Written by Stella McRobbie
Graphic by Ana Isaacs
The year 2020 turned the mundane, political. It turned facts into arguments, and it threw the world upside down. Cooking changed from necessity to coping mechanism; exercise, once avoided, now a survival technique. And sport became a political battleground. Which leagues were still operating? Who was wearing masks? Who was kneeling? Who was saying Black Lives Matter and who was saying nothing? Sporting leagues and players were thrust feet first into coming up with something other than “full credit to the boys, all eyes on next week.” When the tiresome argument that athletes should stay out of politics reared its ugly head, politicians appeared ever more opinionated about the lives and decisions of athletes and their organisations. Some sunk and some swam when faced with this added pressure, but the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) rose to the challenge, determined to open a dialogue about racism in the United States.
One of the biggest political stories of 2020 was the Senate run-offs in Georgia, which gave the Democrats control of the Presidency, House, and Senate. In one of the two races that flipped the Senate for the Democrats, Raphael Warnock defeated Republican incumbent, Kelly Loeffler. The importance of these Senate run-offs meant that Kelly Loeffler’s name was suddenly known beyond state lines, rising to national and even international recognition. But Kelly Loeffler wasn’t new to the players of the WNBA – Loeffler owned around fifty per cent of the Atlanta Dream, a successful WNBA team with many key league players.
While investment in women’s sport is usually a positive, Kelly Loeffler proved to be an antagonising figure within the WNBA. The league thrives on the labour and talent of women of colour, who make up eighty per cent of players. However, Loeffler was one of the outspoken owners in opposition of players taking action against racial injustice. This included ‘taking a knee’, an act that was very visible and common throughout the league. Loeffler supported the fining of players for wearing Black Lives Matter t-shirts for warm-ups, instead of their approved pre-game t-shirts – fines which the league eventually rescinded and apologised for.
In the wake of the global pandemic, the Black Lives Matter movement, and the all-important federal elections in America, many players in the WNBA decided to take matters into their own hands. The Atlanta Dream hopped off the bus before one of their regular season games wearing ‘Vote Warnock’ T-shirts, and other teams followed suit. The players resolved not to let Loeffler’s money and power scare them into submission. The Atlanta Dream players saw tangible change that they could make, even at the risk of their team’s existence.
Sometimes support and investment in women’s sport is treated like an underserved blessing. Critics frequently dismiss the Atlanta Dream and claim that they should feel lucky someone was willing to buy into their team. But women’s sports shouldn’t have to settle for less; the continued exposure and growth of women’s leagues means the players shouldn’t be beholden to whoever happens to show a modicum of interest. The players are not desperate for attention and support, they are deserving.
In women’s sporting leagues, investment often comes with conditions: more profits, more dunks, quicker play, and whatever arbitrary improvements outsiders preach. But now, the players have decided that they too have conditions. The WNBA demanded owners and investment that recognises politics isn’t separate to sport, it’s an unavoidable part of the lives of women, and particularly Black women. Kelly Loeffler asked players to stick to sport – I bet a lot of players wish Kelly Loeffler stuck to politics, but if only it was that simple. If only sportswomen lived without gendered comments on Instagram, gendered dialogue in sports media, and gendered pay. These players are bound to the society they have grown up in, but this time, they were able to set the tone.
In the 2020 season, players sat out of games, took a knee, and wore shirts raising awareness of Breonna Taylor, Jacob Blake, and others. They encouraged people to vote and respond to the census by taking deliberate game penalties and even boycotting the entire season, which 2014 MVP Maya Moore did. After this outspoken activism from players, worry set in about the future ownership of the Atlanta Dream. Kelly Leoffler was eventually pressured to give up her share in the Atlanta Dream. At one stage, Lebron James put out a call out on Twitter for people to come with him to collect Kelly Loeffler’s share. Following this, past player Renee Montgomery made the possibility of ex-player ownership a reality. As of earlier this year, she and two other investors now make up for Kelly Loeffler’s ownership. One of the new owners along with Montgomery, Larry Gottesdiener, breathed a new rhetoric of decency into the Atlanta Dream ownership, stating that the team is “an Atlanta Asset … the dream isn’t going anywhere.”
In a year that felt void of good news stories, the WNBA has been an exception. The athletes, coaches, support staff, and organisational leaders have consistently proven that doing the right thing doesn’t always come at a cost. The leadership shown by the WNBA Players Association and the courage of the players is an important reminder that we cannot wait for attitudes to change and for people to pay attention to important issues. Bettering the world is a choice, an active decision all of us can make.