Members of the Washington Mystics team stand in silence before a WNBA basketball game against the Connecticut Sun in August.

Members of the Washington Mystics team stand in silence before a WNBA basketball game against the Connecticut Sun in August.

If you’ve seen any NBA or WNBA bubble games, you’ve likely noticed some differences. “Black Lives Matter” is painted on the courts, pre-approved social justice messages are emblazoned on the back of players’ jerseys and athletes are kneeling and locking arms during the National Anthem.

The NBA and WNBA aren’t the only leagues dedicating the season to social justice efforts, as the MLB, NHL and MLS are taking steps toward social justice advocacy and the NFL has plans to support player protests. Athletes, including Washington Mystic Natasha Cloud and Washington Wizard Bradley Beal, are organizing their own protests and encouraging their followings to vote and organize.

But, is sports the right medium to promote these causes? Should there be a line between sports and politics? Or should we expect more from professional athletes?

Produced by Richard Cunningham


  • Donald Collins Adjunct Professorial Lecturer at American University; @decollins1969
  • Erica Ayala NYC-based freelanced podcaster and sportswriter; @elindsay08
  • Ariel Atkins Guard, Washington Mystics


  • 12:00:03

    KOJO NNAMDIYou're tuned in to The Kojo Nnamdi Show on WAMU 88.5, welcome. Later in the broadcast millions of people stutter. So how should we understand stuttering both as speakers and as listeners? But first, if you watch any NBA or WNBA games lately you've noticed things are quite different. Players are wearing social justice messages on the backs of their jerseys and kneeling and locking arms during the national anthem. Basketball isn't alone, as other professional athletes are taking stances on issues of race and equality.

  • 12:00:34

    KOJO NNAMDILast month many professional sports teams chose to boycott matches to honor Jacob Blake, an unarmed Black man who was shot seven times by police in Kenosha, Wisconsin. But some people are opposed to the messaging these leagues are sending and believe that sports and social messaging should remain separate. Should athletes express their political beliefs when they play, and is sports the best medium to promote social advocacy? Joining us now is Donald Collins. He teaches in American University's African American studies department. Donald Collins, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:01:09

    DONALD COLLINSWell, thank you for having me, Kojo.

  • 12:01:11

    NNAMDIWhat was your reaction to George Floyd's death back in May?

  • 12:01:16

    COLLINSOne of not shock, but hurt, one of anger, smoldering rage, one of why can't we do something about all this, you know, violence that we get from law enforcement and white vigilantes on a regular basis? That was my reaction.

  • 12:01:35

    NNAMDIJoining us now is Erica Ayala, a New York based podcaster and sportswriter. Erica Ayala, thank you for joining us. Ariel Atkins is with us. Ariel Atkins is a Professional Basketball Player. She plays Guard for the Washington Mystics. Ariel, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:01:53

    ARIEL ATKINSThank you for having me.

  • 12:01:55

    NNAMDIAriel, the country is dealing with widespread protests calling for racial justice and police accountability. What has this summer been like for you? How have you been dealing with all that's going on?

  • 12:02:05

    ATKINSI'm just trying to find a way to keep our head above water, and find a way to educate myself on different things that are going on in the world. But also trying to make sure that my community knows see that I hear them. And that we stick together in trying to uplift each other during this tough time.

  • 12:02:25

    NNAMDIDonald Collins, many national sports leagues are planning some form of symbolic messaging supporting the Black Lives Matter movement. What is happening around the sports world?

  • 12:02:35

    COLLINSA little bit of everything. You know, you have -- in the last few months we've seen leagues boycott games. We saw the NBA actually boycott playoff games. The WNBA boycott regular season games. They've been wearing messaging around "I can't breathe" and "Education Reform" and "End Racism." Black Lives Matter is splattered over basketball courts in both leagues. The wubble in the WNBA and the bubble in the NBA, right, we've seen even Major League Baseball teams canceling games and boycotting games in support of Jordan Blake, in support of Black Lives Matter.

  • 12:03:16

    COLLINSThey're demanding things like making sure that owners open up their arena so that more people can, you know, vote in this year's election for instance. They've done a lot of things to try to raise awareness around the fact that Black men and Black women in particular are being shot by law enforcement and killed by law enforcement for basically existing.

  • 12:03:39

    COLLINSAnd so they're doing a lot of different things most of which might be symbolic, but are having some impact on us having things like this conversation around how do we deal with racism, virulent racism, violent racism in this country.

  • 12:03:53

    NNAMDIDonald, just a few years ago any of the moves that we are now discussing would have been considered radical potentially career ending. I'm thinking, of course, of Colin Kaepernick taking a knee, but it's a different time now. How did this transformation if you will come about?

  • 12:04:09

    COLLINSI think it really started with Trayvon Martin's death -- murder if you will even though he was not convicted of murder, at the hands of George Zimmerman in 2012. And that being in the national spotlight for so long. Then Mike Brown and then the Black Lives Matter movement that sort of rolls out of that, and, you know, raising awareness around the fact that this is something that happens to Black people regularly in this country. And actually to, you know, LatinX folks and other folks of color in this country as well.

  • 12:04:42

    COLLINSSo I think that's part of it. I think the movement we're in -- or the moment we're in now is predicated on several things. Having a president that basically is an advocate for white supremacy. Having this coronavirus pandemic shutting down so much putting people out of work. And, you know, at least for a few months keeping us away from the distractions of popular culture, most (unintelligible) professional sports.

  • 12:05:07

    COLLINSSo that has given us the fuel necessary for people's rage to turn into something more than just rage, but to do something about these things as an ongoing. So we're in this moment where all this stuff is going on that has pushed us to the point where people are no longer just satisfied with distracting themselves with escapism of sports and popular culture. They're going out there and trying to do something about these particular issues. They are literally life and death issues for so many of us.

  • 12:05:37

    NNAMDIErica Ayala is now with us. I mentioned earlier that Erica is a New York-based podcaster and sportswriter. Erica, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:05:45

    ERICA AYALAYes. Thank you for having me.

  • 12:05:47

    NNAMDIErica, as we said, until recently sports and politics just did not mix. When did we did we begin sports leagues as a whole begin to push for social justice?

  • 12:05:58

    AYALAWell, when thinking of sports leagues as a whole I really don't think we can underscore what the WNBA has been able to do since 2016 and that's when Maya Moore was playing, of course, with the Minnesota Lynx and the Lynx decided to wear shirts that said "Change starts with us" after -- at the time Philando Castile had been shot and killed. And there were also some officers that had been shot in Dallas. And I think the WNBA for me as someone who grew up watching the league and now covers the league, we started to see the players more consistently have conversations and be in conversation with their respective teams on how to make a difference when it comes to racial and social justice issues in their market.

  • 12:06:49

    NNAMDIErica, the WNBA dedicated this season to Breonna Taylor, Sandra Bland and other Black women killed by police. Racial justice and activism, what work has the league been doing?

  • 12:07:00

    AYALAWell, the league knew that threw the player's association and in then in conversation with the league that the players really wanted to have some kind of mechanism to communicate about voter education, about racial and social injustice.

  • 12:07:17

    AYALAAnd so one of the things that happened is that there was a social justice council in partnership with the players' association and the league that was formed and players serve on that council. As part of that council we have seen as you mentioned -- there's been coordination with the African American Policy Forum, which of course is behind the Say Her Name campaign. And as I understand WNBA players and staff have been able to hear from families impacted by police violence and police shootings and through these families have been able to, again, Say Her Name. But also learn more about the stories of these women who were shot or killed in police custody.

  • 12:07:59

    NNAMDIAriel Atkins, tell us a little bit about what the Washington Mystics in particular are doing, the activities you're involved in to promote racial equity.

  • 12:08:09

    ATKINSYeah. So some of the things that we're trying to do is find different ways to get information about voting out there. And also not to stop, you know, at the big election. Also understand that the local, you know, the midterms are very important things as well. We're just trying to use our platform in different ways to get the information out there. I think the number one thing about everything that's going on and we need to realize is that the more that we educate ourselves, the better equipped we can be to not only try to handle situations, but to help our people. Maybe help people that look like us.

  • 12:08:44

    NNAMDIIf you don't mind me asking, Ariel, what was your personal reaction to the Black Lives Matter movement?

  • 12:08:50

    ATKINSI'm sorry. What do you need?

  • 12:08:52

    NNAMDIHow do you see it affecting you personally? Do you see yourself as a part of that movement?

  • 12:08:58

    ATKINSI see myself as a part of it, because I feel like we are one. And one of the biggest things about that is I don't think we should try to separate this into color. We're saying Black lives matter, because they do. And I believe the movement has a positive reaction and reinforcement, because it focuses on, you know, the task at hand. Colored people are disproportionately being killed in this country even by police brutality and different things. So I do believe it is a positive movement. And I think that getting behind it in that way is important. And understanding that we're saying that our lives matter because they do. We're not saying that all lives don't matter, because they do including the Black lives that we are constantly fighting for day in and day out.

  • 12:09:51

    NNAMDIHere's Matt in Charlottesville, Virginia. Matt, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:09:56

    MATTHi, Kojo. Thank you for taking the call. I just wanted to say I have no problem with athletes and professionals using their position to advocate for issues such as this one. I just don't know that the field or the court is the proper venue for it. I think when they're off or (unintelligible) jersey and it's allowed by whichever sport they're in that's one thing. But, you know, the professional basketball or football, what have you, they're effectively working for a company. And if that company approves of whatever that manner is I think that's fine. But I think otherwise they should use their position to advocate for these crisis.

  • 12:10:38

    NNAMDIDonald Collins, how would you respond to our caller Matt?

  • 12:10:41

    COLLINSI think that trying to talk about sports as separate from whatever else is going on in society is a completely wrong way of looking at sports. Sports is political. Sports is cultural. It always has been. Always represents somebody's position within our society. The very fact that we play the national anthem before the games is in fact a political stance, it is in fact a cultural stance. And to some instance even an economic stance of the folks who want that. And so, I mean, we've had to have this history -- we've had this long history of trying to deal with these issues and using platforms in order to do so.

  • 12:11:19

    COLLINSAnd sports is certainly a big enough platform where folks should notice that, you know, what's going on with Black folks in terms of law enforcement and police brutality and murdering them and white vigilantism is a perfect place for doing this sort of thing. You know, for standing up and recognizing the fact that, you know, we're people too. Black lives do matter, we need to say her name, all of those sorts of things, we need those kneel downs, and this history of using sports as a platform for Black Lives Matter.

  • 12:11:52

    NNAMDILet me interrupt -- hold that thought, because I have to take a short break. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 12:12:07

    NNAMDIWelcome back to our conversation about athletes protesting racial injustice in America. We're talking with Ariel Atkins who is a Guard for the Washington Mystics. She's a Professional Basketball Player. Erica Ayala is a New York-based podcaster and sportswriter. And Donald Collins is an Adjunct in American University's African American Studies Department. We're taking your calls at 800-433-8850.

  • 12:12:30

    NNAMDIDo you believe that sports teams and other professional athletes are doing enough to fight for racial justice? Could they, should they be doing even more? Donald Collins, when we took that break you were talking about there's a history to what's going on now. And there are those of us who remember, of course, Mohammed Ali refusing to go into the draft. And there's been a lot of controversy over the last few years about the national anthem within sports, cut that began with Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf back in the 90s leading up to Colin Kaepernick in 2016. How has that whole narrative changed?

  • 12:13:03

    COLLINSThe narrative has changed, because quite frankly the whole generation of athletes have gone by since Abdul-Rauf in the 1990s. I mean, the 1990s was a period where you had athletes like Michael Jordan, who were basically -- they were saying in so many words that since Republicans buy sneakers too we can't use this platform as a platform for social justice. We have to basically protect our brand, protect our income, protect our salary. Now, we have a whole new generation of folks, who feel empowered and emboldened, because of Black Lives Matter, because of what they've seen because of the shift of the country in terms of the racial climate that become virulent and more violent actually over the past 20 or so years.

  • 12:13:49

    COLLINSIt's always been violent, but one could say it's probably been more violent over the last 20 years than previous. And so as a result you're seeing that shift where LeBron James is standing up and saying things and saying things on Twitter and saying things in real life around how Black Lives Matter, how we need to do something about this. How we need to take concrete steps not just symbolic steps to end racism and violent racism in this country.

  • 12:14:14

    NNAMDIAriel Atkins, after the Milwaukee Bucks decided not to play to protest the shooting of Jacob Blake, how did you feel about that? What was going through your mind when you first heard that?

  • 12:14:26

    ATKINSI was encouraged because a lot of people think you don't have a right to do anything. As athletes they say that we should just play our sport and keep moving and be thankful for everything that comes our way. And that's not to say that we aren't thankful for everything that comes our way, because we do. But we also do understand that we have a platform, you know. And for me, personally, I believe it's a God-given platform. And I'm going to use it to the best of my ability to speak out on things that I don't agree with and to use it in the best way I can.

  • 12:15:04

    ATKINSYou know, we keep talking about the past. There are athletes that have done things in the past and, of course, I'm not 100 percent educated in knowledge of everything that's going on. But I do understand that they gave me the opportunity to be encouraged and to have, you know, this platform and the ability to have the courage to speak out.

  • 12:15:27

    ATKINSAnd I hope to do the same thing for future generations and the WNBA players and sports people all over the world.

  • 12:15:34

    NNAMDIErica Ayala, were there differences in how each of the leagues responded to the movement and the strike?

  • 12:15:41

    AYALAI believe so. I think as Ariel just laid out. The WNBA, obviously, had a reaction to what Milwaukee did and was able to recollect. And the language that we hear from the WNBA now is that those two days without basketball were moments of reflection for teams like the Washington Mystics and Ariel Atkins and her teammates and staff to refocus and recommit to some of what they wanted to bring to light at the start of the season.

  • 12:16:16

    AYALABut then you have -- if you go to arguably the other side of the spectrum with the National Hockey League, a league that fans have been wanting to make a statement, but that the league has been rather silent on social justice, and maybe not lending player's voices to the conversation. That we did see hockey players opt not to play and to reach out to one another to reach out to their BIPOC players, so Black, Indigenous and Players of Color to get some guidance on how allies can react, what they can say in these moments to show their support in addition to agreeing not to play. So I think yes. We have seen a range of reactions from different sports leagues.

  • 12:17:04

    NNAMDIJohn tweets to us, "I don't think it's a political issue. It's a societal issue. It measures whether we truly care about each other as human beings. Teams should stand up and bring us all together around those causes. Change starts with all of us and our role models, professional athletes, have that social responsibility to create dialogue." And now here is Celeste in Delaware. Celeste, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:17:28

    CELESTEHi, Kojo. I think it's important that we hear from the athletes themselves. I really think that especially in today's environment unfiltered commentary from the individual heartfelt is important. And I think sports is if not the biggest, one of the biggest platforms. And that gives people that are playing whether it's Black, white, Latino, woman, indigenous, it doesn't matter. It gives them a voice. And I think that's really important for them, but it's, you know, I think even more important for us societally.

  • 12:18:04

    NNAMDIThank you very much for you call, Celeste. Here is Mark in Germantown, Maryland. Mark, your turn.

  • 12:18:12

    MARKHi, Kojo. Thanks for taking my call. I have a question about the Jacob Blake shooting that you all were talking about. The thing I find most troubling is neither one of your guests -- no one has mentioned the fact that he had been charged with rape and it was his victim who called the police. And he had taken her car keys and already fought with officers who had tried to put handcuffs on him. And he was going for his -- going to try to get in his car where his three children were where he had a knife inside. The whole narrative just doesn't make sense in terms of looking at this man as a victim.

  • 12:19:02

    NNAMDIWell, you seem to be suggesting that because he had apparently committed a crime that his girlfriend was involved in and she called the police -- you seem to be suggesting that he was not a victim. That he was a perpetrator who was someone shot seven times in the back. What would you say to that Donald Collins?

  • 12:19:22

    COLLINSI would say well, about the case a few years ago were there was this white perpetrator who had killed someone who was literally eating parts of this person's face in front of police officers and he wasn't shot seven times in the back. They figured out a way to somehow arrest this guy and then not -- in a forceful yet none lethal manner, right, who was killing people and eating someone's face. So my point is it's not about whether the person is criminal or not. It's about the whether the person -- you know, is a rapist or not. It's about whether we get treated the same when it comes to our encounters with police and our encounters with other violent perpetrators as is other folks in this country.

  • 12:20:08

    COLLINSAt the very least we should be treated the same. At best and even better, how about this? How about making sure that, you know, we don't have the police as police state shooting at us, you know, just for existing. You know, it shouldn't really matter whether the person committed a crime or not in order for them to get treated as someone who -- in a way that doesn't get them killed or paralyzed from the waist down.

  • 12:20:34

    NNAMDIOnly got about a minute left. But here is Eric in Fairfax, Virginia. Eric, your turn.

  • 12:20:39

    ERICHey. I just want to make a couple comments. First off, I think it's incredibly hypocritical for people to talk about bringing politics into sports when at every sports game I've ever been to I had to stand up for the Pledge of Allegiance. Secondly, I think it's hypocritical not to expect our athletes, people we tell our children to look up to, to not research and speak their minds and speak out about what they feel is right. I think that's a little bit sickening that we think we can control these people this way. And the last comment about the last caller, why do police get to be judge, jury and executioner? I thought we had a whole system for that. Anyway, thank you very much.

  • 12:21:16

    NNAMDIThank you very much. As I said we only have a little time left. Ariel Atkins, have the protests and the strike changed your perspective on your role as a professional athlete? Our last caller suggests that the role of a professional athlete should be to lead people to better understand social issues.

  • 12:21:34

    ATKINSYou know, for me being a professional athlete, we do have a platform. And to his point, we're humans. I mean, at the end of the day we are people too. And just because I'm not fitting your description or your mold of what you think I should be like that has nothing to do with me and everything to do with you. First and foremost, I'm a human. I'm a child of God, and I'm a person in a community of people of color, you know. I'm going to stand up for what I believe in and we're going to say what we have to say.

  • 12:22:05

    NNAMDIAnd I'm afraid that's about all the time we have. Ariel Atkins, Erica Ayala, Donald Collins, thank you all for joining us. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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