Sports

Could the WNBA Help Flip the Senate?

The league’s fight against team owner Sen. Kelly Loeffler is having visible effects.

Shenise Johnson is seen on a basketball court wearing a Black Lives Matter shirt.
Shenise Johnson of the Minnesota Lynx walks across the court prior to game against the Seattle Storm at Feld Entertainment Center on Sept. 24 in Palmetto, Florida. Julio Aguilar/Getty Images

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Over the years, WNBA players have given a relentless spotlight to issues that are important to them. But this year the league’s commitment to social justice got personal: Players started encouraging fans to vote against one of their team’s owners, Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler, who, already vulnerable due to opposition within her party and allegations of insider trading, is fighting to hold a seat she was appointed to earlier this year. To figure out why WNBA teams took this step and whether the player-led movement will shift Georgia and perhaps flip the Senate, I spoke with Amira Rose Davis, a critical sports scholar and assistant professor of history and African American studies at Penn State, for Tuesday’s episode of What Next. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Mary Harris: How did Loeffler even get involved with the WNBA?

Amira Rose Davis: Many rich people get involved with ownership of sports teams. She had a minority stake in the Atlanta Dream for the past decade—it wasn’t part of her core political or professional aims. But then, when she and Mary Brock moved to purchase the team, that’s when she got a little bit more active, attending games, meeting with coaches.

When it really started to come up was when she turned and focused on her political career. In the fall of 2019, she stepped down from the WNBA Board of Governors and stopped being involved in the day-to-day ownership-of-a-team process. Part of the reason why was that her association with the WNBA, which is seen as a very Black, LGBTQ league, was knocking her and her political aspirations in conservative circles.

My understanding is that before she went to Washington, Loeffler was kind of a moderate like—she supported Mitt Romney and gave him a bunch of money. Do you know why she tacked to the right so abruptly?

That’s a career move. One thing that illustrates this: A few years ago, the WNBA had a partnership with the Take a Seat, Take a Stand initiative that directed portions of game-day ticket sales to five partner organizations, one being Planned Parenthood. When people brought that up with Loeffler, she was like, my organization never participated in that.

Is that true?

No, not at all. But she’s trying to engage in revisionist history. It’s almost very easy to map her career aspirations alongside her tack to the right and her outspokenness. Over the past year, she has really tried to get in with the inner circle around Trump. Part of that has been figuring out, well, what to do about this connection to the Atlanta Dream?

Loeffler is focused on branding herself as a Trump conservative partially because of the kind of election she’s running right now. In the special election to win her seat for real, Loeffler is competing against an especially large field of candidates, including firebrand conservative Rep. Doug Collins, because there was no primary in this race. If none of these candidates gets above 50 percent of the vote, the election will go to a runoff.

You can understand how her political situation is very tenuous—she’s very much not stable. I think her escalation of drama with the WNBA is a naked aspiration to hold on to what little crumbling ground she has.

We have a candidate who very much wants to keep her seat. She’s representing some pretty conservative voters. And after the anti–police brutality protests, the WNBA team that she partly owns comes out in favor of Black Lives Matter. 

You had high-profile players from the Dream, like Elizabeth Williams, out there marching, holding signs, posting images of themselves at the protest, becoming very vocal, connecting the founding of the Atlanta Dream to their desire to protest and agitate for change.

After the league in early July indicated that it was going to dedicate the season to Black Lives Matter, to #SayHerName, to Breonna Taylor, Loeffler wrote an open letter to the league’s president, Cathy Engelbert, and said she absolutely disagreed with this, that it was not a political movement the WNBA should be behind.

She said BLM sends a message of exclusion. 

She went on to basically say it was about violence and anti-Semitism and that she unequivocally did not want the league to be associated with this.

That’s a lot to put on BLM.

It’s a lot. And the players were like, girl, bye. I think that’s when tension really erupted publicly, because Loeffler’s letter wasn’t a private message to Cathy. It was a public open letter; the audience was very clearly her constituents.

It really did seem like a piece of political theater she’d staged on her own. All of a sudden she’s on Fox News and defending what she has to say about Black Lives Matter. It seemed like, who are you speaking to here?

Right away, her own players were like, hey, I would love to have a conversation with you. And Loeffler was like, well, I would welcome a conversation, but it would have to be a dialogue, you can’t cancel me. It felt very disingenuous, this rhetoric of “cancel culture,” saying you can’t fire me or push me out or make me sell my team just because you don’t like what I have to say.

And we should say there’s a history of people selling their teams because of what they’ve said. I guess that’s what she was alluding to there.

Precisely. But at that point, nobody had even gone that far except for her. And I think that part of it was, you’re flaming the flames of your constituents by saying, they’re trying to cancel me. You’re preemptively trying to guard against being canceled. Nobody even said that. The first time anybody even raised that was when she was going around on conservative television talking about how nobody could give in to “mob rule.”

At that point, a few players were like, your comments about mob rule are racially insensitive or racist. We don’t think you should have an ownership stake in a team that’s predominately Black. And at that point, only a few players were like, get out of here. Loeffler was escalating it by doing the rounds on conservative media to position herself as victim of these liberal, LGBTQ, Black basketball players and a league behind them that is forcing her to celebrate and amplify Black Lives Matter. Very quickly, WNBA players were like: This feels like political football. This feels like not actually about us. And we don’t want to be used as objects.

Part of what I think makes what happened in the WNBA so interesting is that it wasn’t just the Dream that came forward and started speaking out about Loeffler—it was the league. How did that happen?

The league’s teams are in great communication with one another. One of the powers of the WNBA teams is how well they work together as a unit beyond the boundaries of who’s on what team. In that sense, they very quickly realized that Loeffler was trying to play political football with them, was trying to use them as objects in her own political quest. And to that end, they said, how can we pull back from being used in this way, and assert ourselves as participants in the political process? One of the ways that they decided to do that was to learn about Loeffler and her Senate race, whom she’s in competition with, the people running against her.

After meeting with Rev. Raphael Warnock [the Democratic candidate in the special election], a lot of the players on the Dream decided, we want shirts endorsing him. We don’t want to give Loeffler any more time—we don’t even want to raise her name or talk about her. Instead, let’s use the platform we have to wear the name of her opponent say vote Warnock.

Nobody in the league was forced to do this. But the collectivity of the teams played here: They all were like, we’re going to stand behind the Dream, we’re going to stand as a league, we’re going to stand very publicly rock these shirts, and we’re going to make sure you know who this candidate is because he is whom we believe in, not her.

The thing I think is so interesting about being silent about her name is that it’s very hard for Loeffler to paint herself as a victim.

Absolutely. She’s a white woman, and we’ve already seen the power of white women’s tears. I think she was very well positioned to have this scripted in a way like: Look at this big, bad, Black, LGBTQ league against little me. A vote for me is a vote for conservative values, and I’m not backing down to these bullies. That is a lot harder to do if nobody’s talking about you.

What’s at stake for the WNBA players? Were their jobs at risk making this kind of a stand?

WNBA teams have always engaged in risk. In 2016, the league tried to fine them a dress code violation, $500 per shirt they wore that said Black Lives Matter. They didn’t care. They’ve had to work and fight for every inch that they’ve gotten for their league—for it to exist, for it to keep going, for it to get respect.

When we talk about stakes, it’s really important to know this WNBA season was important even before the pandemic, because it was the first season being played under the new collective bargaining agreement they’d fought for. That really set the tone for the standards for CBAs across pro sports, but especially in women’s sports. This was the first season where they had new investors, new media partnerships. They had a new investment in the game, and it was their time to showcase it. So there was a lot a lot at stake.

Did that pay off for it in terms of revenue?

It absolutely did. It’s so funny, ratings for sports across the board are down right now: the NBA finals, the NFL, the MLB finals, the Stanley Cup finals. You know what’s up in ratings? The WNBA. It’s up 68 percent. That’s a fun stat to remember when you hear analysts saying people are allegedly tuning out of the NBA because players dared to take a stand. The people who have been taking the biggest stands, who’ve been talking the loudest, who’ve been taking the most decisive action are in the WNBA, and their ratings are up 60 percent.

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