2020 blurred the line between sports and politics more than ever before — a blurring that was long overdue. From the involvement of professional players in the Black Lives Matter, or BLM, movement to the ethical tug of war between the pandemic and whether or not sports should be played at all, the athletic sphere has proven itself to be more than an environment for entertainment — it is a platform for empowerment and education, activism and awareness. The historic confirmation of Democrat Raphael Warnock’s win over incumbent Republican U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler, R-Ga., in last week’s runoff election underlined that, as we enter 2021, sports are a platform for politics.
In addition to being appointed senator in December 2019 after former Republican U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson resigned for health reasons, it should be noted that Loeffler is also a co-owner of the WNBA’s Atlanta Dream.
After it was announced that the WNBA planned to paint the phrase “Black Lives Matter” on its courts for the abbreviated 2020 season following the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, Loeffler wrote a letter to Cathy Engelbert, commissioner of the WNBA, announcing her opposition to the WNBA’s support of the BLM movement. Loeffler wrote that the “violence and destruction across the country” — not to be confused with the violence and destruction on Capitol Hill the day of her runoff election loss — the BLM movement had caused “totally misaligned with the values and goals of the WNBA and the Atlanta Dream, where we support tolerance and inclusion.”
She closed her spew of tone-deaf remarks (almost 70% of the league’s players are Black) by suggesting that putting an American flag on every jersey would be more unifying.
WNBA players were quick to condemn Loeffler’s stance. UC Berkeley alum and New York Liberty star Layshia Clarendon declared that the league would be dedicating its season to Breonna Taylor before New York Liberty’s opening game against Seattle Storm on July 25. Renee Montgomery, an Atlanta Dream guard who had already elected to sit the season out to focus on social justice reform, expressed her disappointment with Loeffler on Twitter:
“I’m pretty sad to see that my team ownership is not supportive of the movement & all that it stands for. I was already sitting out this season & this is an example of why. I would love to have a conversation with you about the matter if you’re down?”
Such a conversation never happened.
As the season continued, WNBA players began to notice that, for someone who believed there needed to be less political discourse in the sports world, Loeffler had utilized the league as a pawn to gain traction against her main Republican opponent in the special election, former U.S. Rep. Doug Collins. Her clamorous opposition to the league’s association with the BLM movement became a part of her campaign strategy. In acknowledging the power of the Say Her Name campaign for Breonna Taylor, players also realized they could take a stand by not saying Loeffler’s name, sparking a shift in their focus from Loeffler to Warnock.
After several Zoom meetings with both Stacey Abrams and Warnock himself, the WNBA decided to formally endorse Warnock.
“Warnock is pro-criminal justice reform, for LGBT+ rights and pro-choice/reproductive rights,” Clarendon said in an interview with ESPN. “Those are the kind of people we want representing us, because that’s what our league stands for.”
On Aug. 4, in a game appearing on national television, Atlanta Dream and Phoenix Mercury players jogged onto the court for warmups, donning black T-shirts with a simple, capitalized message written across the front: “VOTE WARNOCK”.
Although Warnock’s polling may have been at just 9% and fourth in the field that morning, the rest is history. An analysis by Angele Delevoye in The Washington Post explains the WNBA’s pivotal role in his election, including the 3,500 new grassroot donors for Warnock in the 48 hours after players in the WNBA sported their T-shirts for the first time on a national stage. And while there are plenty of other individuals to thank besides the WNBA in Warnock’s path to victory, who’s to say our new Senate would be 50-50 without the league’s support?
The WNBA is certainly deserving of praise for its role in the Georgia runoff election this month. But it must also be known that these players have been challenging the status quo since the league was born back in 1997. The Sheryl Swoopeses and Sue Birds have set precedents for women in sports and have fought tirelessly for LGBTQ+ representation. The Maya Moores and Natasha Clouds of the sport have emphasized the need for criminal justice reform and have spoken out against gun violence. And despite their recent success, it is important to remember that they were not always given the support they deserved: dozens of WNBA players were fined for supporting the BLM movement even before Colin Kaepernick took a knee in 2016.
As we begin to see more and more athletes beginning to truly utilize their platforms for social good this year, let’s not forget to acknowledge a league that truly paved the way: Thank you, WNBA.