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Change Beyond Surface

Jul 17 2020
Tina Charles
Washington Mystics
Jul 17 2020

When the WNBA announced that it was moving forward with the 2020 season, and laid out its plans for the bubble, I found myself conflicted.

I was leaning toward playing, but with COVID-19 still taking hundreds of lives each day and the movement for racial justice in this country gaining real momentum, something about playing basketball at a time like this just felt, I don’t know, off.

While I was going back and forth on it, I received a medical questionnaire from the league. In filling it out, I couldn’t help but notice that I was answering questions about potential susceptibility to health issues with more yes’s than no’s due to an existing medical condition. Our team physician noticed, too. And she flagged me as potentially “high risk.”

My condition, called extrinsic asthma, impacts my immune system and would make playing during a pandemic a very risky and dangerous proposition. So recently the decision about whether to play or not was made for me when the league granted me a medical waiver for the upcoming season.

It’s going to be an adjustment, not playing this year. For the last 10 years, I’ve never not gone into a season. But sitting out the season is what I’m prepared to do.

It’s not what I was anticipating for 2020, and as someone who has invested so much into this game, it’s tough.

I still have a lot to accomplish both on and off the court but sitting out this season to make sure that I stay healthy is what I’m going to do.

For the last 10 years, I’ve never not gone into a season. But sitting out the season is what I’m prepared to do.

I was diagnosed with this condition five years ago, and I haven’t shared much about it since, but it’s something that first arose when I was playing overseas in Ürümqi for Xinjiang of the WCBA.  It was my first year playing in China (When I Googled the city, I found that Ürümqi means “fine pastures,” and that was literally all I saw when I arrived — pastures and mountains.)

I’d made it through four years of Storrs, Connecticut, and had played in Europe, so I felt like I was ready for anything. I thought I was fully prepared. But I hadn’t considered the air quality and smog issues that are prevalent in parts of China. I didn’t fully realize the impact it can have on your respiratory system until one night in January 2016, during the final game of the regular season.

I’d had a fever earlier in the week, and a bad cough, but I came up in an era when we were taught to “sweat it out,” so I just powered through. I felt fine during warmups, but then two minutes into the game, I couldn’t breathe.

Literally.

Like I couldn’t take air down into my lungs.

It was terrifying.

In the middle of a play I walked off the court in a panic. I was suffocating.

I received oxygen on the bench, and gradually my breathing came back. But I knew something was wrong. When I got back home to New York I went through a battery of tests and a pulmonologist told me that I had extrinsic asthma – which, long story short, is when your immune system reacts to a viral infection or any allergen and overproduces an antibody that causes airway inflammation. In my case, it led to pneumonia, bronchial spasms, wheezing, and severe breathing complications that have occurred at least once a year. I travel with my inhaler everywhere now, because I never know when I will have a reaction.

And now, as a result of all that, I’ve been deemed to be at “high risk” by the league’s panel of physicians.

Just like so many people who have had to adjust to the COVID-19 world, I’ve been trying to adjust to the reality of not being able to compete in the league that I have worked so hard to play in.

At the same time, I’ve also been doing a lot of thinking.

About myself.

And this country.

And this moment that we’re all currently living through.


In the grand scheme of things, while my diagnosis and condition are very real, they’re nothing when compared to what we’ve watched so many Black men and women go through recently as a result of police brutality toward African-Americans.

But as someone who knows what it’s like to struggle for breath — as a person who knows the terror and powerlessness that goes along with gasping for air, and having no control over your breathing — I can tell you that what I’ve been seeing on the news has been all the more heartbreaking.

Every time I hear the words “I can’t breathe,” my body has a specific, involuntary response, not just to the words, but to that feeling.

Obviously, in no way am I comparing my experiences with that of….

Muhammad Abdul Muhaymin, when four Phoenix police officers placed the weight of their bodies on his head, neck, and limbs as he lay face-down and handcuffed before going into sudden cardiac arrest and dying.

Or Elijah McClain, in Aurora, Colorado, who was tackled and placed in a stranglehold that caused him to vomit while he lay handcuffed and pleading for his life.

Or Eric Garner, who, in 2014, six years ago to the day, was placed in a chokehold after being suspected of selling loose cigarettes on Staten Island, New York.

Or Byron Williams, who last summer, was arrested by Las Vegas police for riding his bicycle without a safety light. They held him on the ground by kneeling on his back, as he repeated, “I can’t breathe,” at least 17 times before dying.

Or, more recently, George Floyd, who had an officer place a knee on the back of his neck until his life slipped away, a full eight minutes and 46 seconds later.

Or what’s happened since then to Javier Ambler and Manuel Ellis and countless others.

My experience absolutely pales in comparison with what they went through.

But what they likely felt — not being able to do something so simple, so human, as to control their own breathing — I don’t know … it just registers with me and cuts even deeper.

I’ve also realized that, while I was able to get immediate medical attention when my asthma attack happened during a game, when I take off that uniform, I’m no different from any other African-American who could be subjected to racism at any time.  And the more I’ve been able to spend some time thinking and reading and learning about what’s going on in this country — what’s been going on in this country for a loooooong time — the more convinced I am that I need to be a part of making sure change happens as soon as possible.

When I take off that uniform, I’m no different from any other African-American who could be subjected to racism at any time.

I’m someone who doesn’t like to speak directly on something until I feel like I’m fully informed and have put in the work to understand all I can about what’s going on. We can not go forward until we take the time to educate ourselves. And for me, I mean … I’m at that point now.

I’m done with surface-level discussions. It’s time to be O.K. with real, no-holds-barred, uncomfortable conversations.

I truly believe that there is no path to change until we can acknowledge the ongoing trauma caused by slavery. The way it dehumanized African-Americans in the eyes of so many. Until we can acknowledge that that trauma is synonymous with the founding of this country, true change will be impossible. There needs to be restitution for what this government and the white founding fathers of this nation have done, and recognition that what we’ve been seeing is what happens when a nation does not acknowledge that the effects of its actions have perpetuated an unjust reality upon generations of African-Americans that is still at play today.

And it goes beyond slavery. Even after the passage of the 14th Amendment, which was intended to protect the rights of African-Americans, we still experienced de jure segregation and then de facto segregation, blockbusting, exclusionary zoning laws and continuous discrimination achieved through private restrictive covenants.

And you know what? It’s also about a million more institutionalized, SYSTEMIC efforts to keep African-Americans down.

And that definitely includes police brutality.

But in order for us to create change and move forward, we need to understand just how deep things go. How ingrained racial injustice is within our society.

I’ve tried to educate myself as much as I can about this country’s history. And I’ve come to understand something really, really important about the country we live in. Something that has completely reshaped how I think.

Americans who preceded us fought for our liberty, sometimes giving their lives for it, and yet we benefit without making similar sacrifices. I’m not just talking about our veterans. I’m talking about our freedom fighters. I’m talking about people who risked their lives sitting at lunch counters in “white-only” restaurants and who sat in the front of buses where the law said they weren’t allowed. I believe that when we are born into this country, for better or worse, we accept not only the citizen privileges, but also the responsibility.

That absolutely includes the responsibility to correct wrongs that we did not commit.

And we can’t keep waiting on the government to fix these things.

It needs to happen NOW.

We all need to work to hold those in power accountable and to affirmatively force change.

Maya Moore did just that recently in the criminal justice setting by working to secure the freedom of Jonathan Irons.

My fellow New Yorkers forced change by repealing state law 50-a, which keeps police disciplinary records secret, and banning the use of chokeholds and other neck restraints. But those things … they’re only a start. There are some cities that have similar bans in place, but those chokeholds still happen. So it’s not just about enacting such bans, it’s about actually making sure officers don’t use those holds. It comes down to redefining the scale and scope of police departments.

Having those “uncomfortable conversations” in the moment are important.

My peers in the league publicizing Kelly Loeffler’s position on the Black Lives Matter movement and speaking out about her team ownership is important.

Accountability is key. And it’s up to us to make things different going forward.

I can see change happening in the present, but we cannot stop marching. There is still more work to be done. (We still need those officers arrested for killing Breonna Taylor and Byron Williams!) And we must continue using our voices to celebrate Black lives and support Black businesses. We need to see diversity across the board in all businesses.

I plan on being a part of that change. I want to do all that I can.


Since 2013 I’ve been donating my WNBA salary to my non-profit Hopey’s Heart Foundation, which I started to raise awareness of Sudden Cardiac Arrest through the placement of Automated External Defibrillators to all nonprofit organizations. This year, I am forfeiting that commitment to focus on Black-owned businesses and organizations in support of the Black Lives Matter Movement. I will also focus on communities that are in need as a result of COVID-19.

As a way of helping to honor and remember George Floyd and all the others who were taken too soon, I will immediately be making countless $846 donations to different black-owned businesses and organizations. That number, which ties back to the eight minutes and 46 seconds that George Floyd was brutalized, is significant. And my hope is that these donations will help serve as a reminder of the injustice that occurred.

I can see change happening in the present, but we cannot stop marching. There is still more work to be done.

Beyond that, I really do want to encourage everyone — all of us, people of all backgrounds — to rally together around making sure that we achieve the change we need. It’s going to take all of us, because there’s not going to be any real, lasting change until the people who are and have always been comfortable are made to feel uncomfortable.

This time around it’s not just been Black America at the forefront, it’s been people of many different races and ethnicities and backgrounds. It’s become an international rally. That gives me real hope long-term, that maybe this time things can be different, and that we can sustain this momentum.

And, to me at least, this time things really do feel different.

This feels bigger. More broad. More of a focal point to more people.

So that’s where I want to leave this.

With some hope for our collective future.

My grandfather always reminds me of Philippians 1:6, which states “Being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion.”

I encourage you to keep going and to always keep the faith. Just think, turning the ship one degree now means down the line we end up in an entirely different destination.

And just know that while I’m away I’m going to be doing my part to help ensure that by the time I’m able to return to the court, God willing, this country will be in a much better and equitable place.

-TC

Tina Charles
Washington Mystics