Natasha Cloud
Natasha Cloud Credit: Courtesy Natasha Cloud

Natasha Cloud almost forgot about her assignment. The Washington Mystics guard had agreed to write an essay for The Players’ Tribune about the upcoming WNBA season and the league’s new collective bargaining agreement, but her mind was in Minneapolis, where thousands of people were protesting following the killing of George Floyd.

The video of the incident shook Cloud. She called her editors and told them she couldn’t write—not about basketball, anyway. Instead, Cloud used her voice and platform as a black professional athlete to issue a direct challenge to anyone remaining neutral and not speaking out against anti-black racism and police brutality.

“If you’re silent,” Cloud wrote in the article published May 30, five days after Floyd’s death, “I don’t fuck with you, period.”

Professional athletes, particularly black athletes, have faced repercussions for verbalizing far less. In 2016, then-San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick kneeled during the national anthem before games to protest police violence and the oppression of black people in the United States. He has not played in the NFL since the end of that season. It took a week’s worth of global protests after Floyd’s killing for NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell to even admit that the league was wrong for not listening to players, like Kaepernick, who protested peacefully.

And as much as some fans want sports to exist outside the reality of the world, athletics and activism are as interconnected as they have ever been during this moment in America. Black athletes of all ages continue to lead the way.

“I don’t know if it’s comfort [in being outspoken], but I know a lot of athletes are uncomfortable with where we are right now in the country,” says Cloud, who joined thousands of people in Philadelphia on Saturday, June 6, to protest anti-black racism and police violence. “They’re uncomfortable. So their uncomfortableness is pushing them out of their comfort levels, and it’s pushing them into taking a stance and saying something and stepping up to the plate where they necessarily haven’t before.”

Likewise, fans praised the Washington Wizards for the united statement from players released shortly after Floyd’s death. “We will no longer tolerate the assassination of people of color in this country. We will no longer accept the abuse of power from law enforcement,” the statement reads. “We will no longer accept ineffective government leaders who are tone-deaf, lack compassion or respect for communities of color. We will no longer shut up and dribble.”

Players told the Washington Post that Wizards guard Bradley Beal was the catalyst behind the words, and the team later released a joint statement with the Mystics that went further, demanding justice and that leaders “hear the cries of our black communities.”

But other local teams haven’t been as explicit regarding their support for the Black Lives Matter movement or fights against racial injustice. Earlier this month, fans blasted the Nationals for the team’s bland, uninspired statement that called for unity but left out the words “black,” “African American,” or “police.” The majority of NBA players are black, and MLB players are overwhelmingly white. 

While some players on the local NFL team, including quarterback Dwayne Haskins Jr., have attended protests, and coach Ron Rivera has said he will support players who choose to kneel during the national anthem, the recent protests for racial justice have also renewed pressure for the team to change its racist name.

Kenneth Shropshire, the CEO of the Global Sport Institute at Arizona State University and the author of the book In Black and White: Race and Sports in America, isn’t surprised to see so many black athletes speaking up. 

“At its core, this is about police brutality, police misconduct, and police murder,” he says. “And unfortunately, black athletes included, many black people have encountered that directly or almost for sure have family members or friends who have, so there is something that compels you to get involved in this.”

Shropshire also believes that the lack of leadership in the White House has led to a “vacuum” where vocal athlete activists have filled the void. He credits LeBron James’ public activism, which began in earnest nearly a decade ago, as a turning point for other athletes.

In 2012, after Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager, was shot to death by a neighbor in Florida, James posted a photo of himself and the rest of the Miami Heat wearing hooded sweatshirts that partially obscured their faces with the caption #WeWantJustice. 

“When LeBron stepped out … that signaled a new day, that it was OK, a superstar is doing this,” Shropshire says, pointing out displays of solidarity that the Minnesota Lynx of the WNBA and players on the St. Louis Rams made in subsequent years.

In the pre-LeBron era, many high-profile athletes were reluctant to voice their opinions about issues they viewed as controversial for fear of affecting their bottom line. Michael Jordan once told teammates, “Republicans buy sneakers, too,” as a way of explaining his aversion to political statements. (Jordan recently clarified that he made the comment in jest.)

“There certainly were some, but not en masse, and not the superstars,” Shropshire says of athlete activists during Jordan’s era.

Black athletes who did speak up were vilified, like Kaepernick, before ultimately being celebrated for their courage years or decades later. Muhammad Ali famously refused to be drafted for the Vietnam War in 1967, resulting in him being stripped of his heavyweight title. 

In one of the most indelible moments in Olympic history, American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos both raised a black-gloved fist to protest for human rights and raise awareness of the racism that black people in America faced during the medal ceremony for the men’s 200-meter race at the 1968 Mexico City Games. The two were expelled from the Games and sent home.

More than 50 years later, some of the same barriers remain in place. The International Olympic Committee still bans political demonstrations, and a section of sports fans refuse to accept that sports and politics exist in the same world. Cloud says she was “really surprised” by the amount of love she received for her Players’ Tribune article, but that people still leave “ignorant comments” on her social media feeds. In the essay, Cloud praises reigning WNBA MVP Elena Delle Donne, a white teammate, for her support and activism.

“We do have a very, very important and powerful entity in this particular situation,” Smith tells City Paper in a phone call from his home in Stone Mountain, Georgia, referring to athlete activists. “Back in 1968, we didn’t have much help in doing this, but there were a few of us that stood up, put our lives on the line. Now here it is again. Nothing has really changed.”

When professional sports return to the U.S. later this month, expect to see more athletes taking a stance. It’s already happening. Washington Spirit rookie Kaiya McCullough plans to kneel during the national anthem at National Women’s Soccer League matches, as she did while playing at UCLA. 

Several NBA players, including Brooklyn Nets guard Kyrie Irving and Lakers center Dwight Howard, have argued that the league’s return-to-play plan would be a “distraction” from the protests and have considered sitting out the season, which is expected to resume in late July at the ESPN World of Sports Complex in Disney World.

Young black athletes, like 16-year-old tennis star Coco Gauff, have taken it upon themselves to be a voice of the marginalized. 

“I stand back as proud as anyone you could ever imagine,” Smith says. “Because back in the day, I did what I thought was necessary to move forward, I didn’t have very many people backing me because it was one of the first ones, it was something that had never been done before by athletes.”

The potential professional ramifications of writing her article didn’t concern Cloud.

“I’m not that player that won’t speak up out of fear [of] losing endorsements or not getting endorsements,” she says. “That’s the reality of who I am and what I believe in … I’ll never not speak up about an issue. I’ll never not use my voice about an issue out of just repercussions for that.”

About a week after the article was published, Converse announced Cloud as the first WNBA player to have an endorsement deal with the shoe brand. Cloud’s activism is part of the reason why the company wanted her on its roster.

Earlier this month, professional stock car racing driver Bubba Wallace successfully got NASCAR to ban the Confederate flag at its events. Maya Moore, one of the most accomplished women’s basketball players in history, announced in February 2019 that she would not play in the WNBA that season to focus on her faith and life outside of basketball. She has found a passion as an advocate for criminal justice reform. Moore plans on sitting out this season as well.

“You can no longer just be an athlete,” Cloud says. “Because we have this platform, and all eyes are on us, instead of looking at it as something negative and seeing it as a microscope on you at all times, look at it as there’s a microphone surrounding you at all times, and you can use it in such a positive light. And I think you’re seeing that, now more than ever, people understand that.”