As players from across professional sports participate in league-approved protests, like wearing “Black Lives Matter” or “Equality” on the back of their uniforms or kneeling before the anthem, the WNBA is escalating matter by directly targeting the owner of one of the league’s teams: Republican Georgia Sen. Kelly Loeffler, who is an owner of the Atlanta Dream and running for re-election in November. On Tuesday, players from teams across the league, including the Dream, showed up to their games wearing shirts that said “Vote Warnock” — as in Dr. Raphael G. Warnock, the Democrat running against Loeffler for her Senate seat.
“The truth is, we need less — not more politics in sports,” Loeffler wrote. Last week, Loeffler also gave an interview to host Jack Posobiec, coming out even more strongly against the Black Lives Matter movement. “I felt some of the recent actions that the league has taken has really moved to divide us further at this moment when I think sports could be such a powerful, uniting force for our country,” she told Posobiec in the interview. Loeffler has also repeatedly used racist language by calling Black people open-carrying “mob rule” and referring to people in support of the movement for Black lives a “woke mob.”
The WNBA is over 80 percent Black, and its players have been advocates for social justice for a very long time. After the league announced they were dedicating their season to Black Lives Matter and #SayHerName, Loeffler penned a letter to league Commissioner Cathy Engelbert urging her to scrap those plans and focus instead on the imagery of American flags.
Following these incidents in defiance of the entire Black Lives Matter movement from Loeffler and her campaign, several players took to Twitter calling on the league to eject her from ownership. “Kelly Loeffler is the anti-movement. She represents what happens when people choose the identity of whiteness over everything else,” New York Liberty player Layshia Clarendon wrote for The Undefeated. “She was OK with owning our team. She was OK with having players who spoke out, like I have, but she is not OK with us gaining this momentum and power.”
But, after Engelbert said they wouldn’t force Loeffler to sell, players took matters into their own hands, donning shirts to endorse Loeffler’s opponent. The idea for the shirts originated with Seattle Storm veteran and 11-time WNBA All-Star Sue Bird. Coaches were made aware of the action beforehand, but it is unclear whether Dream co-owner Mary Brock was. Before endorsing Warnock, players had several Zoom calls with him to ensure he was someone whose policies they could get behind. “He’s pro reproductive rights, for criminal justice reform, and pro LGBTQ+ rights,” Clarendon tweeted.
I am honored and humbled by the overwhelming support from the @WNBA players. This movement gives us the opportunity to fight for what we believe in, and I stand by all athletes promoting social justice on and off the court. #BlackLivesMatter
— Reverend Raphael Warnock (@ReverendWarnock) August 4, 2020
“When we realized what our owner was doing and how she was kind of using us and the Black Lives Matter movement for her political gain, we felt like we didn’t want to feel kind of lost as the pawns in this,” Elizabeth Williams, who has played for the Dream since 2016, told the New York Times.
Loeffler responded by calling the players’ actions “more proof that the out of control cancel culture wants to shut out anyone who disagrees with them,” ironically accusing the players of being “more interested in playing politics than basketball.”
Loeffler is running in a November special election against 20 candidates to keep her Senate seat, which she was appointed to last year after Johnny Isakson stepped down due to health problems. Her main competition is actually the other Republican fighting for the seat, Doug Collins, and the two have been vying to make themselves the most obviously pro-Trump; Collins has used Loeffler’s ownership of the Dream against her, pointing out that the WNBA partnered with Planned Parenthood and using that fact to paint Loeffler as “pro abortion.”
A poll last week showed Loeffler leading Collins with 26 percent of the vote to his 20 percent; Warnock is polling with just 9 percent of the vote, but the WNBA plans to continue campaigning for him throughout the coming weeks.
You can’t tell us to stick to sports while a sitting senator owns one of our teams! 🙄 It’s one thing to sell a team, it’s another thing to flip a senate senate seat. @RevWarnock is the democratic candidate running for senate in Georgia. pic.twitter.com/PGEWuGZUlf
— Layshia Clarendon (@Layshiac) August 5, 2020
It is unclear whether the league will reprimand the players for their action; in 2017, when players wore “Black Lives Matter” shirts during warmups, they were fined for violating the league’s uniform policy, which they then protested with post-game media blackouts.
But this action — of players openly campaigning against their owner — is an unprecedented example of the kind of collective labor power that athletes have but so rarely come together to use. The women of the WNBA are doing just that — another example of women, and Black women in particular, being at the forefront of justice movements and paving the way for everyone else.
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