Ariel Atkins speaks with ESPN's Holly Rowe Credit: Getty/Stephen Gossling

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For four minutes, Ariel Atkins spoke from the heart. 

Flanked by her teammates and one of their young sons, the normally reticent Atkins explained to ESPN’s Holly Rowe why the Washington Mystics had decided to sit out of their Aug. 26 game against the Atlanta Dream, hitting pause on the WNBA season just days after Jacob Blake, a Black man in Kenosha, Wisconsin, was shot seven times in the back by a White police officer. She talked about being a Black woman, and how she’s used to “people trying to tell us to shut up.” She said she was more than just a basketball player, and told anyone watching that, if they disagreed, they were watching the wrong sport.

Atkins simply had enough. She was angry. Sad. Tired. Afterward, Atkins told her coach, Mike Thibault, that she didn’t realize just how much she had let her emotions build up while competing at the WNBA bubble in Bradenton, Florida.

“For me, it’s tough because I try not to put too many things into my head,” Atkins tells City Paper. “I try not to see a lot of things, but it’s almost impossible to go on the internet today and not see something about social injustice simply because it’s happening too much. I feel like as a community, we’re being desensitized to Black people being killed at the hands of authority … I’m the type of person that just lets things build up, and you don’t really understand how much it affects you until it kinda hits.”

In a league where approximately 80 percent of the players competing in the bubble are Black, the actions by Atkins, a third-year guard, and the Mystics demonstrated just how important the WNBA is when it comes to advocating for social and racial justice. The graphic videos of police brutality can feel personal to many of them. The trauma is visceral. And while female athletes have been at the forefront of this ongoing battle for social reform, they are often not given the credit they deserve for their advocacy.

Like the Milwaukee Bucks, the first professional sports team to sit out during the playoffs to protest the shooting of Blake and demand justice, the Mystics took a calculated risk in postponing their game. By the end of the night, none of the NBA or WNBA games scheduled that night were played. The WNBA’s Dream, Los Angeles Sparks, Minnesota Lynx, Connecticut Sun, and Phoenix Mercury also sat out of their games, following the Mystics’ lead. But in comparison to their NBA counterparts and male athletes in general, WNBA players have sometimes had to demand the same respect and attention, and don’t receive the same credit for their social activism.

“I think women in sports really have to fight for everything that we get,” says Atkins, who is 24. “I’m super thankful to be a part of a league that I personally grew up in, but my [draft] class was the first class to grow up with the WNBA. That’s 24 years later, but I just feel like we’re used to fighting for things, and it takes a special person to speak out on things that they’re not comfortable with … I mean, you have people that are like, ‘Oh, women shouldn’t be playing sports, women should be doing this, doing that.’”

From left: Emma Meesseman, Ariel Atkins, and Elena Delle Donne at the Mystics championship rally in 2019 Credit: Darrow Montgomery

It was just four years ago that players on the Minnesota Lynx wore T-shirts during warmups in support of the Black Lives Matter movement and to honor the memory of two Black men killed by police officers, Philando Castile and Alton Sterling, only to be met with widespread criticism. Four off-duty cops working as arena security walked off the job in protest. This happened more than a month before Colin Kaepernick kneeled during the national anthem in an NFL preseason game.

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One of those players was four-time WNBA champion and former league MVP Maya Moore, who has skipped the past two WNBA seasons to focus on criminal justice reform advocacy. This season, Mystics guard Natasha Cloud also decided to opt out of the season, announcing that she will instead “continue the fight on the front lines for social reform, because until Black lives matter, all lives can’t matter.” 

“I know that Maya Moore’s name gets sprinkled in here and there, but I mean, she left the game in her prime,” says Christy Winters Scott, a color analyst for the Mystics and the Big Ten Network. “I mean, can you imagine any NBA player stepping away during their prime or NFL players stepping away during their prime to help others? I don’t think her name gets mentioned enough.”

Winters Scott, who starred for the University of Maryland women’s basketball team from 1986 to 1990, remembers a time not too long ago when athletes like herself were taught not to challenge the status quo—at least not publicly. They were told to compartmentalize their feelings and just play.

Social media has fueled athletes’ ability to reach a wider audience, but that doesn’t mean speaking out is easy. It requires courage, especially when the trauma is personal.

“I think these women feel it on so many levels,” Winters Scott says. “I know, personally, for me as a mom of three Black teenagers, it’s terrifying. And it’s exhausting. And especially, I mean, we’re in a health pandemic on top of a racial pandemic, to be quite honest, and it’s scary.”

The Mystics had originally planned to play that night at 7 p.m. against the Dream, and would kneel, lock arms, and raise their fists during the national anthem in protest. They considered holding a media blackout, refusing to answer questions about the team, and instead using their media availability to talk about Blake and police brutality. That afternoon, at Thibault’s suggestion of making “visual statements,” the players, in particular Emma Meesseman and Myisha Hines-Allen, made T-shirts that spelled out Jacob Blake’s name on the front, with each player wearing one letter, and seven red dots on the back to represent the seven times Blake was shot at close range. They would wear those during warmups.

But while riding the bus on the way to the arena, the Bucks had decided to sit out of their game—a wildcat strike—and Atkins says the Mystics players “weren’t OK emotionally” over the shooting in Wisconsin. “Trying to lock in for a game is one thing, but it was just a lot,” she explains.

When they arrived at the arena, the Mystics entered a long discussion with players on the Dream. Not all of the players felt comfortable sitting out. Some wondered if that meant the end of the season. WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert was also there, and Atkins says she told the players that she didn’t want them to be silenced by not playing and encouraged the team not to give up airtime by striking. In the end, the Mystics collectively made the decision to postpone the game, and no WNBA games were played that night or the following day. Engelbert would later express pride for her players and tell ESPN that the league “absolutely” supported the players’ decision. Both the NBA and WNBA have since resumed play.

“It was a demonstration of our ability to choose what we get to do,” Atkins says, when asked if she considers what the team did a boycott or strike. “If we feel the need to make a statement and that statement is not playing, then we have the choice to do that … This wasn’t a self-care day. This wasn’t a reflection day. It was a day to show people that not only do we stand in solidarity with our NBA brothers, but we understand that when you get down to the gist of things … it becomes a game of life, as crazy and drastic as that sounds. That’s what it feels like you’re telling us, to choose our community or to choose to play a game, a game that we all love, and yes, we get paid to do it. But we do have to understand that sometimes things are just bigger than the game.”

In an image that quickly went viral, every player set to play that night is seen kneeling and linking arms. Staff members also have arms linked, and in the front row is a 5-year-old named Emanuel. The young child is wearing a red shirt. Next to him is his mother, Mystics forward Tianna Hawkins. Recently, she’s had to explain to him why he can’t play with a Nerf gun outside, like they’ve seen White kids do. 

“We’re tired. We’re frustrated. We’re pissed off,” Hawkins says. “Me personally, I was emotional. Just because putting on that T-shirt with seven bullet holes in my back, raising a young man, a soon to be young man, just knowing that that could be him in the next 12 to 13 years. We’re tired.”

Many of the Mystics players also personally know someone who has been directly affected by police brutality. Tierra Ruffin-Pratt, a former Mystics player now with the Los Angeles Sparks, lost her cousin, who was shot and killed by an off-duty Arlington deputy sheriff in 2013.

This is why, for Atkins, speaking up for Black lives is not a political statement. It’s her reality. 

In every graphic, gruesome, heart-wrenching video of Black men being shot, she sees her brother, her dad, her cousins, and her uncles. She sees herself in Breonna Taylor, who was shot and killed while she was sleeping at home in Louisville, Kentucky.

“I sleep at night; every night, I’m doing nothing, no different than what she was doing when I’m sleeping at my home,” Atkins says. “There’s things that people say that we can do to avoid these situations, and it’s hard to avoid a situation where your skin is seen as a weapon, your skin is seen as something that works against you … We wake up Black.”