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Here’s How the Washington Mystics Are Leading the Charge on Athlete Activism

The Mystics discuss social activism and treatment of women athletes before the home opener.

Natasha Cloud and Martellus Bennett. Photo courtesy of Kristoffer Tripplaar for The Atlantic

In a political climate marred by divisive rhetoric and calls for athletes to “stick to sports,” Natasha Cloud and the Washington Mystics firmly stand on the side of activism.

Cloud took part in “Athletes + Activism,” a panel moderated by the Atlantic’s Jemele Hill discussing the relationship between professional athletes and social activism on Thursday. The panel was hosted at the Mystics’ new home court, the Entertainment & Sports Arena in Congress Heights.

The event included other high-profile sports stars, such as Olympian John Carlos, Hilary Knight of the US Women’s National Hockey Team, and former NFL player and author Martellus Bennett.

In her welcoming remarks, Mystics guard and Wizards assistant coach Kristi Toliver acknowledge the responsibility the athletes have as community change makers. “There has never been a more important time for us athletes to raise our voices,” Toliver said. “We are a team of advocates and activists.”

Cloud was the only other current Mystics player to speak on the panel, but her teammates were in the audience to lend their support. “We have a lot of strong women and it would be a disservice to the people not to use our platform,” Cloud said. “At the end of the day, we’re people, too.”

Cloud’s Twitter profile is peppered with retweets regarding the recent crop of abortion bans, alongside the game highlights and top plays typical of a professional athlete’s social media feed. Her profile banner is a photo from the 2016 season, when the Mystics wore all-black warmup gear—as opposed to their usual red and blue—and staged a media blackout to protest fines against WNBA teams that wore warmup shirts to call out police brutality earlier that year.

Cloud discussed the protest during the panel, noting the importance of engaging allies on the team who aren’t individually affected by the issues when coordinating protests. “For the Mystics, we were trying to figure out the best way to get our message across,” Cloud said. “We just wanted to come out as a united front.”

In a conversation with Washingtonian prior to the event, Cloud noted the role female athletes in particular have played in social activism, citing the recent labor disputes in North American women’s professional sports. Last October, the WNBA Players Association opted out of their collective bargaining agreement (CBA) with the league, which will expire at the end of the 2019 season. The players did so in hopes for more equitable distribution of league revenue and better wages.

“Women are suffering,” Cloud said. “Women are at the forefront because we’re fed up—the women’s national [soccer and hockey teams], and it trickles down, it starts as a miniature snowball. For us it started with our CBA and opting out of it. We’re fighting.”

Former Mystics player and US women’s national team star Chamique Holdsclaw also took part in the panel. Holdsclaw has become a mental health advocate since her time in the WNBA, and spoke candidly about her struggle with bipolar disorder. “When you come down, the lows can keep you in a bad place,” Holdsclaw said. “I just challenged myself [to heal] and I’m glad to have gotten to the other side of it.”

When asked ahead of the panel why the Mystics should be Washington’s team to go all-in for, Cloud’s message was simple: “Why not us?”

Indeed, why not? With the hot-and-cold performance of the Nationals and disappointing first round playoff exit by the Capitals, the Mystics could be the next team to go all the way for the District. Just last season, the Mystics had their best postseason run in franchise history when they made a surprising run to the finals.

The Mystics returned key members this season—in addition to Cloud and Toliver, Elena Delle Donne should return to form when she comes back from injury. Delle Donne was voted favorite to win MVP in the preseason general manager poll. Last year’s MVP, Breanna Stewart, will be sidelined for the season due to injury, a serious blow to Seattle that bolsters Washington’s contender status. Sure, the team lost its season opener and faces injuries, but there are plenty reasons to support this team, both on and off the court.

The Mystics’ home opener is this Saturday against the Atlanta Dream at the Entertainment & Sports Arena at 7 PM

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Editorial Fellow

Madeline Rundlett is an editorial fellow for Washingtonian. She previously covered All-Met sports for the Washington Post and was an editorial intern at The Hill. Madeline graduated from the George Washington University with a degree in Political Communication in 2019.