By Zac Cornell
Political and social activism among athletes is a powerful force, and the WNBA players who rallied behind newly elected Georgia Senator Raphael Warnock can claim a significant amount of credit for his historic win over incumbent Georgia Senator Kelly Loeffler.
A major cause of Loeffler’s defeat can be traced back to when the co-owner of the WNBA team the Atlanta Dream wrote against the league’s choice of dedicating the abbreviated season to social justice and the Black Lives Matter movement. Writing to WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert, she said, “I adamantly oppose the Black Lives Matter political movement, which has advocated for the defunding of police, called for the removal of Jesus from churches and the disruption of the nuclear family structure, harbored anti-Semitic views, and promoted violence and destruction across the country. I believe it is totally misaligned with the values and goals of the WNBA and the Atlanta Dream, where we support tolerance and inclusion.” She added that she was “incredibly disappointed to read about efforts to insert a political platform into the league,” continuing, “The truth is, we need less — not more politics in sports. In a time when polarizing politics is as divisive as ever, sports has the power to be a unifying antidote. And now more than ever, we should be united in our goal to remove politics from sports.” She instead proposed putting an American flag on all uniforms, a puzzling contradiction to her argument to separate politics and sports.
Backlash to her remarks was swift with current and former WNBA players even asking Engelbert to remove Loeffler as co-owner of the Dream. Engelbert released a statement in response to the conflict saying, “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. 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.”
Not only was Loeffler’s tone-deaf plea rejected by the WNBA, but players on the Dream team and other WNBA players were motivated to become even more politically active. Working with the Players’ Union President Nneka Ogwumike and WNBA player advocate Stacey Abrams, WNBA players throughout the league met with Loeffler’s Senate seat opponent Warnock via zoom to hear about his candidacy, and in August decided to formally back him, despite his polling at only 9% at the time, according to Beyond Sport. WNBA players from the Dream, as well as players from Chicago, Seattle, and Phoenix started wearing “Vote Warnock” shirts during televised warmups before games. This promotion immediately raised Warnock’s profile and lifted his following and campaign finances.
According to The Washington Post opinion columnist Michele L. Norris who credits the WNBA with helping Warnock win the Senate race, “The team did more than wear shirts with a slogan. They educated themselves and engaged in mass voter education. They used their platforms to teach people about Black women killed while in police custody — stories that tend to be overshadowed by the more frequent tragedies involving men. They told those women’s stories. They said their names. They never mentioned Loeffler’s name. They didn’t need to.”