“If you can’t make your voice heard, you’re gonna make it felt.”
Renee Montgomery’s mom told her that, on the phone, as Montgomery looked down from her Atlanta apartment perch above protesters, who were furious over the death of George Floyd at the hands of the Minneapolis police and descending on Atlanta’s affluent Buckhead neighborhood in late May.
As Montgomery, a star WNBA point guard with the Atlanta Dream, wrote in The Players’ Tribune less than a month later, the scene prompted her to call her mom, who had lived in Detroit during the 1967 race riots.
That conversation prompted Montgomery to leave not only her perch, but her bubble, too.
The WNBA was scheduled to play at one site last summer to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, but the Dream’s point guard wasn’t among them, choosing to give up the season in the pursuit of social activism.
Just give up a whole season.
Her story is emblematic of a remarkable commitment by WNBA players to not settle for the comforts of a professional basketball career and strive to make the world outside their court a better place for everybody, especially those whose voices often aren’t heard in a meaningful way.
These are the voices of women and Blacks in general, victims of violence and abuse, and the LGBTQ community, who make up a significant portion of the WNBA’s fan base.
In one of the more fascinating displays of this commitment, the Atlanta Dream players, as well as many others across the league, wore black “Vote Warnock” t-shirts in July. To fully appreciate the courage behind this stance, you need to know that Rev. Raphael Warnock’s opponent in the Georgia Senate runoff election was none other than Kelly Loeffler — Atlanta Dream co-owner.
Warnock won that election on Wednesday to become the first Black U.S. senator from the state of Georgia. The WNBA players’ support — and particularly that of the Dream players, who had much more at stake by opposing their owner — was widely hailed as a factor in getting Warnock into office.
But it was just the latest chapter in a full-bore social justice movement throughout the league that to some degree has been under the radar, certainly when compared to the Black Lives Matter efforts by their male counterparts in the NBA.
No, this isn’t a contest for recognition. But it’s far past time to fully acknowledge the risks, sacrifices and work WNBA players have undertaken toward these goals.
Maya Moore, one of the best players on the planet and at the peak of her game, set a precedent in 2018, two years after Colin Kaepernick first took a knee. She opted out of her season to help overturn the wrongful conviction of Jonathan Irons, a Black man tried as an adult for burglary and assault with a weapon at the age of 16 in 1998.
She still hasn’t returned to the court as she continues to advocate on criminal justice issues.
By then, the WNBA had already established itself as a league willing to take a public position against injustice, inequality and police brutality. Players began taking a knee in support of Black Lives Matter in the summer of 2016, months before Kaepernick became a national symbol of the pursuit of equality through peaceful protest, and also a lightning rod for criticism and misinterpretation of that protest.
In July that year, four Minnesota Lynx players, including Moore, held a pregame press conference to discuss police violence after Philandro Castile had been killed in Minneapolis and Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
The league dedicated the 2020 season to Breonna Taylor and the Say Her Name campaign.
Sue Bird of the Seattle Storm, the WNBA Players Association vice president, spearheaded the “Vote Warnock” t-shirt effort over the summer, but it was the Atlanta players who risked the most.
The movement was a repudiation of Loeffler’s various stances, after she had objected to the Black Lives Matter and generally acted like a shameless opportunist in fealty to Donald Trump upon being appointed to fill Georgia’s vacant Senate seat in December of 2019.
Loeffler went so far as to write a two-page letter to WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert expressing her disappointment and “adamant” opposition to the league incorporating Black Lives Matter as a theme for the 2020 season.
She whined about keeping politics out of sports, then clutched some pearls over how the American flag hadn’t been considered instead of BLM, which she called “an attempt to transform the country based on Marxist doctrine.”
In an Aug. 29, 2020 profile by Candace Buckner in The Washington Post, Loeffler said, without a hint of irony, “We need to have room and tolerance for all views in sports and not make people feel excluded.” This, in reference to the backlash she, a U.S. senator worth over a half billion dollars, was experiencing. We should all experience such exclusion.
WNBA players make an average of $79,000, which may seem like a lot to you and me, but is nothing to the Kelly Loefflers of the world. Pro athletes have a pretty small window in which to enjoy their best years, too, so the risk of alienating your owner by supporting her political opponent is profound.
The beauty behind the WNBA players’ support of Warnock is the research and interviews they did to identify the candidate worthy of that support, and the calculation they used to unroll it, not wanting to overdo it for fear of feeding oxygen to and inflaming Loeffler’s campaign. This wasn’t opposition for the sake of opposition. They did their homework.
The rioting mob and the accommodation it enjoyed at the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday only underscores what the WNBA players have been fighting for all along.
The league encourages them to use their voices. Besides Moore and Montgomery, who has expanded her activism into voting and education initiatives, Tiffany Hayes of the Dream and the Washington Mystics’ Natasha Cloud gave up steady paychecks playing ball to become social justice advocates.
While the Atlanta Dream, whose nickname is a nod to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s iconic speech, was endorsing Warnock, the NFL team in Atlanta, the Falcons, who enjoy a vastly bigger public communication platform, only went so far as to encourage people to vote in the runoff.
Somebody out there heard the WNBA.
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