Early voting is underway in the Georgia senate race, and the Jan. 5 outcome will determine whether Democrats or Republicans control the pivotal body. It’s hard to overstate the importance of the outcome to the first two years of the Biden administration.
And we might not be here at all if not for an act of defiance by WNBA players.
The first time I saw the name Warnock it was emblazoned on the front of t-shirts worn by players of the Atlanta Dream, as the team readied for a televised game from the league’s Florida bubble. It was shocking, it was understated, and it was a calculated strategy on the part of players who were carefully channeling their anger.
Raphael Warnock was one of a slate of candidates opposing incumbent and Atlanta Dream owner Kelly Loeffler, who had staked her claim opposing the WNBA’s support of Black Lives Matter. Here was a woman who owned a team where the majority of players were Black, who was demonizing a group that existed to uplift Black voices and draw attention to unequal policing in the Black community.
Like, really demonizing.
Loeffler said the BLM organization was “an attempt to transform the country based on Marxist doctrine,” wanted to remove Jesus from the church, and promoted “violence and destruction.” Loeffler even tried to get the WNBA to remove the phrase from the courts and t-shirts, with a letter to commissioner Cathy Engelbert.
“That was my first realization this was a political strategy for her,” WNBA veteran and Seattle point guard Sue Bird said.
Loeffler was conflating a named organization with the concept of Black lives actually mattering, throwing around the word “Marxist” as casually as Vizzini tossed around “Inconceivable!” in The Princess Bride. Smearing opponents as Marxists because they favor universal healthcare and a social safety net, sounds far scarier than it is. Meanwhile, she’s facing scrutiny for lucrative stock trades she made after Senate coronavirus briefings.
But the tactic works with a certain set of the electorate. Bird realized that any statement players made condemning Loeffler would actually help her in the race. Georgia does its Senate races a little differently, with multiple candidates running in November and there is only a runoff if one of them fails to get 50 percent of the vote. It’s actually some residue of Georgia’s racist past, setup to disenfranchise Black voters by allowing whites to eventually form a coalition behind one candidate to stymie a Black voting bloc.
So the more outrage, the more name recognition for Loeffler.
Attacking Loeffler wouldn’t help any of the many opponents in the race prevail.
So Bird, Elizabeth Williams, and other players decided to reserve all that name recognition for their candidate. The only question was, who would their candidate be? While sequestered in the bubble, they researched those running, reached out to campaigns, and evaluated platforms. Then, finally, they printed his name on t-shirts and took the court.
“We found this voice we have together is pretty powerful,” Bird said. “The size of our league allows for this, we have about 144 players in the league, but we’ve had to go through our careers fighting for things. We would love to just talk about basketball, love to talk about points and rebounds and assists but no one lets us do that. The conversation is always judgmental, and always about other things. So we’ve developed this backbone and we’ve learned to fight for ourselves. And now we’re lending that fight to others.”
Angel McCoughtry started playing for the Dream as the first pick in the 2009 WNBA Draft. When Loeffler bought into the team in 2011 with Mary Brock, it seemed like the right fit. Loeffler is accomplished in her own right, and was Chief Executive Officer of Bakkt, a subsidiary of Intercontinental Exchange.
“We were excited, we had women owners and they wanted to put more money in the franchise,” McCoughtry told Deadspin. “Back then I didn’t know what she was into. I was excited because I didn’t want to lose the franchise.”
Candace Buckner of the Washington Post wrote this excellent profile of Loeffler back in August. Sure, she seems like a cartoon villain in some ways now, but she grew up loving the game. Loeffler, now 50, had been one of those high school players who hadn’t quite grown into her limbs, earning the nickname NBC, short for newborn calf.
She may have loved the game but she didn’t connect with all her players as an owner. McCoughtry said that Loeffler fought to keep her on the team, but there were also moments in retrospect that were like red flags. McCoughtry was frustrated during a game one day, kind of losing it, and Loeffler turned to McCoughtry’s father and asked him, does she do that because she’s from Baltimore?
“Just because I’m a Black person from the city doesn’t mean I’m from the ghetto,” McCoughtry said.
This summer, McCoughtry couldn’t be silent. She started the petition that ended with official game jerseys being used to remember the names of men and women killed by law enforcement.
“It was amazing to be able to speak our voices,” McCoughtry said. “We’d done it before, but had people listened? Now, this year, because people had nothing to do, with the pandemic, people got to see what Black people have been talking about for so long. Now the whole world knows about it.”
The women of the WNBA have been some of the most courageous when it comes to risking literal capital in speaking their minds. But it’s not just words. WNBA Players’ Association executive director Terri Jackson brought Stacey Abrams onto a board of advocates in 2019. The union works with players on get-out-the-vote efforts, but did not get involved in the players’ efforts to elect Warnock.
“We are nonpartisan, but we are not blind,” Jackson said.
McCoughtry, who was injured during 2019, was traded to the Las Vegas Aces last February. She suspects that speaking out might have been inconvenient for Loeffler’s image once she was named to Georgia’s vacant Senate seat by Governor Brian Kemp in December of last year.
“This is what I believe, and one of the reasons I’m not in Atlanta; I’m not going to stand still and be quiet,” McCoughtry said. “Think about it, the best player in Atlanta history is not there. It’s not right is it? When we stand up for ourselves, that’s what happens.”
Like many of the players in the WNBA, McCoughtry has continued to be involved. She still lives in Atlanta and has spoken at some of Warnock’s events.
“I don’t think Kelly is a racist person,” McCoughtry said. “I believe she’s trying to keep up with her counterparts, and she’s trying to be political. When you do those types of things, you mess up your legacy.”
Last week, Loeffler was photographed with Chester Doles, an alleged former Ku Klux Klan leader. Loeffler’s campaign tried to distance her from the controversy. Between her enthusiastic support for President Donald Trump during his failed campaign for a second term — she has yet to acknowledge Joe Biden as the President-Elect — to her calling Black Lives Matter as a Marxist organization spreading “violence and destruction,” to inadvertently smiling for photos with an alleged former Klansman, it is hard to imagine a platform more at odds with the inclusiveness of the WNBA.
“When you buy a WNBA team, you know what you’re buying into,” Bird said. “That‘s what’s been so perplexing and hurtful. You assume when someone buys a WNBA team, it’s about loving basketball and supporting women. You know what our league makeup is.”
The Dream celebrated Abrams on court and had events with Planned Parenthood while Loeffler was there. Many women identify proudly as LGBTQ+, as do fans of the game. The issue of whether to cater to the gay community or to families was settled long ago and the answer was both. The players who wore the Warnock t-shirts are fighting for those values.
“I just want a better nation,” McCoughtry said. “This is how we look to the world. We have to start leading better by example. It starts with voting. Our sense of community, we’ve lost it.”