Washington Mystics players linked arms and knelt in white T-shirts that spelled Jacob Blake’s name in black marker, one letter on each player’s chest. On their backs were seven bloody bullet holes, one for each shot police officers fired at Blake, a 29-year-old Black man, in Kenosha, Wis., on Sunday.
The Mystics’ shirts sent a poignant message Wednesday as the WNBA postponed its three scheduled games after players refused to participate, following a similar decision hours before by NBA players who walked out of their three playoff games in protest.
After a long discussion, the four teams that arrived at the arena in Bradenton, Fla., for games scheduled to tip off at 4 and 5 p.m. PDT — the Mystics, the Atlanta Dream, the Sparks and the Minnesota Lynx — used a national TV slot on ESPN2 to demonstrate their unity in the face of what they perceive as racial injustice. Players, coaches and support staff members linked arms and knelt at midcourt. Mystics forward Tianna Hawkins’ 6-year-old son Emmanuel knelt next to his mother.
“We got this little guy here that we see every day,” Mystics guard Ariel Atkins said during an interview on ESPN2 with her teammates and Emmanuel standing behind her. “His life matters. … That’s what people need to understand. We’re not just basketball players. If you think we are, then don’t watch us.”
The games — Mystics vs. Dream, Sparks vs. Lynx, and the Connecticut Sun vs. the Phoenix Mercury — will be rescheduled if possible, the league said. WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert, who was involved in the discussion with players, said on ESPN2 that she “absolutely supports” the decision, although she hopes games can continue later.
Briefly, it seemed that games would happen Wednesday: ESPN’s Holly Rowe, who interviewed players on the court after the decision, originally reported players were going to honor Blake by putting the ball down during the seventh minute of each quarter. But the Mystics, the reigning WNBA champions, were adamant they didn’t feel comfortable playing.
“When we started talking about the business side of things, it kind of changed our mind-sets,” Atkins said, “but when we get down to the human decency of life, you’re choosing a human or you’re choosing a game.”
Sparks forward and WNBPA President Nneka Ogwumike said on ESPN2 that the decision for female basketball players to sit out of games is “dire” compared to their male counterparts who make millions in salary and often have lucrative endorsement deals. She had a duty as players’ association president to address that consequence. She stood behind her fellow players knowing this wasn’t the first time the league sacrificed to address social justice.
“It speaks to the identity that we’ve always had as WNBA players, coming out, standing in unity and really amplifying our voices to foster change,” Ogwumike said, wearing a black T-shirt with “stop killing Black people” printed on the front.
The WNBA has made social justice a primary focus this season. Players wear Breonna Taylor’s name on their jerseys after the 26-year-old emergency medical technician was shot and killed in her home by police who were acting on a no-knock order.
They held a conference call with Michelle Cusseaux’s mother, Frances Garrett, after Cusseaux was killed in 2014 by police who were responding to a mental wellness check.
This past Sunday, they met with the #SayHerName Mothers Network of the African American Policy Forum. After the players wore T-shirts supporting Raphael Warnock, a candidate running for U.S. Senate against Kelly Loeffler, Warnock’s campaign raised $183,000 in 48 hours, according to Forbes. Loeffler, a Georgia republican who currently holds a seat in the senate, is a partial owner of the Atlanta Dream and spoke against the WNBA’s support of Black Lives Matter.
For players, addressing social justice was a requirement to reboot the pandemic-suspended season this summer after societal unrest stemming from George Floyd’s killing in May. However, seeing another Black man shot by police was a reminder that the progress achieved in recent weeks isn’t enough. Engelbert recognized that players were growing impatient with the lack of overall change.
Engelbert and Ogwumike said the league and players will now meet to think of additional actionable items. Dream center Elizabeth Williams, reading a statement on behalf of players on ESPN2, encouraged people to vote and fill out the census. Ogwumike said she will try to speak with the NBPA going forward, but she wanted to ensure that all WNBA players act together.
“We hear people out to ensure that what we do, we do together but also what we do is lasting and sustainable,” Ogwumike said. “We do have a unique opportunity now to truly demonstrate as we so always have as women who are empowered both on and off the court.”