Natasha Cloud is exhausted. And she’s not alone.

Cloud is one of hundreds of athletes across the country, and across leagues, debating whether to return to play in the midst of a global pandemic. Major League Baseball, the NBA, WNBA, MLS and NHL have plans to resume activities in July, and players must weigh several factors. Chief among them are health concerns amid the spread of the novel coronavirus and the social justice movement in the wake of George Floyd’s killing by police in Minneapolis.

Cloud, who was already extremely active in the fight for social justice, has already made up her mind to sit out the season and is spending long hours every day focused on the movement. She started with an essay for the Players’ Tribune that challenged people to join the cause and flatly said, “If you’re silent, I don’t f— with you, period.” Then she was part of a group of Mystics teammates and members of the Washington Wizards who created a joint statement calling for justice for victims of police brutality. Next, she was marching through the streets.

This is the next step.

“I’ve never been so drained,” Cloud said, “but it’s an essential drain and it’s a necessary drain. . . . This hasn’t been easy in any sense, and I think people think that, ‘Oh, Tash is sitting out; she’s just going to enjoy her summer.’ No. I’m literally waking up and working every single day to make sure that I’m keeping these issues at the forefront, that I’m talking about it, that I’m having these hard conversations. I’m finding different resources and finding different social impact groups. . . . I’m figuring out different avenues in which our community desperately needs help in.”

Cloud is far from the only one making a complicated decision. Four MLB players have opted out – the Washington Nationals’ Ryan Zimmerman and Joe Ross, Ian Desmond of the Colorado Rockies and Diamondbacks pitcher Mike Leake, who was traded by the Mariners to Arizona last season. Three cited health concerns, and Desmond, in an emotional Instagram post, cited health concerns (his wife is pregnant with their fifth child) and a need for more activism in his Sarasota, Fla., community.

Arizona Diamondbacks starting pitcher Mike Leake throws in the first inning of a baseball game against the Cincinnati Reds, Sunday, Sept. 8, 2019, in Cincinnati. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)
Arizona Diamondbacks starting pitcher Mike Leake throws in the first inning of a baseball game against the Cincinnati Reds, Sunday, Sept. 8, 2019, in Cincinnati. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

The NBA was well into planning its return when Brooklyn Nets guard Kyrie Irving asked his fellow players to consider the social climate and questioned whether it was appropriate to return to the court. Davis Bertans (Wizards), Trevor Ariza (Portland Trail Blazers) and Avery Bradley (Los Angeles Lakers) have opted out. The Nets’ DeAndre Jordan and Wilson Chandler also have opted out, with Jordan saying he had recently tested positive for the coronavirus.

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Bradley was vocal alongside Irving, with both helping organize recent conference calls among players to discuss health concerns and social justice actions.

Bertans’s decision seems to be about injury prevention before becoming an unrestricted free agent this offseason. ESPN reported Ariza’s choice was based on a custody issue of his son.

Jazz center Rudy Gobert was patient zero in the NBA, which was the first league to go on hiatus, and he recently told French sports outlet L’Équipe that he still hasn’t fully recovered.

“I can’t imagine making any decision that might put my family’s health and well-being at even the slightest risk,” Bradley told ESPN. “As promised also, I will use this time away to focus on the formation of projects to help strengthen my communities.”

Megan Rapinoe, Tobin Heath and Christen Press opted out of the National Women’s Soccer League’s Challenge Cup tournament. Rapinoe was the star of the national team’s World Cup championship last year and has been vocal about many social justice causes, but she has not stated her reasons for sitting out. Press and Heath both made statements citing concerns over the coronavirus.

The NBA, MLB and WNBA have included opt-out clauses in their return plans, and the reasons have already been apparent. The NBA and its players’ union announced 16 players from a pool of 302 tested positive in the first round of mandatory tests last week. The Denver Nuggets shut down their training facility Saturday after two members of their traveling party tested positive. The Philadelphia Phillies announced an outbreak among players and staff at their spring headquarters in Clearwater, Fla. The Tampa Bay Lightning had to close their facilities after three players and other staff members tested positive.

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The WNBA, so far, has had the most prominent players deciding to stay home. Cloud and LaToya Sanders are starters on the defending champion Mystics. Maya Moore (Minnesota Lynx), Jonquel Jones (Connecticut Sun), Renee Montgomery (Atlanta Dream), Tiffany Hayes (Dream), Kristi Toliver (Los Angeles Sparks), Chiney Ogwumike (Sparks), Cecilia Zandalasini (Lynx) and Rebecca Allen (New York Liberty) have chosen to sit, either for medical reasons or to focus on social activism.

Montgomery was already a self-described germaphobe before the global pandemic. She would wear masks on planes and took blankets to sit on at the movie theater, but her decision to opt out came a few days after Floyd’s death. She said she needed to take action. Since then, she has hosted a Juneteenth block party in Atlanta and is now focused on the educational aspect of social justice.

“I couldn’t stop thinking about [Floyd]. . . . It was almost like a reoccurring nightmare,” Montgomery said. “I’m jumping off of a cliff in a sense of, I took a leap and I don’t necessarily know where I’m going to land with it. . . . But I feel like when you’re doing stuff for the right reasons and your heart’s in the right place, it’ll work out.

“I didn’t go back and forth. I know myself and . . . I’m a passionate player. When I play, I’m passionate. So, I need to have that passion to play and, right now, my passion is here with this movement.”

That passion can also be exhausting. People of color, African Americans in particular, have been physically challenged during the past several months. The coronavirus has disproportionately affected black communities, and watching video after video of black people being killed can be mentally draining.

Cloud said she sometimes feels exhausted before she even starts the day, but she’s encouraged by the support she receives and has had in-depth conversations with Irving, the Wizards’ Bradley Beal and others about the next step. Addressing voting issues is the first step. More will follow.

“Immediately, I was having conflicting feelings about playing because I feel like this is a moment that I haven’t seen before,” Cloud said. “I’ve never seen this much momentum and this much leverage behind the movement. So I feel like we have to capitalize on this moment, and going into a bubble and being taken out of my community doesn’t really sit well with [me].”