“I adamantly oppose the Black Lives Matter political movement,” Georgia Senator Kelly Loeffler wrote in a letter to the commissioner of the W.N.B.A. during the height of the George Floyd protests last summer.
Loeffler is a co-owner of the W.N.B.A. team the Atlanta Dream, a team made up, almost entirely, of Black women. She was reacting to the W.N.B.A.’s decision to display the words “Black Lives Matter” during their games.
“We need less—not more—politics in sports,” she wrote.
Soon, Kelly Loeffler, a Republican, will no longer be a senator. She lost her special election this week to a Democrat, Reverend Raphael Warnock.
That defeat is thanks in part to a coordinated, strategic, months-long effort by the women of the Atlanta Dream and their colleagues across the W.N.B.A. Loeffler said she wanted to remove politics from sports. The W.N.B.A. removed Loeffler from politics.
“We played a big role in this,” Dream player Elizabeth Williams tells Glamour, of her W.N.B.A. colleagues’ decision to devote their time off the court, during a pandemic, to flipping the U.S. Senate.
The week before the Dream came out in support of Warnock, he was polling at 9%, in fourth place behind frontrunner Loeffler, her Republican opponent, and the leading Democratic candidate. He had little name recognition or media attention. The 48-hour period after the Dream came out in support of Warnock resulted in significant fundraising and attention to his campaign, analysis from the Washington Post found. Warnock’s team chose to feature Dream players in the final ad of the campaign. It’s likely that the Dream’s actions helped propel Warnock ahead of the other Democrat in the race, and eventually helped him clinch his victory.
The victory feels particularly poetic given that it was Stacey Abrams herself, then a member of the Georgia State House of Representatives, who brought the Dream back to Atlanta in 2007. She organized and negotiated the deal, but has since become the most significant figure in turning Georgia blue in the presidential and congressional elections.
“It’s a different type of bravery,” Williams says, of getting involved in a national election. Good thing the women of the W.N.B.A. are brave. “Our league is about 80% Black women,” Williams says. “As female athletes, there are always gonna be doubters and haters and people that don’t really want to see you succeed—now top that with being Black. It kind of makes us inherently political.”
The women of the W.N.B.A. have long served as social justice activists. In 2018, Minnesota Lynx player Maya Moore famously took a leave of absence, while at the top of her game, to work to overturn the wrongful conviction of Jonathan Irons (whom she later married in a happy twist of fate), and she was followed by other players including Natasha Cloud who sat out the 2019-2020 season to work with the Black Lives Matter Movement. But this summer, the league organized itself into an advocacy powerhouse. The women of the W.N.B.A. dedicated the 2020 season to the #SayHerName campaign, memorializing Breonna Taylor, who was killed in Kentucky by police officers. They created a Social Justice Council. When you imagine professional athletes preparing for a season, do you think of them sitting down to meet with noted critical race theory scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw? The women of the W.N.B.A. did.
After Loeffler’s statement, the idea of being “owned” by her seemed unconscionable to many Dream players. But despite an outcry from across the W.N.B.A., the league’s commissioner said that she would not force Loeffler to sell off her ownership. And Loeffler, perhaps, wasn’t aware of what a formidable opponent she had in the women of the W.N.B.A. “Throughout American history, Black women have been the bottom of the totem pole in a sense,” Williams says. “Combine that with being athletes and we’re always fighting, fighting, fighting, whether it’s for equal pay, for recognition, for the media to see us—we kind of have this inherent fight in us.”
They have strategy, too. The W.N.B.A.’s road to electing Georgia’s first Black senator took shape not with the well-intentioned fumbling of a group of political novices, but through a highly organized, carefully plotted, six-month campaign.
It started in the group chat. The W.N.B.A. is made up of 12 teams, and fewer than 150 people, making it more agile than other sports leagues when it comes to, say, organizing to affect change in a national election. Across the leadership of the league, there was agreement. “It was the entire league saying, ‘It’s not okay for her to own a team and be so against what a lot of us represent,’” Williams says. Forcing Loeffler to sell was out of the question. So was just putting out a statement. Sue Bird, one of the W.N.B.A.’s greatest enduring stars, pointed out that Loeffler was enjoying a Senate seat that she hadn’t won in an election—she had been appointed by Georgia’s governor after her predecessor resigned. The Dream couldn’t control Loeffler’s power over them as a team owner, but could they knock her from an even bigger seat of power?
They studied up. “We did our research,” former Dream player Angel McCoughtry told the Washington Post. “We looked at health care. We looked at LGBT rights. We looked at social justice issues.” Carefully, they sorted through Loeffler’s opponents—their track records, their platforms. They called in their connections, including Stacey Abrams, and set up a league-wide meeting with Warnock. They wanted to vet him. Warnock was eager to meet. Williams remembers how struck she was by the way he responded when she brought up how Black women are treated in the healthcare system. Over the course of several conversations, the women’s league’s relationship with the 51-year-old preacher solidified.
“We realized ‘Alright, we want to support this guy,’” Williams says. “He’s been out protesting, he’s done the work, he supports a lot of the things that we support—criminal justice reform, women’s rights, reproductive rights.” They were all in. All they needed was to decide how to make their endorsement known.
On August 4, Atlanta Dream players walked on to the court, on live television, wearing “VOTE WARNOCK” T-shirts. So did several of their opponents on the Phoenix Mercury. So did athletes across the W.N.B.A., who blasted photos of themselves in the stark political shirts across social media. In the immediate aftermath of the game, the Post noted, Warnock’s campaign raised $183,000 and gained 3,500 new grassroots donors. Soon, Warnock was beating Loeffler in the polls.
The T-shirt gambit paid off, but the Dream didn’t stop there. They kept following the news, following up with Warnock’s team, organizing to support the campaign. W.N.B.A. players brought him up during interviews, and starred in a moving Warnock ad. They were highly motivated. “We felt like we could be Breonna Taylor,” says Williams. “That could be our sister, or George Floyd could be a family member.”
On Tuesday morning, the day of the runoff election, Warnock posted a final ad—it showed how Warnock’s campaign had built enthusiasm starting with Warnock himself, and bolstered by endorsements from former president Barack Obama and president elect Joe Biden. The ad framed the story exactly as it happened—crediting the Dream as Warnock’s first major supporters. Hours later, Warnock was declared the winner, by a margin of voer 40,000 votes. Loeffler was defeated.
“Woke up and just smiled remembering that one time Kelly Loeffler tried to come for the W and we helped Reverend Warnock take her senate seat,” Layshia Clarendon, a player for New York Liberty, tweeted the morning after Warnock’s victory. “Winning never felt so damn good.”
The Dream hasn’t celebrated yet. They will, but they also feel their work isn’t done. To Williams, it feels like, “Alright, we’ve helped to flip the Senate, now we need to see some changes.” She’s hoping for a meaningful stimulus package to provide financial relief and incentivize people to stay home during the pandemic, as well as criminal justice reform.
“I think activism will look more like, How are we gonna find ways to keep our politicians accountable for all the changes we need to see?” she says. In the meantime, LeBron James has tweeted that he’s looking into forming an ownership group for the Dream. Soon, the Dream may be in better hands. Thanks to them, Georgia will be too.
Jenny Singer is a staff-writer for Glamour. You can follow her on Twitter.
Kelly Loeffler Wanted Politics Out Of Sports. The W.N.B.A. Took Her Out Of Politics. The British Journal Editors and Wire Services/ Glamour.