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Mystics prove social justice ‘distractions’ don’t prevent championships

‘We’re in the most powerful city in the world … so we’d be doing a disservice to a bunch of people if we didn’t speak up and use our platform.’

WASHINGTON — In early June, Washington Mystics guards Ariel Atkins and Natasha Cloud visited Hendley Elementary School, located just 2 miles from the team’s practice and game arena, the Entertainment and Sports Arena (ESA). The teammates spoke with the students and read them books; in turn, the children sang their own, education-centered rendition of Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road.”

While speaking with the school’s staff, Cloud learned that the students had had their field day canceled the previous day. Not because of budget cuts. Not because of inclement weather or bad behavior. No, the students were placed on lockdown because a bullet came through a lobby window of the school building. In fact, it was the third bullet to pierce the school in a month.

Cloud, in her fifth season in the WNBA, was livid. The 27-year old took to Twitter, criticizing the amount of gun violence in the nation’s capital, taking to task the district’s mayor and a council member for small children not being able to obtain an education without the risk of being harmed by a firearm. The next day, after a close loss to the defending WNBA champion Seattle Storm, Cloud and the Mystics held a “media blackout” where the team refused to answer reporters’ questions. Instead, Cloud used the media availability solely to discuss gun violence, specifically in Ward 8, where both Hendley Elementary and the ESA are located.

How Natasha Cloud is fighting for gun violence reform in Washington.

For all intents and purposes, the media protest, with all the added media attention and possible controversy, was a distraction, taking the players’ attention away from their jobs: playing basketball. According to certain segments of the American sports world, distractions can split locker rooms, cause unwanted attention and lead to more losses than wins.

But like the NFL’s Philadelphia Eagles and NBA’s Golden State Warriors in recent years, this was not the case for the Mystics, who secured their first-ever WNBA championship on Thursday after defeating the visiting Connecticut Sun 89-78.

The Mystics use their heightened platform to openly discuss gun violence, celebrate the LGBTQ community, speak out against anti-abortion laws, advocate for equal pay, and denounce racism and police-involved shootings.

They refused to shut up and dribble. And won.

“I’m not biased in the sense that the WNBA has been at the forefront of all social issues, and our team has been phenomenal,” said Cloud, who scored 18 points on 6-of-11 shooting (2 of 6 on 3-pointers). “We’re in the most powerful city in the world. There’s a lot of politics and issues that are handled here in D.C., so we’d be doing a disservice to a bunch of people if we didn’t speak up and use our platform.”

After then-NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick sat, and later kneeled, during the playing of the national anthem before the 2016 season to protest police brutality and racial inequality, critics of social activism labeled Kaepernick a “distraction” to justify why a Super Bowl-starting quarterback hasn’t been on a roster in nearly three years. Then-Cleveland Browns lineman Joe Thomas said in 2017 that NFL teams accept “zero distractions” from players of Kaepernick’s stature, not wanting the rest of the roster to have to answer for his actions.

Kaepernick’s team, the San Francisco 49ers, won just two games that season; in one game he passed for just 4 yards. Protesting, the thinking went, translated to negative results on the field or court.

In 2016, around the same time of Kaepernick’s protests, the Mystics were one of a handful of WNBA teams to use their platform as athletes to speak out as well. The team wore “Black Lives Matter” T-shirts and held a “media blackout” after the police-involved fatal shootings of unarmed African American men Philando Castile and Alton Sterling.

And while the “distraction” label could have been used against the Mystics in the past — the team missed the playoffs that season and were eliminated in the Semifinals in 2017 before losing in the Finals last year — it no longer applies to this team.

While they lost that first game of the media blackout against the Storm in June, the Mystics ran off five straight wins right afterward. They ended the regular season having won 17 of their final 19 games.

In the NFL and NBA, at one point the Eagles and Warriors were considered the most socially conscious teams in their respective leagues. The teams have combined for three championships since 2016; they were not distracted.

“People would consider everything a distraction. I mean, some people consider if you’re too involved in the community a distraction, that you’re not focused on playing,” said former NFL receiver Torrey Smith, who played for the Eagles during their championship season and moved back to Maryland after retiring in September.

“Those women go out and they speak out all the time. They’ve been in the forefront. They’ve been vocal. They’ve been not afraid to do and say what they feel is right. I admire them, and I applaud them for that.”

What’s helped the Mystics’ cause is having support from not only their nonblack teammates (2019 WNBA MVP Elena Delle Donne told Cloud, after discussing the Hendley Elementary incident, “We will make them listen,” according to Think Progress) but also the team’s coaches and executives.

Ted Leonsis, the CEO of Monumental Sports & Entertainment, which owns the Mystics along with the NHL’s Capitals and NBA’s Wizards, and head coach/general manager Mike Thibault have encouraged their players to accept their roles as community leaders.

Leonsis, speaking at an athletes and activism event that the team hosted along with The Atlantic over the summer, said the team recruits players “who are excellent athletes but even better human beings.”

Thibault told his players from the beginning that they have a duty to speak up as long as they do it as a team. He believes they’ve handled the pressure of being outspoken athletes.

“That’s our responsibility as human beings. We play basketball for a living, just like the guy who goes to work at Microsoft or Google or anything else,” Thibault told The Undefeated. “They’re allowed their opinions, we’re allowed ours. But because we’re public figures … if they can affect social change and help somebody else by their presence and by their fame, then that’s even better.”

All in all, the Mystics relished the platform they’ve earned and don’t care what anyone thinks about them speaking out on issues that WNBA players and other athletes care the most about.

“This is a league full of powerful women,” Cloud said. “Those people that say that we should just ‘shut up and dribble,’ they should just shut up and watch us.”

Martenzie is an associate editor for The Undefeated. His favorite cinematic moment is when Django said "Y'all want to see somethin?"