WNBA Players vs. U.S. Senator Kelly Loeffler: How Basketball Affected the Georgia Senate Run-Off

Nneka Ogwumike guards Danielle Robinson as Robinson attempts to make a shot in a WNBA Minnesota Lynx vs. Los Angeles Sparks game
Cover Photo: Lorie Shaull, 2018

2nd-year Student in the Middle East-Mediterranean Campus of MENTON

After the dust of the 2020 United States Election settled, the politically-focused eyes of the country turned towards Georgia where two run-off races could decide whether the Democrats or Republicans will control the Senate. After emerging as the top two candidates in the November election, Republican incumbent Kelly Loeffler is running against Democrat reverend Raphael Warnock in the run-off election. The top two candidates who emerged from the other Georgia Senate election were Republican incumbent David Perdue and Democrat Jon Ossoff. Georgia has seen an increase in national attention this election cycle with the Senate run-off elections and the state’s momentous change to blue (voting Democrat) in the presidential election for the first time since 1992. One unexpected group has become involved in the Senate election between Loeffler and Warnock: the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA). 

Republican Kelly Loeffler and Democrat Raphael Warnock, the two candidates in the Georgia run-off election
First photo: loeffler.senate.gov (Public Domain), 2020 / Second photo: Raphael Warnock, 2020

As the summer of 2020 brought reckoning to the United States with the murder of George Floyd, the WNBA looked to use its platform to respond, dedicating the upcoming basketball season to social justice. As part of the league’s efforts, the beginning of the season was focused on the Black Lives Matter movement with players wearing shirts with “Black Lives Matter” and “Say Her Name” (a slogan to raise awareness for Black female victims of police brutality in the United States) written. Loeffler, who was both a US Senator and partial owner of the team the Atlanta Dream at the time, wrote to WNBA Commissioner Engelbert, expressing her discontent with the league’s stance. According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Loeffler asked the Commissioner to remove the t-shirts with “Black Lives Matter” and “Say Her Name” and instead place American flags on WNBA apparel. In the letter, Loeffler made extreme and false statements about the Black Lives Matter movement stating that it has “called for the removal of Jesus from churches and the disruption of the nuclear family structure, habored anti-Semitic views, and promoted violence and destruction across the country.” Loeffler used an argument of the separation of politics and sports to justify her call for the WNBA to end its support of Black Lives Matter, writing “This is not a political movement that the league should be embracing, and I emphatically oppose it.”

Loeffler’s comments were quickly denounced by the WNBA, with the organization releasing a statement on July 7, stating that Loeffler was no longer involved in the day-to-day operations of the Atlanta Dream and that the league would continue to advocate for social justice. The Women’s National Basketball Player’s Association, the player’s union of the WNBA, responded to Loeffler’s comment tweeting:

However, the WNBA players did not seek to stop at a statement for their condemnation of Loeffler. In order to prevent Loeffler from gaining more attention, the players decided to stop speaking the Senator’s name. “Words have power. And to give energy to a name, I think, is very meaningful. So, we stopped saying that name” Nneka Ogwumike, President of the WNBPA and player for the Los Angeles Sparks, said to the New York Times. Then, WNBA players moved against Loeffler in an unprecedented way, by throwing their support behind one of her political opponents in the Senate race. After interviewing several candidates, the players decided to support Reverend Raphael Warnock. Several players donned “VOTE WARNOCK” shirts in pregame warm-ups during the first week of August and some publicly endorsed Warnock as well. Since August, Reverend Warnock and his campaign have come a long way as the run-off election between Warnock and Loeffler draws near. Whatever the outcome of the election on January 5, the players of the WNBA have made a clear and strong statement against Loeffler.

Since her letter to the WNBA Commissioner in July, Loeffler has come under more fire. Loeffler was criticized by both WNBA players and LBGTQ+ activists as she was the main sponsor of the Protection of Women and Girls in Sports Act. The bill looked to strip schools who allowed transgender women and girls to participate in sports of federal funding and is considered to be a transphobic attempt at partisan pandering. Loeffler also came under criticism for refusing to acknowledge Joe Biden as President-Elect and most recently, for having been photographed with an alleged member of the Klu Klux Klan while on the campaign trail.

The separation of sports and politics that Loeffler speaks of does not exist and never has existed.

Athletes, and athletes of color in particular, have long been at the forefront of activism and the fight for equality. Just in the past few years, athletes like Colin Kapernick, Lebron James, Megan Rapinoe and more have brought forth issues of racism, sexism and homophobia onto the nation platform. Often met with contempt, athletes are told to keep sports and politics separate, as asserted by Loeffler in her letter to the WNBA commissioner. However, the separation of sports and politics that Loeffler speaks of does not exist and never has existed. Politicians have consistently used sports to push their political agenda. In the case of Loeffler, she has exploited the activism of the WNBA and trans women athletes to mobilize her conservative base. It is a double standard for Loeffler to claim separation of sports and politics while simultaneously using sports to further her political career. While Loeffler fights for her Senate seat, the WNBA players have mobilized to call out her hypocrisy. Joining a long list of athletes who have used their platform to combat hatred and racism, the WNBA players offer inspiration to those fighting for social and racial justice. ▣

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