Skip to main content

Ariel Atkins Posts Up and Speaks Up

The fourth-year Mystics guard makes her points on the court and against racist policing.
Ariel Atkins-100 influential

Sports Illustrated and Empower Onyx are putting the spotlight on the diverse journeys of Black women across sports—from the veteran athletes, to up-and-coming stars, coaches, executives and more—in the series, Elle-evate: 100 Influential Black Women in Sports.

In the summer of 2020, as news spread of a 29-year-old Black man clinging to life after being shot seven times by a Kenosha, Wis., police officer, the Mystics convened an emergency team meeting inside the league’s COVID-19 bubble in Bradenton, Fla. There was no doubt the women would stage a demonstration. The only question was: How big could it be? “It’s really beautiful to watch when someone says one thing, and you get to see everyone’s different viewpoint,” says Washington guard Ariel Atkins, one of the stronger voices in the meeting. “Everybody may not always agree, but we all understand each other.”

Consensus quickly formed around the idea of showing up to their next game in matching shirts, a fashion statement that the WNBA was early to turn into a form of social protest. And after further discussion about what it would look like and say, Mystics players Emma Meesseman and Myisha Hines-Allen took the idea and ran with it.

Three days after the police shooting, before tip-off against the Dream, the Mystics’ players came out in white T-shirts and locked arms with their opponents before dropping to the floor on bended knee. On the front of the tees were letters spelling out the victim’s name, Jacob Blake; on the back was a constellation of black dots dripping red, signifying Blake’s near-fatal bullet entry wounds. Underneath, many players wore their league-issue Black Lives Matter tees, vestiges from past consternation over the police execution of George Floyd.

On its own, Washington’s pregame statement would have been plenty bold. But what really made it resonate was the Mystics leading their peers to boycott play, in solidarity with their male counterparts who had shut down the NBA to protest the Blake shooting—the first domino to fall in a weekend-long sports blackout. “This league is close to, if not, 80% Black women,” Atkins, the “O” in Jacob, told ESPN’s Holly Rowe with Mystics teammates flanking her. “We have cousins, we have brothers, we have sisters, mothers. Everyone: We matter. And I’m tired of telling people that. If you have a problem with us saying Black lives matter, you need to check your privilege.”


In a league where standing for what’s right goes hand in hand with getting buckets, the 5'8" Atkins sticks out as much for her explosive first step and lightning-quick lefty stroke as for her willingness to defend her deepest convictions. In three pro seasons she has proved a steadying force for the Mystics, one who last year rated among the team leaders in scores (16.2 ppg) and dimes (2.6 APG), while keeping Washington’s title prospects alive in the absence of Elena Delle Donne—aka the franchise. And she doesn’t hesitate to publicly condemn anti-Black racism or rally with her peers in the fight.

Given that the W itself was born from the protests that produced Title IX, it almost seems as if the players who enter know that social activism is part of the job. “That’s an interesting take that didn’t even cross my mind when I got drafted,” says Atkins, who went No. 7 out of Texas in 2018. “But it is true. Once you get into this league, you get around strong women with voices who are used to fighting for what they want.”

Early on basketball didn’t seem like something Atkins wanted. The Dallas native took up the sport at age 4, mostly for the snacks and the social opportunities. With no coach for her age group, her mother, LaShonda, stepped in to pass along the fundamentals of the game when she wasn’t running her salon. Meanwhile, Atkins’s father, Byron, ran a chicken and fish shop that became a favorite hangout spot for her and her teammates. At Dallas’s Duncanville High, she broke out from the specter of the great Tamika Catchings, losing just 10 games in 158 while winning consecutive state titles; when Tennessee, Catchings’s alma mater, and other big-time programs passed on her, Atkins went to Austin, where she’d go down as the first Big 12 player to rank in the top 20 across eight statistical categories. As a pro, the 25-year-old Atkins has continued to thrive, not only aiding the Mystics to consecutive WNBA finals appearances and a championship in 2019, but also abetting USA Basketball to a seventh straight Olympic gold medal at the Tokyo Games.

When Atkins spoke for this story via Zoom, she had just returned from USA Basketball training camp to prepare for February’s FIBA World Cup qualifying. And even though she’s been part of the program since 2014, helping the U18 national team to an undefeated gold medal run as a 16-year-old reserve, Atkins doesn’t kid herself into thinking she has arrived. “You can’t go in with the mindset of, Oh, I’ve been here before; I’ve done this before,” she says, “because it’s new every single time. I feel like you kinda have to go in with that beginner’s mindset. There’s a difference between knowing what it takes and actually doing what it takes.”

In other words Atkins walks the talk. And she won’t be easily subdued on the court or in the ongoing fight for social justice.

Empower Onyx/Sports Illustrated present Elle-evate: 100 Influential Black Women in Sports

Andrew Lawrence is a contributor for Empower Onyx, a diverse multi-channel platform celebrating the stories and transformative power of sports for Black women and girls.