Ariel Atkins isn’t known for being particularly talkative. On and off the court, the third-year Mystics guard prefers to let her game do the talking. But on Wednesday night in Bradenton, Florida, Atkins had plenty to say as she stood with her teammates in front of a TV camera after the Mystics decided to sit out their game against the Atlanta Dream.
The collective decision by the players followed the one made by the Milwaukee Bucks to go on strike from their own game against the Orlando Magic, in protest of the Aug. 23 shooting in Kenosha, Wisconsin, where a White police officer shot Jacob Blake, a 29-year-old Black man, seven times in the back. Blake’s family has said that he is now paralyzed from the waist down.
Teams and athletes in other leagues have also made the decision to sit out their games and matches, including Major League Baseball’s Milwaukee Brewers and professional tennis player Naomi Osaka, who was scheduled to play in the semifinals of the Western & Southern Open on Thursday.
“[People] need to understand that when most of us [WNBA players] go home, we still are Black in the sense that our families matter,” Atkins told ESPN’s Holly Rowe in a TV interview. “We’re not just basketball players. And if you think we are, then don’t watch us. You’re watching the wrong sport, because there’s 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. At the end of the day, I’m going to make sure that my family’s good any way that I have to do it. If basketball’s not it—God forbid—but that’s what it is. We need to understand that these moments are so much more bigger than us.
The Mystics had all arrived on court wearing white T-shirts that spelled out “Jacob Blake” on the front, with each player wearing a different letter, and seven red marks on the back representing the seven times that the police officer shot Blake.
According to ESPN, the team had originally planned to kneel during the national anthem before playing in their 7 p.m. tipoff game, but after an hour-long discussion with the other five teams set to play Wednesday night—the Dream, Los Angeles Sparks, Minnesota Lynx, Connecticut Sun, and Phoenix Mercury—the Mystics decided to skip the game.
ESPN also reported that it was the Mystics that made the decision to not play, which led to the other teams following.
“If we do this unified as a league, it looks different,” Atkins said. “Because this league is close to, if not over, 80 percent Black women. We have cousins, we have brothers, we have sisters, mothers, everyone: We matter. I think that’s important. And I think people should know that. And I’m tired of telling people that. I know I matter. We know we matter … And if you have a problem with saying Black Lives Matter, you need to check your privilege. Because yes, all lives matter, including the Black lives we’re talking about.”
Atkins added that it was important to her that the team took its time in its decision and made what she called “a very bold statement.”
“A lot of people were like, ‘Oh, you’ll be silenced.’ We’re Black women, we’re used to people trying to tell us to shut up,” she said. “We don’t care. We’re here. We’re gonna say what we gotta say and we’re gonna say how we feel.
When Rowe later asked WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert if the league had the players’ backs, Engelbert responded, “We absolutely support them.”
Atkins told Rowe that, moving forward, she hopes to see more of an opportunity for the players to be unified in the WNBA bubble to come up with ways to address “the law part of the problem.”
“Can we get people to see the stories of the women or the men who have been killed and find ways to use our platform as humans, period, to show what has happened in this world and to find a way to call to action, find a way to get the thing moving forward?” she said. “And how can we put pressure on the people that say they support us, and help them help this thing move forward as well?”