my jersey … it's going to mean a lot. I'm not just playing for myself. Before I was playing for not just myself but my family; now I'm playing for something more, something bigger.”
From their very first press conferences in Bradenton, social justice was at the forefront of the Mystics’ minds. Basketball was important, but it was also a means to an end, a vehicle for the more consequential impacts they wanted to have off the court. That was evident even in the team’s motto for this season, Apply Pressure, which encompassed both on and off the court.
“Off the court will be to apply pressure to others when it comes to creating more awareness and … something as simple as get out and register to vote,” guard/forward Aerial Powers said. On the court, the Mystics committed to putting pressure on other teams, despite missing several players from their 2019 championship team. “We’re coming out guns firing; it's like, wow, Mystics are still here,” Powers said.
In mid-August, to supplement their own voter registration efforts that had launched a few weeks prior, the Mystics organization got eight other WNBA teams to sign on to “Unite the Vote,” a month-long competition to see which team could register the most fans to vote. By the end of the competition, over 250 people had registered to vote through one of the nine teams, and the Seattle Storm and Las Vegas Aces tied for the most registrations with 68 apiece.
Players also spoke up individually about social justice throughout the season, both in press conferences and on social media. For example, guard Ariel Atkins posted the photo and story of a Black woman killed by police on Instagram before every game with the hashtag #SayHerName. Breonna Taylor. Marquesha McMillan. Bettie Jones. Sandra Bland. Miriam Carey—and so many more.
But the turning point in the season from a social justice perspective was when Jacob Blake, a Black man, was shot seven times in the back in Kenosha, Wisconsin, on August 23. The Mystics were upset, scared, and angry.
“For myself and a lot of players in this league, we're Black, so when we take off our jerseys, when we leave this bubble, we're gonna step into that real world and it could be us who's dying at the hands of police brutality,” Hines-Allen said a few weeks later. “So … we have to learn how to step away from basketball and realize we have a platform, we have a voice. Let's use it.”
The Mystics’ schedule included a few off days after Blake was shot, but their distress was evident starting with center Alaina Coates’ comments to the media after a pregame shootaround on August 26. She briefly attempted to answer a question about the team’s push for a playoff spot, then pivoted to what was on her mind.
“But honestly, with the climate of what's going on in the world right now?” Coates said. “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 players mulled their options and consulted with Cloud and other teammates who were not in Bradenton via text and FaceTime. Cloud asked Atkins whether the team had considered sitting out its game against the Atlanta Dream that evening.
“We haven’t talked about it,” Atkins said. “We made T-shirts. We have statements.”
“I challenge you to think about sitting out,” Cloud replied.
The Mystics arrived at the arena wearing the shirts Atkins had mentioned to Cloud: white with seven holes in the back, painted with red to resemble blood, to match Blake’s wounds. The front of each player’s shirt had a letter so that all ten players spelled out “JACOB BLAKE.” The staff’s shirts had the number seven on the front.
The Mystics met with the Dream and other teams scheduled to play that night for over an hour. It was an emotional and difficult discussion, in part because, as point guard Leilani Mitchell put it, “We felt like we were making a decision for the whole league without being able to speak to all the teams.” Some people involved in the discussion wanted to play, but ultimately, the Mystics didn’t feel comfortable doing so.
“It might sound like I'm exaggerating, but it felt like they were making us choose a game over the life of our people,” Atkins said later. “And I didn't like that, our team didn't like that, and I felt like if we didn't want to play, it was something that we needed to say [and] we needed to stand by that.”
Once the Mystics declared that they were not going to play, the other teams quickly followed suit. On national television, the four teams present at the arena at 7pm—the scheduled start time for the Mystics-Dream game—took a knee at midcourt and locked arms in solidarity.
Flanked by her teammates, Atkins then spoke with ESPN’s Holly Rowe about her team’s decision.
“It was important for us to collectively come up with something that we feel would make a very bold statement,” she said. “… We're not just basketball players. And if you think we are, then don't watch us. You're watching the wrong sport because we're so much more than that. We're going to say what we need to say, and people need to hear that. And if they don't support that, I'm fine with that. …
“This league is close to, if not over, 80% Black women. We have cousins, we have brothers, we have sisters, mothers, everyone. We matter. And I think that's important, I think people should know that, and I'm tired of telling people that.”
Cloud was emotional as she processed the significance of her teammates’ decision and Atkins’ statement. “I just watched ESPN2, and [Ariel], I am in tears I am so proud of you,” she said in a recorded video. “I’m so proud of our team, but I’m extremely, extremely proud of you and your voice and your growth and your ability to stand up when you needed to, when people told you no. I am beyond amazed and proud of you for taking this stand and I am thankful for you, because this is what we are fighting for.”
Rookie point guard Sug Sutton also soaked in Atkins’ words, but from a very different perspective. Sutton had been signed just ten days prior, when Thibault decided to use the 2020 season to evaluate more young talent. As a college player at Texas, she had discussed social justice in some of her classes but rarely with teammates, so the events on August 26 and the discussions that followed were learning opportunities for her.
“In college, we didn't have many conversations about social justice,” Sutton said. “… So it's been a learning process for me actually with that because the Mystics, they're very, very into the social justice thing and I'm learning from all the veterans and it's been a great experience … I learned a lot and I'm just thankful to be a part of it.”
Following the Mystics’ lead, all 12 teams sat out one game each and held two days of discussion and reflection. But when the ball was tipped again on August 28, the players did not simply go back to “business as usual.” The Los Angeles Sparks’ Nneka Ogwumike, who is also the president of the players’ union, told ESPN that the players and the league “are doubling down on our previous calls to action.”
The Mystics doubled down by using the television broadcasts to amplify their social justice message, rather than relying solely on media interviews. They informed the broadcasters that they would intentionally take 24-second shot clock violations to begin quarters and asked them to use that time to highlight the importance of voting and completing the census. (Ideally, the Mystics’ opponent would agree to the idea and each team would take two violations to cover all four quarters.) With help from the Mystics PR staff, the team even provided broadcasters with facts on voting and the census to share with the audience.
“Coming into this [season], we were playing for social justice, but right now, we are playing for social justice,” Tianna Hawkins said on August 28. “We were just saying that, we were talking about it, we were bringing everything to light, but now we're not doing anything else but bring things to light. Yes, we're playing a game, but the game will be used for us to make a statement.”
That same day, Hawkins, Atkins, and Hines-Allen made a short video about the Commitment March taking place in Washington, DC, on the 57th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s March on Washington. “[The march is] all I'm thinking about. I wish I could be there,” Hawkins told the media.
The video ended with all ten Mystics players saying in unison, “Arrest the cops who killed Breonna Taylor.”
As the calendar flipped to September and the Mystics began their playoff push, they continued to take the shot clock violations, even when a few opponents declined to participate. Giving away possessions could have cost the Mystics a playoff spot in a race that came down to the last game of the season, but they did not waver.
“If that's what they feel comfortable with, that's them,” Atkins said. “We're us. We're gonna continue to fight for what we believe in and doing [it] the best way that we know how. Taking a shot clock violation may seem minimal to some people, but … it's important for us to keep pushing our voices and keep pushing the things that we want to be heard.”
The Mystics narrowly secured the eight seed in the playoffs, giving them a bigger spotlight to share their message. To ensure that the opportunity didn’t go to waste, Atkins reached out to Rowe, who was part of the broadcast crew for that game, beforehand to review the talking points the team wanted her to share with the audience.
The Mystics and their opponent, the Phoenix Mercury, each took one shot clock violation during the first half of the game, which Phoenix won 85-84. Since the Mystics were eliminated, none of the remaining teams have taken shot clock violations.
The Mystics’ push for social justice was unrelenting this season—and it took a mental toll on everyone in the organization. Thibault admitted on August 29 that his staff was “pretty fried” from both the social justice discussions and the on-court challenges they had faced. A few days later, The Next’s Alexis Mansanarez asked Hines-Allen how she was feeling, and she said, “I'm surviving. You know, like, living. I can't really say much on that one, Alexis. I'm sorry.”
Coates responded similarly on September 8, the day of a crucial regular-season game for the Mystics. “Still hanging in there,” she said. “… I don't know, humanity's weird, but I mean, it's game day, so gotta find that energy somewhere.”
On the night the Mystics’ season ended, they expressed pride in what they accomplished with respect to social justice and gratitude for those who helped them. “[The players have] stayed focused on the things that were important to them,” Thibault said. “… That takes a lot of stick-to-itiveness and determination to see through what they intended to do, and they kept to the subject all summer.”
Atkins was thankful that the broadcasters amplified the Mystics’ message during the shot clock violations and that the WNBA was receptive to players wanting to use their voices. The latter contrasted with the league’s attempts four years ago to fine players for wearing social justice-related t-shirts during warmups. (The league later rescinded the fines and pledged to work with the players to elevate their voices.)
Despite the fact that several Mystics players play overseas in the offseason, the team is committed to continuing the conversation about social justice and building on the momentum they have generated. Thibault called it “one of our biggest goals,” and Atkins said it was something the team thought about even during the season. “That's part of the conversation now that we're currently having, and it's also something that I think individually as players we do already,” she said on September 5. “It's just not something that's on the surface and that a lot of people don't see.”
Hawkins indicated that the team’s priorities would continue to include voter turnout and the 2020 Census, and several Mystics posted about National Voter Registration Day, which was on September 22, on social media. Like many of their peers around the WNBA, they also spoke out about a Louisville grand jury’s decision on September 23 not to directly charge any of the officers involved with causing Breonna Taylor’s death.
Gregg Housh @GreggHoushIMPORTANT: Breonna Taylor is not listed as a victim in this idictment. The wanton endangerment is for the bullets entering other peoples apartments through the walls. The initials of the victims listed did not include BT. This indictment ignores the murder of #BreonnaTaylor.
Also on September 23, Cloud posted several tweets urging Events DC, the organization that owns the Mystics’ arena, to offer up the arena as a polling place on Election Day. That would give residents of Wards 7 and 8—parts of the city that are 92% Black and have median household incomes that are less than half the city’s median—more opportunity to vote. Within a few days, Events DC president Greg O’Dell did so and the DC Board of Elections announced that the arena would officially be a voting supercenter for the 2020 election.
It’s not clear whether Cloud’s comments contributed to O’Dell’s decision, but either way, they illustrate a lesson that her teammates in Florida learned during their season. As Atkins said on September 15, “One thing I've really learned is that we are heard. People do hear us when we speak, regardless of if it's five or 5,000. [So] making sure that I use my God-given platform to push the things that I believe in and to speak for people who need to be spoken for.”
Atkins reflected further on what she had learned off the court after departing the WNBA site. In her Instagram stories, she admitted, “I never knew the importance of voting locally, or understanding who is on the board of education or who is chief of police.” But she pledged to continue to educate herself. “Don’t be afraid to learn,” she wrote. “I heard it’s a life long [sic] process anyway.”
Screenshots of Ariel Atkins’ Instagram stories on September 21, 2020.
Playing in a league that has set the standard for athlete activism since 2016, the Mystics led the way in 2020. WNBA players have been committed to social justice from start to finish this season, but no team has been as relentless and coordinated in their messaging as the Mystics. If the WNBA players were fans in a stadium, the Mystics would have helped start the wave—and been the ones to revive it when it needed an extra push to go all the way around.
The wave in this analogy is social justice, and it shows no signs of weakening. But Thibault still gave it a final boost after the Mystics were eliminated from the playoffs. As he departed his postgame press conference, his parting words were, “Make sure all your friends are registered to vote!”