'This Is So Much Bigger'

What goes into the decision to opt out? Athletes from the WNBA, NBA and NFL let B/R Mag in on why they are sitting out their seasons in favor of a higher cause.
photo of Mirin FaderMirin Fader@MirinFaderB/R Mag ContributorAugust 24, 2020

Natasha Cloud was on the phone with her mother, Sharon, when she saw that she was being pulled over. She told her what was happening, and Sharon instinctively asked to stay on the line.

Cloud agreed. Whatever could happen, whatever would happen, she needed her mom to hear it. Be there for it. Call for help if necessary.

Just in case, Cloud thought to herself.

Now she saw the police officer getting out of his car.

The cop, who was white, approached Cloud's Audi S4 walking sideways, slowly. Crouching low, clutching his gun. He looked angry. He looked like he was about to do something.

Her anxiety ran wild. Fear seized her.

Just in case.

She tried to breathe. Tried to remember what her mom, who is white, told her at age 16, when she got her driver's permit. She told her how, as a biracial girl, she needed to act if a cop pulled her over in her mom's gold Mazda: Put your hands at 10 and 2 on the wheel. Be respectful, polite. "Yes, sir." "No, ma'am." Tell them you are reaching for your license and registration.

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Inside she was shaking, but outside she remained calm. She knew he had already perceived her as a threat. She knew he could do anything he wanted to her. It didn't matter that she was a WNBA player. A starting guard for one of the league's top teams, the Washington Mystics.

She is a Black woman.

She could die.

She could become Sandra Bland, a 28-year-old Black woman who in 2015 was arrested after a pretextual traffic stop—sometimes referred to as “vehicular stop and frisk”—and three days later was found hanging in a Texas jail cell. Every time Cloud, also 28, walks out of her home, she thinks of Bland. Hears her cries. Thinks of the life she had, the life she could have had. And lately, Cloud thinks of Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old Black woman killed by police in Louisville, Kentucky, in March. They broke into her home while she was in bed and shot eight bullets into her.

"Every time I take off my uniform, I have the potential to be them," Cloud says. "I don't get to take off the color of my skin."

On this night back in spring 2019, Cloud had been pulled over after a late-night workout session at the Mystics' practice complex. She was a block from her apartment.

The cop began yelling at her as soon as he got to her car. Ordered her to roll down all of her windows. He became more aggressive, leaning closer.

"I'm going to reach down to pull down my windows," Cloud said, calmly. "Do I have your permission?"

"Yes," he said, hand still on his gun. Then: "License and registration!"

"Can I reach into my glove compartment for my registration? Can I reach for my wallet—it's in my middle console—to get my license for you?"

"Yes." She handed them to him. He went back to his car, and she waited. She knew he was looking up her record, seeing that it was clean. He was now out of his car again, coming toward hers. Another wave of fear.

Back at her window, he handed her a ticket, for her windows exceeding D.C.'s limit on tinting. "Take that tint off your car!" he said, walking away.

She was alone again, heard her mom's voice again. She started to cry. Her anxiety spilled out, finally able to release. "I was scared shitless," she says. "It was one of the scariest encounters I've ever had in my life."

She was safe. She made it home, this time. But what about tomorrow?


As the COVID-19 pandemic hit the United States in full force, Cloud, a player representative, was on dozens of WNBA Players Association calls trying to determine how the league could safely play a season. The calls didn't sit right with her. She felt irritated, wondering why there was hardly any talk about Taylor or George Floyd—just a few days before one of the calls, the Minneapolis Police had killed the 46-year-old Black man while he was in custody—especially when most of the league's players are Black.

How in the HELL am I supposed to compartmentalize being Black in America right now? she thought to herself, listening to the negotiations.

It's difficult to keep compartmentalizing Put your hands at 10 and 2 on the wheel.

Compartmentalizing a triggering memory of being pulled over when she was 16 in her predominantly white neighborhood of Broomall, Pennsylvania, a cop telling her the reason was because she and her two Black friends looked "suspicious."

Compartmentalizing having been followed in stores by white employees since age 12. That year she was in a 7-Eleven, confused. Why is this man following me around? I'm not stealing anything.

Compartmentalizing being followed in a BMW dealership recently. She wasn't even greeted, just steered to the pre-owned vehicles, as if she couldn't afford better.

Compartmentalizing the way her heart sinks every time she sees more Black people being murdered by police or by white supremacists. Seeing the videos on social media, scrolling, seeing, scrolling.

Compartmentalizing, compartmentalizing.

Her whole life, everywhere she's gone, she's smiled to try to show people that she is not threatening. That she is a nice person. She doesn't even tell herself to smile; her lips just instinctively curve. And she feels the urge to do this even more right now, knowing how so many see her broad shoulders, her tattoos, her hoodie sweatshirt, her mask. "You can't tell that I'm a female," she says. "I'm seen as even more of a threat in the pandemic." She still smiles underneath her mask, but people cannot see.

She knew early on in discussions with the WNBA that she would not be playing basketball this season. It still wasn't an easy decision. She prayed on it. Slept on it. Talked to her fiance, Aleshia Ocasio. Talked to her family. She also had to consider that she would not be compensated if she opted out, but she felt strongly. "I can't play," she says. "I can't believe we're even talking about basketball right now in this moment. This is so much bigger than basketball."

Photo by Michael A. McCoy/Getty Images

Cloud has long been an activist, working to end systemic racism, discrimination and police brutality through her support of Black Lives Matter. She couldn't imagine diminishing those efforts while in a bubble, where a player has to be focused and committed to hours of playing, working out, practicing, film-studying.

When considering her decision, she thought of how people put athletes on pedestals. She doesn't want that. "Take me off that," she says. "I want to be in my community. I want to be on the front lines. I'm going to stand beside you. I'm going to fight for you. To be impactful means I'm going to be present, and I can't do that from a bubble."

Cloud, fortunately, is sponsored by Converse, which has agreed to pay her forfeited WNBA salary. During this time away from the game, she plans to focus on voting initiatives, making sure that people are educated, prepared, registered early.

She also wants to heighten awareness about the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on Black and Latino people—disparities in health care and economic inequalities make them three times as likely as their white neighbors to become infected and twice as likely to die from the virus.

"We have two pandemics going on right now," she says. "One of them is a virus, and the other is the social pandemic that has been plaguing us for years. Both directly affect Black and minority communities more."

Basketball is her passion. Her drive. She yearns for the Mystics to repeat as WNBA champions. But she thinks of Bland, thinks of Taylor. Thinks of having to constantly smile. And she remembers her purpose.


Cloud's purpose is her own. But she is not alone.

She is one of so many athletes, across all sports, opting out of playing this season. Athletes in the NBA, the NFL, MLB, the NHL, MLS, tennis, college football, high school football, Little League—every sport at every level—are grappling with difficult decisions, some of them with millions of dollars hanging in the balance.

The decisions they're making, opt in or opt out, are also their own, but they affect thousands. Their friends. Their families. Neighbors. People they don't even know. They've been considering what to do. What they want to focus on right now. What they value. What they fear. What the risks are. The ones we know about, the ones we don't know about.

As sports have returned, there's been so much focus on what's happening in the bubbles. What the protocols are. What the conditions are. What athletes are feeling. What they're doing. What they're eating.

But less attention has been given to those who have chosen to not play. They are taking a different path, one that is unique to each person.

Some have chosen to share their reasons with the world.

Others have chosen to keep their reasons to themselves.

B/R Mag sought out these players, to hear their stories and share them, perhaps helping give perspective to so many around the world right now facing their own decisions.

"At the end of the day, we all love the game," says Bismack Biyombo, Charlotte Hornets center and vice president of the National Basketball Player Association. The Hornets were eliminated from bubble contention, but Biyombo says he would have played had his team been allowed to do so. "We have to make the decision that's best for us, for our families, for our communities that we come from."


The first thing Wilson Chandler thought of when COVID-19 started to spread was his family. His children. His grandmother. As NBA players progressed in their discussions about the sustainability of a bubble, the Brooklyn Nets forward felt more and more uncertain. Not just about the effects of contracting the disease for any of them, or even for himself, but what could happen afterward.

"I'm not a doctor. I don't know the long-term effects of COVID," Chandler says. "They were saying that many players are asymptomatic, but I don't know the long-term effects. So, being uncertain of the future, that made me afraid."

Afraid for his children, including his older son, Wilson Jr., 6, who has asthma; and his younger son, Kato, six months old, who has issues with his breathing. He also has a daughter, Jaya, 12. His children are his life. His heart. He can't fathom anything happening to them. Basketball, money, contracts—none of it is worth risking their health.

Photos courtesy of Wilson Chandler

Afraid for his grandmother, Olivia, who is 87, part of a high-risk group.

Olivia raised Chandler. Always made him feel comfortable, loved. "She gave me a home," Chandler says. "She sacrificed a lot. She was there whenever I needed."

She's also a three-time cancer survivor. Watching the way chemotherapy changed her was painful for Chandler. Terrifying. But she was just as nurturing, just as upbeat as when she had not been sick. That taught Chandler a lot about strength, about handling responsibilities. Being there for your family even if you weren't sure what might happen to you.

He thought of those memories as COVID-19 deaths skyrocketed. It worried him. What if her medical history might make her more susceptible? "I'm protective of her," he says.

In March, he went to visit her at her home in Michigan. Refused to go inside, to be safe. He just talked to her through the screen window. It pained her, seeing her golden child, as she thinks of him, there but not there. Behind a screen, not in her embrace. "It was tough for her," he says. "I'm like her little baby."

She was nervous about COVID-19, too. Worried about the family. Worried about people she doesn't even know. Strangers. There were too many questions.

Around June, Chandler decided he was going to opt out of the season. "I realized I wasn't going," he says. "It's never about me. It's about my family and those underlying conditions that might [put them] at risk. Just keeping them safe. When you have kids, you just want to be able to protect them."

Photo by Kent Smith/NBAE via Getty Images

He also wanted to call attention to Black Lives Matter and the fight against systemic racial oppression and police brutality. "George Floyd, Sandra Bland, they're my family too," he says.

This is the first time in his life that he's not on a plane, on the road. Traveling. Missing his kids, missing Olivia. This goes back to high school, back to AAU days. For the first time in a while, he can be fully present. Back where his journey started: Michigan.

He doesn't have to say goodbye like he normally does. The hardest time being last summer, when he was traded from Denver to Philadelphia.

Daddy has to go. A lot of the things we are fortunate to have, we have because I go provide and work.

"That's how the world works," he says. "We have to pay bills, we have to make sure our kids have the best education, have the things they need to succeed."

It was a tough decision to not play this year, but he's appreciating this time. It's a strange kind of gift. A gift that unwraps in small moments: watching cartoons with his kids (Dragon Ball Z, Jaya's favorite) or animated movies (Monsters, Inc. and Ratatouille are Wilson Jr.'s favorites). He gets to enjoy Wilson Jr.'s big, bright smile. He's a character. Or Jaya's dance moves. She always knows the newest steps and makes fun of him for not having any rhythm as he attempts them. ("I can't dance. I really have zero rhythm," Chandler says, laughing. "She pressures me to do stuff.") Kato's presence alone has been a blessing, being born during a pandemic.

They all play basketball. Video games like Fortnite. Recently he took them fishing for the first time. He smiled to himself, watching them near the water, appreciating the quiet joys of slowing down as the world shut down. The water was beautiful. They were having so much fun, though they didn't catch many fish.

He melted when they asked him, "When are we going fishing again?!"

Anytime.


When Damien Williams first found out his mother, Virleana Alexander, had stage 4 cancer earlier this year, he didn't want to believe it. "My mom is my best friend," he says. "My mom is my everything."

It was about two months after Williams helped the Kansas City Chiefs to a Super Bowl victory when Alexander told him she didn't feel so good. Her stomach was hurting. He said they needed to go to the doctor. He was devastated upon learning the diagnosis.

"It was hard, finding out," Williams says. "For the both of us. She didn't want people to see her as weak or anything like that."

Williams could never see her that way. To him, she is a superhero. Always will be. She raised him and his two brothers and one sister alone. Whatever he needed, she provided. Whatever she didn't have, she found a way to get. She's always been there when he needed to call. To vent. To laugh. Hugging her after the Super Bowl is a feeling he cherishes.

But this time, with her needing him, he had to be there. "I needed to be strong," he says. "I told my brothers: This is the time we need to be strong for her. We can hurt, but we gotta be there for her. We gotta sacrifice."

With the NFL season looming, the running back faced a difficult decision. He's a key part of Kansas City's hopes to repeat as champion. As much as he wanted to be there for his teammates and coaches, his mother comes first. He didn't want her to go through this alone.

So he opted out of the season and is now taking care of her in San Diego, where he grew up. "She's my world. I watched her do it by herself, raise four kids by herself. I've watched her sacrifice a whole lot, so this would be a perfect time for me to sacrifice something as well," he says.

Photo courtesy of Ian Greengross

He knew he wouldn't be mentally ready to be on the field, giving his all. "That would be unfair to the guys I'm going with on the field each and every day," he says. "And knowing what my mom is going through—she's never let me down. At the end of the day, this is really hard—this is something I love—but my mom is something you can't get back."

It hasn't been easy. He doesn't know how much time he might have with her. Who knows what can happen. Or when. "It's a battle that we have to fight. And we have to be real about the situation," he says.

Alexander is remaining positive. She's a fun-loving person, Williams says. He is the spitting image of her. They binge movies and TV shows together, having just finished Marco Polo. They're remembering good times, hard times, funny times from Williams' childhood. Like when he'd get into so much trouble and she'd have to miss work to come pick him up. You gonna get me fired—and then what?! she'd say to him. Or how when he was a little kid, everywhere she went, he wanted to be with her. He would always grab for her hand and say, Let's go!

He's planning to do something special for her birthday, on Wednesday, though she likes to keep things simple. Having him around is more than enough.

They watch motivational videos on YouTube together every day to keep her spirits up. He tries to encourage her—tells her that they will get past this, together, and that he will be playing next season and she will be watching, like always.

He prays with her every morning. He prays for her when she is in the other room. He constantly tells her "I love you." He's trying to appreciate this time with her. Enjoy this time with her.

And, speaking to Williams or anyone living through these times and the choices they force, it's so clear that's the hardest part.

Every day we strive to be grateful for what we have, but underneath we fear what we might lose.

      

Mirin Fader is a staff writer for B/R Mag. She's written for the Orange County Register, espnW, SI.com and Slam. Her work has been honored by the Associated Press Sports Editors, the U.S. Basketball Writers Association, the Football Writers Association of America, the Los Angeles Press Club and The Best American Sports Writing series. Follow her on Twitter: @MirinFader.