Mys­tics un­afraid to wade into pol­i­tics

WNBA

The Star Democrat - - SPORTS - By DAN STEINBERG WPNS Sports Colum­nist

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

The Wash­ing­ton Mys­tics visit U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga.

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