“We’re not just basketball players, and if you think we are, then don’t watch us,” Washington Mystics guard Ariel Atkins said. “We’re so much more than that, and we’re going to say what we need to say. And people need to hear that. If they don’t support that, I’m fine with that.
“These moments are so much more bigger than us. … If we do this unified as a league, it looks different. … We matter. I think that’s important. I’m tired of telling people that. I know I matter. We know we matter. … If you have a problem with me saying Black Lives Matter, you need to check your privilege. Yes, all lives matter, including the Black lives we’re talking about.”
The Mystics were slated to play the Atlanta Dream at 7 p.m. in Bradenton, Fla., but the game was postponed. The players arrived at the arena wearing T-shirts that spelled out the name of Jacob Blake with seven faux bullet holes in the back of the shirts. Blake was shot seven times in the back, in front of his children, by police in Kenosha, Wis, on Sunday. The original plan was to have a media blackout and only discuss social justice causes with no talk of basketball.
WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert said they’ll use the time tonight to discuss what will happen with the schedule of games Thursday.
“We know it’s a very emotional time for our players,” Engelbert said. “We know that they are struggling with what has been happening in this country for months, if not years. They’re young. They’re trying to find their voice. I’ve been so proud of how strong their social justice voice has been around Say Her Name and women victims. It’s difficult.
“We absolutely support them. We run a very players-first agenda. We said that from the beginning. … There’s no real choice here. We have to support our players.”
Instead of playing the game, both teams lined up on the court, locked arms and took a knee. Players could be seen somberly milling about, speaking to each other in hushed tones, draping their arms around each other. Some seemed to be on the verge of tears.
Atlanta center Elizabeth Williams made the official announcement from the court on ESPN, which was supposed to televise the game. She said the decision was made with all six teams that were scheduled to play and the players’ union leadership. Williams said they stand in solidarity with the NBA and will continue to converse with other leagues to take collective action.
“This was a very difficult decision to make for our players,” Mystics General Manager and Coach Mike Thibault said. “This whole thing has exhausted (Atkins) and several of our other players. I know that’s hard for, sometimes, people on the outside to understand. But I’m a White older male who has been sitting here for a couple days depressed because of what I see as a repeat, repeat, repeat, repeat. Contrast that to some of the rhetoric that’s out there being espoused this week. It’s very tough to watch. I’m so proud of her and other players who are growing up through this process.
“A lot of people want them to shut up and dribble, and there are people that will still be out there saying that. But these are adult women who have a lot at stake with what they’re doing. They understand that there are ramifications.”
The team had been discussing what to do since the shoot-around earlier in the day, and the conversation continued once the players arrived at the arena. That was around the same time the Bucks made their decision, and the NBA soon postponed all of its games. Players from both teams met on the court and discussed the situation and returned to their locker rooms believing the game would be played. Thibault said another discussion took place in the locker room when it became clear many players were uncomfortable and had felt pressured to play. The other four teams that were scheduled to play also were involved in the ultimate decision.
One of the more jarring images of the scene was Mystics forward Tianna Hawkins’s 5-year-old son, Emanuel, standing in the middle of it all with a bright red shirt on. Both Atkins and Thibault expressed concern about the world that he will grow up in as he transitions from a cute kid into a young Black male.
“In the course of the last eight months in the U.S., over 100 black men and women have been killed by police violence,” Thibault said. “I look at Tianna Hawkins’s son, Emanuel, and I sit here and wonder what his life will be as he grows up. Whether he’ll be in a safe environment where he’ll get equal opportunities. Our players and our staff feel that we need to ensure his future somehow.”
Engelbert said the league plans to talk with players and coaches about where to go from here and identify opportunities for actionable changes. The league has arranged meetings with social justice leaders in the past and plans to continue those.
Many players were uncomfortable with playing the season at IMG Academy in Florida in the first place because they worried it would take away from the social justice strides made after George Floyd was killed by police in Minneapolis. Mystics center Alaina Coates voiced frustrations following the shoot-around earlier in the day and said the team was discussing “how to make another statement to the world because right now nothing’s changing.”
“Part of what I said to them was you understand that we’ve been wearing Breonna Taylor’s name on the back of our jersey since we’ve been here,” Thibault said. “And her murder occurred five months ago. Nothing has changed in Kentucky. We haven’t made that influence to change anything. I don’t know that we’re going to change anything in Wisconsin. They’re clearly not paying attention to anybody so far in the Breonna Taylor one. I still think it’s the right thing to stay with the topic and stay with it.
“As the older person there, just understand that what you do has ramifications in a lot of different ways. And if you’re willing to do things, accept whatever consequences come with that and don’t make your decisions in a vacuum.”
Engelbert added, “Players are getting a little impatient with it, which was why we ended up with the result tonight."