WNBA players have a moment. Experts and politicians from across the spectrum point out that Rev. Raphael Warnock would return to Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta without the support of the Basketball League, instead of traveling to Washington DC as Georgia’s first black senator.
The story is now known. WNBA players spent their summer and fall in Vote Warnock jerseys and stood against WNBA franchise owner Kelly Loeffler with his candidacy. This included players from the Loeffler team, which owns 49 percent of the Atlanta Dream. The WNBA players disapproved of Loeffler less because of their Republican politics than because they were running an ugly campaign against the Black Lives Matter movement – the “mob” as they described those who protested the police murder of George Floyd – and even against the right of their own players to have a political voice. She also posed for photos with a leading Klansman, endorsed Donald Trump’s coup efforts and refused to meet with WNBA players who invited her to talk about the campaign.
One of those players was Layshia Clarendon from New York Liberty, who said to me after the results in Georgia, “Holy shit, we just moved a seat in the Senate! Not only did we oust Leoffler, but we also helped a progressive candidate we really believe in. This is something I want to be clear about in our intent as a league – this has been not just an owner targeting comment, but an organization to uphold our values as members of the WNBA. I feel like the power of collective action by athletes is just beginning to scratch the surface – the country should better get ready. “
Another of these players was Atlanta Dream Point Guard Renee Montgomery. Montgomery withdrew from the game this year over concerns about racism and pandemic. She is a dedicated activist and predictably in what I would call an enthusiastic relief. I was able to get a comment from her on the vote: “I’m looking forward to the victory for Warnock, who will be an excellent Senator, but I’m also looking forward to the victory for democracy.” Our church is taking our power back one vote at a time. This is just the beginning. ”
Montgomery’s words are very deliberate. She said a “win for Warnock”, not a “loss for Loeffler”. Clarendon also made it very clear: “We not only ousted Kelly Leoffler, but also helped a progressive candidate we really believe in.” The WNBA players went out of their way to support Warnock and not just express their opposition to Loeffler’s commitment as if they were Sister Souljah with a jump shot. They zoomed in with Warnock, debating and debating his policies, and in the end gave him their support. That had the power to not only defeat Loeffler – who knows a boss better than his workers? – but also to boost positive results for Warnock, who voted 9 percent the day the WNBA players began campaigning on his behalf.
Montgomery says, “It’s just the beginning.” That could mean anything. This could mean that this is the beginning of a new era of electoral athlete activism. It could mean that Rev. Warnock will be the first in a new wave of black Senatorial candidates. It could also mean something far more dangerous for the “thinkers” of sport. This could mean that franchisees – billionaires whose money was often made in the most unsavory ways – are no longer given carte blanche to market their league as progressive and “awake” while supporting politicians who trade with division and bigotry. These franchisees are often, as Loeffler proudly described, “to the right of Genghis Khan”. You can no longer romp with impunity. Professional sports teams are no longer turning into money laundering where franchisees receive millions of dollars in public money and turn around and use that money to draw politicians who “the public” would otherwise never endorse. No more profiting from black bodies without ignoring black life.
This is a very different situation than in 2014, when Donald Sterling, the Los Angeles Clippers franchisee, was caught on tape saying all kinds of racist nonsense and was forced to sell his team. Nobody caught Loeffler on tape. She didn’t let any blur between her photo ops with Klansmen. This was a direct rejection of her policies and a declaration that she has no place in the WNBA and no place in the United States Senate. The next step, which feels inevitable at this point, is for Loeffler to sell that 49 percent stake in the Atlanta Dream and leave Georgia as soon as she moved there from Chicago to get a Senate seat. As for the sports world, the WNBA players have made the owner class aware: you will no longer conduct your political business in the shadows while we look the other way. Athletes have long had the power to expose the ugly side of owners. But the WNBA players are the first to let it play. You won’t be the last.