Natasha Cloud of the Washington Mystics
Natasha Cloud at the 2019 Washington Mystics championship rally. Photo by Darrow Montgomery.

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On Thursday, Mystics point guard Natasha Cloud received a text from U.S. women’s national soccer team and North Carolina Courage forward Crystal Dunn with a request. Dunn wanted about 40 T-shirts made to illustrate the NWSL players’ support for the Black Lives Matter movement, and she needed them in time for the NWSL Fall Series opener on Saturday at 1 p.m. The game, between the Washington Spirit and Sky Blue FC, would be broadcast on CBS, and the NWSL Black Players Coalition, which Dunn is a member of, wanted use the elevated platform to reiterate their support for racial justice.

Cloud, who opted out of the current WNBA season to focus her time and energy on social justice reform, immediately got to work.

“I said, ‘Y’all are out of your damn minds, but I’ll figure it out,'” she recalls. “So luckily, I’m in Philly. Luckily, I was able to reach out to one of the players that played at my high school but a few years later; her dad owns a T-shirt company. So I reached out to my guy, Brian Nihill, and his people got it done literally the next day by 2 o’clock.”

Cloud then drove from Philadelphia to the Maryland House rest area in Aberdeen, Maryland, around midnight to drop the T-shirts off with her manager, who met her there. On Saturday morning, Cloud’s manager delivered the T-shirts to Sky Blue forward Midge Purce. In a photo taken before the match, players on both teams are wearing a white T-shirt with an image of a fist and the words, “EITHER WITH US OR AGAINST US” and “BLACK LIVES MATTER” on the front in black font.

Once again, Cloud delivered the assist.

“[The T-shirts] came together really quickly,” Purce explained in her post-game video conference after the Sky Blue beat the Spirit, 2-1. “I was on the phone begging [Sky Blue FC general manager] Alyse LaHue for advice on how to put things together because she just knows how to do everything. I cannot say enough about Natasha Cloud, she was the plug for this shirt. She literally got it done, she dropped them off, she was so huge in helping us make our statement, so I want to thank Natasha Cloud from all of us. I’m a huge fan.”

Along with the photo, the team also released a unified statement on their social media accounts, reiterating their support for Black Lives Matter.

“Black Lives Matter is not a political opinion,” it reads. “Black Lives Matter is a reflection of your value system and your regard for building a better society for the future. It is seen in your willingness to understand how oppressive systems have severely impacted human lives, your votes and much more. Our statement is clear and its meaning obvious. It isn’t watered down to make people more comfortable with hiding behind false neutrality. There is no neutrality. You’re either with us or against us. Black Lives Matter.”

The statement is signed by the Black players of the NWSL, Sky Blue FC, and Washington Spirit.

The players made their voices heard as the NWSL is entering a pivotal time. The majority of the 2019 World Cup champions play for a team in the league and being the first professional U.S. sports league to return to competition during the pandemic resulted in extra attention for the growing brand. In late February, the NWSL named Lisa Baird as its first commissioner since 2017. Shortly after, the league signed a multi-year broadcasting deal with CBS.

Baird attended Saturday’s game at Segra Field in Leesburg, Virginia, and told reporters that her first six months on the job have been a “whirlwind.”

“We’re trying to be take advantage of opportunities, but be conservative in our safety and medical protocols,” she said. “And also make sure that we’re doing the right thing for our player group and our owner group.”

Baird also spoke glowingly of the players’ efforts to bring awareness to racial justice efforts. From her seat on Saturday, she could see the large Black Lives Matter banner attached to the bleacher railings in the middle of the field.

“It started on the individual basis before the Challenge Cup, and honestly, when the players came to me with the Black Lives Matter effort, we were fully supportive of that and we wanted to collaborate. And I think we understood the responsibility of being the first team back, the first team in sports back, and how we could use our platform,” Baird said. “It is gratifying to me that our players got a chance to help make [Black Lives Matter] the biggest movement that’s ever happened in the United States.”

Segra Field. Photo by Kelyn Soong.

Like the WNBA, which has a Social Justice Council, the NWSL Black Players Coalition intends to be a part of that change. Cloud told the players on the coalition to be “unapologetic during this time” and to use their platform and offered to make herself available whenever they need another assist.

“It’s beautiful to see all athletes of all backgrounds and everything coming together. But especially with our Black athletes coming together,” Cloud says. “There is a brother and a sisterhood within this. We all face the same battles. We all face the same struggles, and we all have the same fears right now for where we are in America. And so it’s almost therapeutic in a sense, and a safe space that we can go to. We can be vulnerable, we can vent, we can bounce ideas off of each other, but it’s a really cool thing to have … It doesn’t need to just be the WNBA and the NBA. I want to be able to reach out to the MLS, the MLB, the [NWSL], the National Hockey League, the Women’s National Hockey League. This is about supporting one another during this time.”