Photo: Courtesy of the WNBA. Design: Julie Vaccaro/Bustle.

Meet The Professional Athlete Who's Standing Up To Gun Violence

By Anni Irish

A recent social media post to Natasha Cloud's feed showed the WNBA star wearing a plain white T-shirt with the words “protect kids, not guns” appearing across the front. The caption beneath read only: “It’s really simple.”

As a player with the Washington Mystics since 2014, the sentiment hits close to home for Cloud. As of Sept. 26 of this year, the Metropolitan Police Department reports an 11 percent year-over-year increase in homicides in Washington, D.C. — a change that's being attributed to the use of guns in crimes, Deputy Director, Office of Communications Kristen Metzger confirmed to Bustle. These numbers are staggering on their own, but they also point to a growing trend of gun violence becoming an all-too-common occurrence across the country — a trend that reached a personal tipping point with Cloud earlier this summer.

On June 13, Cloud and another WNBA teammate visited Hendley Elementary School in the Southeast neighborhood of Anacostia in Washington, D.C. to read to students, only hours after a bullet had gone through a school window on June 12. It was the second time in a two-week span that the school had been struck.

Although the school is located blocks from where the Mystics play, Cloud had only learned of these disturbing events when speaking to school staff. The circumstances surrounding the school and students being put in harm’s way made the urgency to speak out about the matter more pressing.

Photo: Courtesy of the WNBA; Design: Julie Vaccaro/Bustle.

“Sometimes we have to be the voice for the voiceless,” Cloud told Bustle during a conversation following the visit. “At the end of the day, we are all humans and living in the world and issues need to be addressed.”

After leaving the elementary school, Cloud swiftly took to social media to respond to the incidents. In a video posted to her feed moments after departing from the school, she said, “When you’re talking about changing a culture … when you’re talking about empowering our youth and giving them opportunities, it starts with their education, and our kids don’t even feel safe to go to school right now. What are we doing?” In the same video, Cloud calls out local politicians to offer more support and resources for the kids at Hendley and the people of D.C. The next day, Cloud continued the conversation by only taking questions about gun violence and Hendley Elementary during the press conference that followed her Mystics home game.

While Cloud has been outspoken about gun violence among other social causes, the Mystics starting point guard wasn’t always as candid when it came to using her status as a professional athlete. For Cloud, a shift began in 2016 when her team and others across various athletic leagues began protesting in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. That year, Cloud and her fellow teammates held a post-game media blackout as a sign of solidarity with other WNBA teams who had spoken up about the cause — a powerful gesture that underscored the vital cause of Black Lives Matter.

That same year, following a mass shooting at an Orlando nightclub where 49 people were killed, Cloud took part in another league-wide initiative to wear a T-shirt with the words “Orlando Strong” across the front. This year was marked with several gun-related tragedies that helped set Cloud on a path to speaking out about such injustices.

Today, she’s leading the charge within the new wave of gun violence activism and is continuing to become a leader within her community. Recently, Cloud began working with the nonprofit Everytown for Gun Safety as a member of the newly launched Everytown Athletic Council. In her work with Everytown, Cloud has continued to speak out against gun violence while also raising awareness around the topic. Her partnership with the organization has helped promote more information about gun reform and has empowered more people through her efforts.

"Athletes have an incredible power to inspire fans and raise awareness about gun violence,” Jordana Baldwin, Director of Cultural Engagement at Everytown for Gun Safety tells Bustle. “Natasha is a wonderful example of an athlete using her platform to motivate others within the sport to engage with the mission while driving positive change in her local Washington, D.C. community.”

Cloud has used her social status to maintain momentum against gun violence and to create stronger bonds within her community as a professional athlete. She takes her duties as a player and a role model seriously. And with over 30,000 social media followers, Cloud has become a force to be reckoned with on and off the court.

“I have never seen myself as an advocate, but being a human being and understanding right from wrong, and having empathy and sympathy ... everyone needs need help. I think my parents did a good job in raising me to be good to everyone regardless of race, religion, et cetera, and be welcoming to everyone,” Cloud says.

In the process of educating people on gun violence, Cloud is becoming part of a bigger conversation — a role that’s not unfamiliar to a professional athlete whose job revolves around being a member of a strong team. But what’s most unique about Cloud’s platform is the fact that she’s encouraged to have one at all.

The WNBA’s progressive position stands in direct contrast to other professional sports leagues that often act to keep social issues out of their organization's purview. Since its founding, the WNBA has actively created an environment where its players and fans are encouraged to speak up about causes that are important to them — like with their past “Take a Seat, Take a Stand” initiative, which donated tickets and a portion of ticket proceeds to an organization of a fan’s choice.

Photo: Courtesy of the WNBA; Design: Julie Vaccaro/Bustle.

“I've always said there's so much more I intended to do than play basketball," Cloud says. "The WNBA does a great job of supporting us. I remember when we did the Black Rights Matter [protest] and different teams didn't come out for the national anthem, we weren't fined or punished for it. To not have the fear of being fined for using our voice was huge."

When reached for comment, WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert echoed a similar sentiment in support of Cloud and her work: “Natasha has been an outstanding example of how players value their time spent connecting with the community. Her commitment to volunteering is exemplary of how socially conscious WNBA players are and how they continue to excel as role models for the next generation,” Engelbert said in a statement to Bustle.

Currently, the Mystics are in the midst of playoffs, but Cloud’s journey to the WNBA began several decades back. She began playing at 12 years old and went on to play Division I college basketball in Philadelphia where she was a standout player. In 2014, she found herself in the second round 15th draft pick for the WNBA.

Since becoming part of the Mystics, Cloud has continued to use her talents on and off the court to help bridge the divide in the D.C. community she now calls home. She found her voice by speaking up against issues that were important to her, and by doing so has put forth an agenda that goes far beyond the scope of her role as a WNBA player. Natasha Cloud is changing what it means to be a professional athlete, and the best part is that she’s just getting started.

This post is sponsored by the WNBA.