By Preston Bradsher | December 2, 2020
The players of the WNBA aren’t newcomers to athlete activism. Even as more and more pro athletes get on board and start using their platforms to speak out on issues beyond sports, the WNBA remains a steady presence, always a few steps ahead of the pack. They’ve been doing this for years–speaking out on issues before others felt them popular enough to be “safe”, and honing their skills as activists off the court without much public praise in return for their efforts. They haven’t waited for permission or for others to go on ahead of them. These players have led the way, and as a result, they’ve learned some things.
The athletes of many other leagues seem to be just waking up to issues of social injustice, finding their righteous anger and learning how to use their voices in a year when those voices are sorely needed. This is undeniably a positive thing, and it has the potential to help push us forward as a country. Athletes have a huge amount of influence and it’s always exciting to see them realize that power and point it in a positive direction. The players of the WNBA had this experience of awakening too; they just had it years ago.
When it comes to athlete activism, the WNBA is like the wise older sister. They went through the collegiate phase of figuring out the world around them, getting angry and speaking out when others were still unaware, but they’re past that phase now. They have earned experience and wisdom, and they are once again leading the way, using that maturity to take their activism to a whole new level.
This 2020 WNBA season provided the players with a perfect chance to show off the growth of their activism, a chance that came in the form of Atlanta Dream team owner and Republican senator Kelly Loeffler. After the WNBA players dedicated their season to racial justice and made the Black Lives Matter movement their central focus, Loeffler came out of the woodwork to complain. She wrote to the WNBA commissioner decrying the league’s support for Black Lives Matter, claiming it “promoted violence and destruction across the country.”
The knee-jerk reaction to these inaccurate and offensive claims, especially from a player base comprised primarily of Black women, was outrage. This woman holds a substantial stake in the league, yet she openly and viciously stands against everything the players of that league believe in. Naturally the players wanted to express their disgust, to make it clear that this woman did not deserve to have her name attached to a league that has always stood for racial justice and equality, and that she did not have the right to insult the very humanity of the players who make the league great. Anyone who was paying attention had every right to be outraged.
But that’s where the maturity of the WNBA came in. Rather than follow that knee-jerk reaction, as a younger league with less activism experience might have done, and react to Loeffler’s comments with anger, the players took a step back. They saw the game she was playing: Loeffler was in a tough race in Georgia and she desperately needed conservative voters if she wanted to win. She knew that the voters she was courting disliked Black Lives Matter and that they would praise her for her comments against it. She also knew that those voters would expect a vitriolic reaction from the WNBA players she insulted, and that that angry reaction would only fuel the hatred of those voters, likely energizing them to go to the polls for her.
The players saw all this and knew that reacting with outrage would really be playing into Loeffler’s hand. She wanted them to get mad, to yell and scream at her enough to make her voters want to come out for a fight. They had to find another way. So, with years of experience behind them and a collective of athlete activists ready and willing to do the work, the players formed a plan.
The first thing they did was stop saying her name. The players knew Loeffler was using them as a publicity stunt. She wanted their outrage, their pain, and their disappointment to push her into the spotlight just in time to grab the election. So they went around her. They refused to say her name in interviews; they stopped fighting her on social media; they cut her out of the conversation completely. As any mom can tell you, the best way to take away a bully’s power is to act as if they don’t matter to you, and the WNBA made it clear that Loeffler was not relevant to them anymore.
But the players didn’t stop there. It wasn’t enough to ignore the negative thing; they needed to put that energy into something positive. They needed to take back control of the narrative. And so the players did their research. Led largely by Seattle Storm point guard and WNBA veteran Sue Bird, they looked into other candidates running in Loeffler’s election, searching for a candidate they could really get behind. They needed someone good, because what they were about to do would make history.
The players found their man in the Rev. Dr. Raphael Warnock, a Democrat and pastor who they felt shared the values of the league. After vetting him carefully, the players executed a plan to throw their support behind him: they had T-shirts made that read “Vote Warnock” and arrived at their games wearing them on August 4. The Atlanta Dream was the first to wear them, followed by players all across the league. They took to social media with the hashtag #VoteWarnock, and steered gameday interviews back to the Georgia election.
In interviews, players stuck to their plan, never mentioning Loeffler and instead throwing focus to Warnock. They spoke in detail about his campaign promises and beliefs, going beyond the basics and really working to inform viewers about their chosen candidate. They held that focus diligently, and their carefully executed support had a tangible effect on Warnock’s campaign.
Warnock was polling at only 9% before the WNBA came behind him. After the players first wore the T-shirts and started talking about him in interviews, his campaign saw a significant fundraising bump and pulled ahead of Loeffler in a poll for the first time. Warnock would eventually receive the most votes in the Georgia election with 32.9%, sending him to a runoff against Loeffler scheduled for January 5. Warnock called the WNBA’s support a turning point in his campaign, and players are still fighting to put him in office even after the season.
A hallmark of mature activism is thoughtfulness, and the WNBA certainly demonstrated that this season. A mature person doesn’t assume they know everything, and asks for help from those who know more than them when they feel out of their depth. This happened many times this season, and not just with the Warnock issue.
The players enlisted help from political powerhouses like Stacey Abrams, Michelle Obama, and Kimberlé Crenshaw to get their message out in a way that would actually make a difference. They held Zoom meetings to strategize about how to approach issues like the Georgia election and their later campaign to get out the vote. They were united in their message and patient in their methods, and it worked. This league of women, through their activism, directly affected a United States Senatorial race, and in so doing, set a new standard for what athlete activism can do.
This move by the WNBA in the Georgia election is an unprecedented one. While athletes through the years have occasionally come out in support of certain causes, never has a group of players openly campaigned for a candidate. It’s been seen as a line that athletes shouldn’t cross, with many shouting that they should stick to their sport and keep politics out of it. But the players of the WNBA know better.
You cannot keep politics out of sports if the very rights that allow you to play those sports are up for political debate. The women of the WNBA sit at an intersection of oppression that most other leagues can’t compare with–not only are they women, more than 70% of them are Black, and a huge number of them are gay. These players know oppression better than most. They take it from all directions on and off the court, and they know that you cannot separate politics from sports when your very existence has been politicized.
This connection between politics and real-word problems is yet another example of the WNBA’s maturity as activists. They have moved past debating and yelling about the issues. Though passion is a crucial element to activism, these women have been at it long enough to know that passion isn’t enough. If you want to affect real change, you have to be willing to organize. You have to get your hands dirty, and you certainly can’t stay out of politics.The WNBA has been in this game a long time, and the history of their activism speaks for itself. This season took things to a whole new level as the players recognized the collective power they hold and learned to use it in ways that create real-world payoff. You can bet that other leagues just now waking up to their political power will follow the lead of the WNBA as they always have, just as you can bet that by the time those other leagues reach this level, the women of the WNBA will be two steps ahead once again.