Donald Trump’s incessant jousting with professional athletes, starting with his sensational broadside on Colin Kaepernick in the early days of his presidency, prompted a movement within sports that not only brought attention to social and racial injustice, but gave rise to a mainstreaming of athlete activism not seen since Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown and Kareem Abdul‑Jabbar manned the front lines of the civil rights movement the 1960s.
But no US sports league can match the sustained commitment and sense of urgency around societal issues more than the WNBA, who were throwing their support behind causes ranging from sexual assault prevention to Planned Parenthood to educational support for LGBTQ+ youth at a time when top athletes in other organizations mostly adhered to the prevailing “Republicans buy sneakers, too” apoliticism of the day.
The latest chapter and most visible triumph in that lengthy history came early Wednesday morning when Raphael Warnock won a runoff election to unseat Georgia senator Kelly Loeffler, the co-owner of the WNBA’s Atlanta Dream who ran on a platform antithetical to everything the 24-year-old league stands for – and appears to have paid dearly for it.
Loeffler, who established a reputation as an ultra-Trump loyalist since her appointment to the upper chamber by Georgia governor Brian Kemp in 2018, wrote the league’s commissioner in June taking objection to its embrace of Black Lives Matter in the wake of the killings of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd and calling for the depoliticization of sports. She alleged the organization supported “the defunding of police, called for the removal of Jesus from churches and the disruption of the nuclear family structure harbored anti-Semitic views, and promoted violence and destruction across the country”, adding that highlighting one “particular political agenda undermines the potential of the sport and sends a message of exclusion”.
When calls by the WNBA players’ union for the CEO-turned-lawmaker to sell her shares of the team went unanswered, the players took a different tack. Inspired by Seattle Storm point guard Sue Bird, they coordinated a plan to wear ‘Vote Warnock’ T-shirts to games in support of Loeffler’s Democratic challenger rather than broadcast criticism of the sitting senator. The campaign has been credited as key factor in elevating Warnock’s profile.
“I think when all this stuff started happening with her, we didn’t want to feel like we were pawns,” Elizabeth Williams, the British-born power forward in her fifth season with Atlanta, told ESPN in August. “We can only control so much about what the league does [in regard to Loeffler], and so for us, we wanted it to be bigger than that.
“That’s kind of been the theme of this season. So we wanted to make sure we could still keep the focus on our social justice movement, and funny enough, Rev Warnock is somebody who supports everything that we support and just happens to be running in that seat. So it just worked out really well.”
Not surprisingly, the players’ plan drew the attention of grassroots Democratic activist Stacey Abrams, who holds an advisory position to the WNBA players association’s board.
It’s impossible to calculate the degree to which the players’ emphatic endorsement played a role in Loeffler’s defeat on Wednesday. But as Lindsay Gibbs documented in an exhaustively detailed timeline that appeared in her (consistently outstanding) Power Plays newsletter, Warnock was polling at 9% and a distant fourth in a Monmouth University poll released at the end of July and 17 points adrift of Loeffler. After the WNBA players’ show of support the following week, his campaign received nearly $240,000 in donations and 4,000 new donors.
As he conducted his first state-wide virtual town hall and launched a merch store that carried the same shirts worn by the players, Warnock carried the momentum into September (19%, third) and October (28%, first).
When Democrats woke up on Wednesday on the precipice of taking control of the Senate, Los Angeles Lakers star LeBron James tweeted in sport of the Atlanta club at the center of it all: “Think I’m gone put together an ownership group for The Dream. Whose in? #BlackVotesMatter.”
LA Dodgers outfielder Mookie Betts responded: “COUNT ME IN!!!!!”
But it was the WNBA players themselves who took the greatest joy in Wednesday’s hard-won victory lap.
“Woke up and just smiled remembering that one time Kelly Loeffler tried to come for the W and we helped @ReverendWarnock take her senate seat,” New York Liberty guard Layshia Clarendon tweeted. “Winning never felt so damn good.”
“Not only is Raphael Warnock Georgia’s first black senator, but also the first Black democratic senator EVER elected in the south,” wrote Phoenix Mercury forward Brianna Turner. “50 years ago that was unimaginable. I wonder where the south will be 50 years from today.”