Mystics unafraid to wade into politics
There’s something to be said for team outings to baseball parks and soccer matches and tennis tournaments. You know, group bonding, relaxation, civic pride and all that. Which is why the Washington Mystics have, in recent years, been to Nationals Park and watched a Washington Freedom match and visited the Citi Open.
These are interesting times, though, especially in a place like the District, and so Coach Mike Thibault and his staff began envisioning team outings with a bit more heft. They crafted a survey, listing several dozen Washington attractions and asking players to check off ones they had visited; “a lot of people hadn’t been to more than four or five,” said guard Tierra Ruffin-Pratt. The results of that survey prompted group trips this season to the Newseum and the National Museum of African American History and Culture, with more such outings in store.
Coaches also asked players what sort of speakers might be of interest, and the results of that question had the entire team headed to the Hill after a practice this month to visit with Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga. Lewis showed the team his photographs and told them stories of the Civil Rights movement. The Mystics also gave every player a copy of Lewis’ book, “Across That Bridge: Life Lessons and a Vision for Change.” And players left the meeting speaking a language of activism.
“I mean, it was incredible, and inspirational for us as people with platforms,” Natasha Cloud said.
“Just an awesome visit, even better than I could have imagined,” Elena Delle Donne said.
“I had to hold my cry in,” Ivory Latta said. “And the thing that I’m gonna take away from him: right is right and wrong is wrong. If you see something that’s not right, speak up on it. Don’t hold it in. Because that’s not going to help the world get better.”
If Lewis is a notable Civil Rights hero, though, he’s also notable as a modern antagonist of President Donald Trump. And in this era, when every politically tinged statement merits a headline, might a team trip to Lewis’ office be interpreted as a partisan declaration? Well, I asked Thibault that question. His response: He doesn’t particularly care if people know his politics.
“For me personally, we are at a very crucial time in our history, and we have to be very careful as a country not to take backward steps,” Thibault said. “And what I see going on is headed in that direction, and I don’t like it. You know, I try to separate politics from my profession. But I have opinions.”
The past few months have seen an unusual level of candor from some pro athletes and coaches, but Washington has mostly been on the sidelines. Redskins players tiptoed around the presidential election last fall, at least publicly. And it goes without saying that no local team has had to consider whether it would visit the White House after a championship.
Enter the Mystics, and they aren’t much for tiptoeing. Their coach, who campaigned for Robert F. Kennedy and describes himself as a “product of the ‘60s,” hasn’t volunteered his opinions to the media. Still, current events are a frequent discussion point around the team, and their coach doesn’t hesitate to jump in.
“No president of ours should treat individual humans the way (President Trump) has treated people,” said Thibault, who also believes that “this administration has emboldened some of those who were hidden racists to come forward.”
Players smile when asked about Thibault’s opinions. They are well aware of his thoughts on the current administration — “he’s not afraid to speak his mind,” Ruffin-Pratt said — and many of them agree with him.
“He’s very vocal when he’s upset and frustrated about the latest headline — which seems to be every other minute of every day,” Delle Donne said. “I can’t speak for everyone, but I would think that generally most of us, for sure, agree with what coach believes. I have very similar values.”
Now go back to those group outings, because they’re connected. Thibault said his staff pledged to do a better job of “nonbasketball player development,” encouraging players to experience the world and imagine themselves as more than just professional athletes. That’s why he urges them to use their platforms — not just for partisan means, but to speak on any issues that matter to them.
“A lot of times you find coaches who just kind of want to keep things in order, keep things in house, and not stretch too far out to the left,” Cloud said. “But Coach T’s all for it. He’s all for speaking our minds, and when something’s not right, speak up if you want to. I think that’s huge for him, and it speaks volumes about who he is as a man.”
“It’s frustrating (if fans) think we’re not supposed to speak about stuff because we’re in the public eye,” said Delle Donne, who is easily the team’s most visible player. “I mean, we’re human beings, we have feelings, we have opinions. And at some point, if you feel like something’s wrong, why not speak out about it, and try to take a position?” Such as?
“I mean, (last week)’s announcement of not allowing transgenders in the military is idiotic to me,” Delle Donne said. “And it’s scary, because I feel like it’s just the beginning of making people who are different feel different. And that’s very frightening.”
And while players don’t want to get ahead of themselves — at 13-9, they were tied for the league’s third-best record entering Sunday’s matinee — they’ve already discussed an imaginary White House invitation.
“If we were to win the championship, we would not go to the White House,” Cloud said. “I don’t support (Trump’s) views. I don’t support any of his political views, his human-rights views. So no, I’m not going to be fake.”
“I wouldn’t go,” Delle Donne said. “I’m pretty sure the whole team just isn’t in support of a lot of the values that the president right now seems to be standing for. So yeah, I don’t think many of us would make that trip.”
Such political views aren’t outliers in a league that seems increasingly willing to embrace activism. The Seattle Storm recently donated more than $40,000 of ticket proceeds to Planned Parenthood, and players across the league haven’t shied away from expressing political opinions.
In Thibault, the Mystics have a coach advising them to do so — whatever their politics. If a player, fan, or a season-ticket holder disagreed with his views, Thibault said, he would welcome a discussion. He emphasized that he speaks for himself, not for the organization. And his goal, he said, isn’t to instill his beliefs in his team, but to stimulate them to defend beliefs of their own.
“I’m not trying to be dramatic about it; I just think it’s important that you stand up for what you think’s right,” Thibault said. “I don’t know if it’s the teacher part of me or the activist part of me, I don’t know what it is. I just feel like I want them to stand for something, whatever it is.”
If there’s been a flowering of athletes talking about politics in the past few years, there’s also been a flowering of stick-to-sportsism. Maybe the stakes are lower in the WNBA, but the debate is the same: do fans care what basketball players think about political or social issues? Should they? Is there a risk of alienating those who disagree? For Thibault, those aren’t the motivating questions.
“I think too many young players get caught up in just the day-to-day life of being an athlete, going to the gym, practicing,” he said. “And there’s so much outside that realm that they could know about, be involved in, think about. I try to get them to think about other things. Particularly in this city, there’s just an incredible opportunity to see and do things that you don’t get in very many places. And I don’t like it when opportunities like that get wasted. ... Take the politics out of it, that’s not the most important thing. The most important thing for me is to expose our team to things outside of their little world.”
The Washington Mystics visit U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga.