Ariel Atkins couldn’t bring herself to play basketball on Wednesday – not with so much turmoil stemming from the police shooting of Jacob Blake – and in turn she shut down the WNBA for at least one night, if not longer.
The third-year Washington Mystics guard met with teammates hours before they were scheduled to play the Atlanta Dream in Bradenton, Florida, to discuss the fallout from the police shooting Sunday of Blake, a 29-year-old Black man shot seven times in the back in Kenosha, Wisconsin.
By all accounts, not everyone agreed with 24-year-old Atkins.
However, after a series of discussions involving WNBPA president Nneka Ogwumike, WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert and player representatives from several teams, the WNBA joined the NBA, MLB and MLS on a historic day in sports when teams postponed play to protest Blake’s shooting.
“Just because we are basketball players doesn’t mean that’s our only platform,” Atkins told ESPN’s Holly Rowe during a televised interview at the IMG Academy. “We need to understand that when most of us go home, we still are Black. … That’s what people need to understand. We’re not just basketball players. And if you think we are, then don’t watch us. You’re watching the wrong sport because we’re so much more than that.
“You need to understand that these moments are so much bigger than us. And I really appreciate my team for not only having my back, but saying what they feel. It’s hard to say that type of stuff in these moments. It’s hard to be vulnerable in these moments, but I think if we do this and unify as a league, it looks different because this league is close to if not 85% black women. … We matter. And I think that’s important and I’m tired of telling people that.”
Storm forward Alysha Clark expressed solidarity with the players from Washington, Atlanta, Los Angeles and Minnesota who linked arms and kneeled on the court after announcing Wednesday’s postponement of games.
“So proud of my WNBA sisters. Proud to stand alongside these women and make change,” Clark tweeted.
In addition to Washington and Atlanta, games between the Los Angeles Sparks and Minnesota Lynx; and Phoenix Mercury and Connecticut Sun were not played Wednesday night.
Engelbert voiced support for the players, but it was immediately unclear if or how those six teams would make up the missed games during a truncated 22-game season in which many teams are playing every other day.
There’s also uncertainty when or if the WNBA will resume playing. The Storm (12-3) is scheduled to face Las Vegas (11-3) at 7 p.m. Pacific time Thursday.
“We’re calling this for now a postponement and hopefully we pick up these three games and talk to the six teams playing tomorrow night and see how they’re feeling,” Engelbert said. “I think they can band in solidarity and really have a strong platform, but also play basketball.”
Still, that part remains a mystery for now.
Ogwumike talked about organizing a Wednesday night meeting with WNBA players inside the bubble and connecting with NBA players’ union leaders to coordinate their efforts.
Reports from the NBA bubble in nearby Lake Buena Vista, Florida, said the players were considering ending the season if owners didn’t address their social-justice concerns, including police reform.
Ogwumike said the financial consequences for WNBA players are more severe than NBA players considering the huge disparities in salaries.
“When we talk about playing and not playing, the implications that has on a female basketball player than it does on a male basketball player are dire,” she said. “The sacrifices that we are making are in a lot of ways monetarily more for us. That speaks to the metaphor of what we dedicated this season to, ‘Say Her Name.’ How women are often forgotten.
“Out of all the sports that have decided not to play today, currently we are the least watched. And we realize that is a sacrifice that we’re making. It speaks to the identity that WNBA players have always had.”
Before the WNBA games Wednesday, it was reported players had decided to play and were going to pause the game every seven minutes as a sign of protest.
However, that plan was scrapped by the Mystics, who entered the arena wearing white T-shirts spelling out Blake’s name with seven red marks drawn on the backs of the shirts to signify the seven times he was shot.
Atkins, who sought counsel from teammate Natasha Cloud who chose to sit out the WNBA season to focus on social-justice issues before delivering persuasive arguments, spoke passionately about players needing to make a statement.
“When they started talking about the business side of things, it kind of changed our mindset,” said Atkins, who is in the third year of a four-year contract worth $215,000. “But when you get down to the human decency of life, you’re choosing a human or you’re choosing a game.
“It was important for us to collectively come up with something that we feel would make 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. We don’t care. We’re here. We’re going to say what we got to say and say how we feel.”
For years, the WNBA has been at the forefront of social-justice initiatives and has dedicated this season to the Black Lives Matter movement and Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old Black emergency medical technician who was shot and killed by Louisville police in her apartment March 13.
This week, many players expressed outrage following Blake’s killing.
Phoenix Mercury guard Skylar Diggins-Smith tweeted: “That could have been my husband. He’s 29 like Jacob Blake. Our son is 1 … at what age does he stop being “cute” and start being “threatening” and “intimidating”?”
On her Twitter account, Dallas Lynx guard Arike Ogunbowale wrote: “I’m not one to ever be speechless. But damn. I have no words, this world is beyond messed up. & it just keeps happening and happening and happening …”
And Storm guard Jewell Loyd tweeted: “Lord tell me when our change is going to come.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated Jacob Blake was killed. He was shot by police, but is still alive.
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