Sports has always been political, regardless of what people with differing opinions might say. From John Carlos and Tommie Smith’s “Black Power” salute on the podium at the 1968 Summer Olympics to Colin Kaepernick kneeling during the National Anthem to protest against the unjust treatment of Black people in America, athletes have continuously used their voices to fight for causes dear to them.
The WNBA has shown time after time that they are no different.
This summer, while protests about the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and countless other black and brown people swept across the country, the WNBA did what it has done in the past, they stepped up to the plate to demand change.
On June 24, 2020, while the WNBA made plans to honor the Black Lives Matter movement, Atlanta Dream co-owner Kelly Loeffler made comments criticizing BLM. In a letter sent to WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert, Loeffler expressed she believed the WNBA’s campaign with Black Lives Matter to be problematic.
“The truth is, we need less—not more politics in sports,” Loeffler wrote. “In a time when polarizing politics is as divisive as ever, sports has been the power to be a unifying antidote. And now more than ever, we should be united in our goal to remove politics from sports.”
Loeffler’s shut up and dribble comments were swiftly met with disappointment and anger from players, coaches, and staff throughout the WNBA. Not only for being tone-deaf but for being inaccurate and dismissive of what the Black Lives Matter movement truly stands for.
Engelbert called out Loeffler in a statement released in July of 2020.
“The WNBA is based on the principle of equal and fair treatment of all people and we, along with the teams and players, will continue to use our platforms to vigorously advocate for social justice,” Engelbert said. “Sen. Kelly Loeffler has not served as a Governor of the Atlanta Dream since October 2019 and is no longer involved in the day-to-day business of the team.”
To add injury to insult, as Loeffler called for politics to be removed from sports, she was running to retain her seat in the Senate. By her standards, a political figure like a United States senator should not be a co-owner of a sports team.
When Loeffler’s letter was made public, she went on FOX News to defend herself. She claimed the Black Lives Matter movement wanted to burn down the system both “literally and figuratively”. She continued by saying the organization seeks to destroy American principles and she “had to draw the line.”
Players from the Dream had something to say about all of this, releasing their own statement via Twitter to denounce Loeffler.
“We are the women of the Atlanta Dream, the statement began. “We are women who support a movement. We are strong and we are fearless. We offer a voice to the voiceless. Our team is united in the Movement for Black Lives. It is not extreme to demand change after centuries of inequity. This is not a political statement. This is a statement of humanity.”
As players rebuked Loeffler’s comments, she stood firm in her beliefs. She vowed not to apologize and refused to sell her stake in the Atlanta ballclub. Months later, only one of those promises would remain true.
In 2016, a handful of WNBA players defied league rules by wearing t-shirts sporting the phrase “Black Lives Matter” to their games, making them the first athletes to publicly support the movement.
In December 2020, players would go on to achieve another first, endorsing a political candidate. But not just any political candidate. Dream players walked on to the court wearing shirts saying “Vote Warnock,” referring to Rev. Raphael Warnock who was running against Loeffler.
Atlanta star player Elizabeth Williams was one of the players who lead the charge against Loeffler. Williams, the longest-standing member of the Dream team, felt if Loeffler could use her position with the team as a talking point during her senate campaign, the players were more than welcomed to speak out against her.
For months after her letter to Engelbert, Dream players felt like Loeffler was using their decision to center their season around Black Lives Matter after the death of Breonna Taylor, as a political prop. Her move to censor her players, while publicly expressing her opinion over and over was hypocrisy at its finest.
In a time when she was calling for sports to be less political, she used her position with the team to drum up support from her supporters.
According to an article published by Buzzfeed, Dream players, along with players of other teams came together and decided out of the nearly two dozen candidates running against Loeffler, Warnock aligned the most with their beliefs. This decision would turn the tides of not only the future of the Dream ownership but the progress of the entire country.
After deciding to endorse Warnock, the players remained mum on their stance against Loeffler. Instead, they dropped Warnock’s name every chance they got. When they walked off the buses and into their games, they donned “Vote Warnock” shirts. During pregame and post-game interviews, they raved about their candidate.
Before the WNBA players endorsed Warnock, unseating Loeffler seemed unlikely. After the endorsement, Warnock became a top contender with a slim chance of winning. On election night, Warnock received the most votes but did not receive the majority, which triggered a runoff race.
On Jan. 6, 2021, Warnock was declared the winner and became Georgia’s first black senator.
The Dream player’s campaign against Loeffler did not end when she lost her senate seat. Last week it was announced the team had been sold to an ownership group that included former WNBA player, Renee Montgomery. The Dream accomplished everything they set out to do. They helped get Warnock elected and they forced out their owner.
All before starting another season.
Even better for members of the Dream is that Montgomery as well team co-owners Larry Gottesdiener and Suzanne Abair, all appear to be on board the WNBA’s social justice train.
“We’ve all spoken about it; social justice is at the forefront,” Montgomery said during her introductory press conference as co-owner of the Dream. “The players have already set that tone. So, we’re just going to follow. Larry, Suzanne and I are just going to follow the players’ lead and the players led us to the “Say Her Name” campaign last summer where Breonna Taylor was honored I would say. For me, it’s a win for women. When I think about it, you have Suzanne and I who are going to be leading the forefront and the day-to-day, and that’s a win for women’s sports. That’s a win for women’s basketball. That shows a lot of representation.”
The WNBA constantly is looked over when comes to sports. They are paid significantly less than their NBA counterparts. Their games receive lackluster scheduling. Even when social justice causes sweep across the sports world, their contributions are usually not talked about in the same manners as male athletes.
Why is that, when it has been made abundantly clear, the WNBA does the work on and off the court? As a society, we need to reassess the way we view women in sports.
These women are not backseat characters, they are game-changing leaders. They will always show up and go to bat for those who need a louder voice. It is time we become a louder voice for the WNBA because time after time they have fought against injustice and brought immense change to our world.