Inside the WNBA-Kelly Loeffler stalemate — Will something give? Will somebody go?

A FEW MONTHS ago, WNBA player Elizabeth Williams might not have posted the photo to her Instagram account. A few years ago, she might not have gone to the Black Lives Matter protest on June 3 at Centennial Park in downtown Atlanta.

“She’s not usually the one to be the first out there, to put her name or her face out there,” says Jaimee Stoner, Williams’ friend. “Not because she doesn’t care. That’s just her personality.”

Williams plays for the Atlanta Dream, a franchise in the birthplace of Martin Luther King Jr. The team is named for his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, which he gave 57 years ago, on Aug. 28, 1963. And like so many others — before much of professional sports shut down Wednesday in protest of the police shooting of Jacob Blake — she had been deeply affected by the police killings of Black Americans such as George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, and she wanted to do something about it.

With mask on and hands up, Williams walked the streets of Atlanta, chanting and pleading for social justice. The longer she marched toward the Georgia State Capitol, the louder her normally quiet voice grew. Stoner pulled out a phone and discreetly snapped a picture.

“I just wanted her to be able to see for herself, ‘Look at how powerful it is when you speak up, when you show up, when you’re using your platform,'” Stoner says. “And you can feel that in this photo.”

When they got home from the march, she showed the black-and-white photo to Williams.

Until recently, Elizabeth Williams wasn’t one to speak out. But this season the Dream center has become a leading voice in the WNBA’s commitment to social justice. Courtesy Jaimee Stoner

Williams’ long arms are raised plaintively along with those of thousands of others as the marchers chant, “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot.” Her face, partially hidden behind a mask, is serious. Her “Equality” shirt stands out among a group of homemade signs. The tips of three tall buildings and a crane peek out from behind her, jagged and dissonant.

Williams posted it to her IG account with the Black Lives Matter hashtag. The evocative photo struck a chord, and Williams has a pretty good idea why.

“I see people not just wanting change but demanding it,” Williams says. “I also see history repeating itself. That’s why I liked it in black and white, because these protests aren’t new.

“And I see a combination of bravery, with a little bit of fear.”

Little did Williams know that just a month later she would be using her voice to stand up to and campaign against the owner of her WNBA team, U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler (R-Ga.), who, in a letter to commissioner Cathy Engelbert on July 7, objected to the league’s embrace of the Black Lives Matter movement.

In part, the letter read: “I believe it is totally misaligned with the values and goals of the WNBA and the Atlanta Dream, where we support tolerance and inclusion. … This is not a political movement that the league should be embracing, and I emphatically oppose it.”

For a league that had spent months planning how to make its season feel meaningful amid the coronavirus pandemic and nationwide protests, the letter was a dagger to the heart of what the WNBA and its players had just declared they cared about most.

“It was like, ‘Hey, what are you going to do about your owner?'” Williams says. “Like the burden had been put on us.”

They could not stay silent or wait until the conflict blew over.

Because America in 2020 is a country divided: by politics, a pandemic and protest.

It is socially distant but yelling at the top of its lungs.

It is shaken by all of it but also stirred by the opportunity for change.

It is scared but also brave.

It is the Atlanta Dream.

The Dream are committed to keeping their focus on the causes that matter most to them, including justice for Breonna Taylor and “Say Her Name.” Stephen Gosling/NBAE/Getty Images

A FEW MONTHS ago, Loeffler might not have felt the need to send the letter. A few years ago, her words might not have had the power to divide so thoroughly.

But Loeffler, 49, became a U.S. senator in January after she was appointed by Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp to replace Johnny Isakson, who resigned because of health reasons. The seat is up for grabs in a special election in November.

It was a challenge from the start. Georgia, once solidly a Republican stronghold, had shown signs of turning purple in recent elections, with Democrat Lucy McBath flipping a congressional seat in the Atlanta suburbs in 2018 and Democrat Stacey Abrams mounting a strong challenge to Kemp in the 2018 governor’s race.

Loeffler’s association with the WNBA, which for years had staked a claim as a leader among LGBTQ+ causes (the WNBA began promoting league-wide Pride nights in 2014) and racial and social justice movements, was a liability to her conservative credentials.

Kelly Loeffler, right, with former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, has been forced to fend off challenges from both fellow Republicans and Democrats as she seeks to hold on to her seat in the U.S. Senate. John Bazemore/AP Photo

She stepped down from her seat on the WNBA board of governors in October of 2019 and is no longer involved in the the daily operations of the Dream. But to Dream players like Williams and Renee Montgomery, who had been tracking Loeffler’s political statements and actions throughout the spring, it was only a matter of time before Loeffler and the WNBA clashed on a national stage.

“Politics, they call it mudslinging for a reason,” says Montgomery, the Dream point guard, who is sitting out the 2020 season to focus on her foundation and social justice initiatives. “She’s doing what most politicians do. They find something that they think they can win off of and they exploit it.”

That this confrontation happened with Atlanta’s WNBA owner and team is probably no coincidence either. The city is at the epicenter of Georgia’s political and demographic changes. Which means that power is shifting, and that there are those who like it the way it was and those who want even more change.

The sports world has mirrored that societal shift, as athletes have increasingly stepped into and led political discussions they might have ducked a few years ago. And like Williams, many were at the front lines of the protest marches this spring.

That put pressure on the teams they played for to issue statements of support. Those that hesitated, like the New York Knicks, faced heavy criticism. The Dream made Juneteenth a paid company holiday, and Montgomery said several team officials attended her event, on June 19, to feed protesters in Centennial Park.

ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne joins Pablo Torre to talk about the WNBA’s commitment to fight for social justice and U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler’s bid to win a November election. And how those two missions were always bound to clash. Listen

“The coaches, the GM, my teammates, they all have publicly shown their support for me,” Montgomery says. “I think that owners do different things that are political. I’m sure that there’s other owners that are Republicans and support what she supports as well. We’ve seen that. That’s just a norm in sports. That’s not something that the athletes have gotten into before. It’s just getting highly publicized now.”

Loeffler contends that the WNBA players made the first political move by dedicating their season to social justice and the Black Lives Matter movement on July 6.

The players contend that Loeffler played the first political card when she sent the letter to Engelbert on July 7.

“The statement ‘Black lives matter’ is very different than the organization Black Lives Matter,” Loeffler said in a July interview with ESPN. “I think we all agree the life of every African American is important.

“But the Black Lives Matter political organization advocates things like defunding and abolishing the police, abolishing our military, emptying our prisons, destroying the nuclear family. It promotes violence and anti-Semitism. To me, this is not what our league stands for.”

Loeffler’s claims, like most things in politics, depend on a person’s perspective. The organization says it is a frequent target of disinformation and is committed to creating a world “where every Black person has the social, economic and political power to thrive.” Still, the WNBA players have continually stressed that they are not endorsing the organization or its policies but are instead trying to highlight systemic racism and violence against Black people.

“We literally say it’s not about the organization,” Montgomery says. “And [she’s] like, ‘But what about the organization?’

“I don’t think people are confused about what we’re talking about.”

VERY QUICKLY, IT became apparent that the WNBA players and Loeffler were talking at each other, not with each other. In the first few days after Loeffler registered her objections to Engelbert: Montgomery wrote an article on Medium; Loeffler did an interview with Laura Ingraham on Fox News; Engelbert issued a statement saying the league would continue to advocate for social justice; New York Liberty guard Layshia Clarendon wrote an essay for The Undefeated; Loeffler wrote an op-ed for the Daily Caller; the players’ union account tweeted “E-N-O-U-G-H! O-U-T!”

“This isn’t about me, this is about every American’s right to speak out, to enjoy free speech, to support whatever cause and not be canceled,” Loeffler said on Ingraham’s show. “We have this cancel culture that is threatening America.”

Williams and her Dream teammates watched as it all unfolded, then organized a Zoom call to discuss a unified response. On July 10, three days after Loeffler’s letter, the Atlanta players issued a statement that sources said was not shown to either Loeffler or her co-owner, Mary Brock.

“Black lives matter. We are the women of the Atlanta Dream. We are women who support a movement. We are strong and we are fearless. We offer a voice to the voiceless. Our team is united in the Movement for Black Lives. It’s not extreme to demand change after centuries of inequality. This is not a political statement. This is a statement of humanity.”

Then players tweeted from their own accounts: “We’ve read the letter. We reject the letter. Black lives matter. Vote in November.”

Loeffler’s name was never mentioned. That was intentional. Voting in November was mentioned. That was intentional too.

Once a regular at Dream games, Loeffler, pictured with the Lakers’ Dwight Howard, is no longer involved in the day-to-day business of the team. Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire/Getty Images

For months, Williams had been monitoring news around Loeffler and talking to the other players on the union’s executive committee about her concerns.

In March, the Justice Department announced it was investigating lawmakers who had dumped stock following a Jan. 24 coronavirus briefing with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention director Robert Redfield and Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert. Loeffler was cleared of wrongdoing in May.

In June, Loeffler tweeted “We must not allow mob rule” after armed protesters gathered near the Atlanta Wendy’s where police had killed Rayshard Brooks. The tweet included a clip from a Fox News interview in which she called the protests “totally unacceptable.”

Several high-profile WNBA players, including Natasha Cloud and Skylar Diggins-Smith, called for Loeffler to sell the team after the “mob rule” comment. Eleven days later, Loeffler sent the letter to Engelbert.

This had become a WNBA issue, Williams argued, not just an Atlanta Dream issue. And so the players consulted over Zoom with former first lady Michelle Obama and seasoned politicians like Stacey Abrams. They consulted former WNBA president Lisa Borders, who knew Loeffler well as one of the key players in bringing the Dream to Atlanta.

The advice they got was straight out of a Politics 101 seminar: Stay focused on your mission and what you believe in. Do not get pulled into a fight you didn’t go looking for. And whatever you do, do not say the name of your opponent.

There was something profound about deliberately not saying the name of their adversary, in a season with the theme “Say Her Name” to recognize all the women of color who had been killed by police or racial violence.

“We started to realize that this was only happening for her political gain,” says Seattle Storm guard and union vice president Sue Bird. “This was something that she wanted. And actually, the more noise we made, whether it was a tweet saying to get her out, that was just playing into her hands.

“So with that, it became a game of chess versus checkers.”

Loeffler countered that she shouldn’t be “canceled” for standing up for her conservative beliefs. And by the letter of the WNBA’s bylaws, she was right.

This wasn’t a Donald Sterling situation. Nothing Loeffler said was grounds to suspend her from the league and force her to sell, as NBA commissioner Adam Silver had done in 2014 when the then-L.A. Clippers owner was caught on tape making blatantly racist statements to his mistress.

Silver suspended Sterling from the NBA for life, using his powers to act in the best interests of the league — which was losing sponsors in the wake of the scandal and facing the very real possibility of player boycotts.

The NBA board of governors was set to vote on whether Sterling would be forced to sell the team, but his wife, Shelly Sterling, sold the team to Steve Ballmer for $2 billion before a formal vote could take place.

The WNBA’s options with Loeffler are far more complicated. Yes, players had been offended by Loeffler’s comments. But no one was threatening to boycott, no major advertisers or sponsors had cut bait and no players said they wouldn’t play for the Dream in the future.

It would be hard for the league to force her to sell, and even if it tried, selling during the coronavirus pandemic and the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression is terrible timing.

Plus, the players felt that trying to force Loeffler out could become a distraction from their overall goals this season. So Engelbert felt the best thing she could do was support the way the players chose to handle the situation.

“I’m committed to making sure the season is dedicated to making sure Black lives matter and that these players, who have always led, are supported by the league,” Engelbert says.

Essentially, she handed the power to the players.

“That’s where I give Cathy a lot of credit,” says the Liberty’s Clarendon, who is co-vice president of the players’ union. “She really has been like, ‘I want this to be a player-led league,’ and is letting us run with a lot of the things we want as players.”

The players continued to call attention to #SayHerName. They honored Breonna Taylor and Sandra Bland. And they hatched a plan that would escalate things even further.

BACK IN HIGH school, they called her “NBC,” short for newborn calf. The 5-foot-11 kid from a central Illinois soybean farm, who wore No. 23 for Olympia High School to honor Michael Jordan, was so thin and wobbly that she fell — a lot.

After mortgaging land she had inherited from her grandparents to get her MBA from DePaul, Kelly Loeffler moved to Atlanta in 2002 and quickly rose through the ranks at Intercontinental Exchange (ICE) to run investor relations and communications. Two years later, she married the company’s founder and CEO, Jeff Sprecher.

The couple happened to meet Dream owner Kathy Betty in Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank’s suite during a 2010 Manchester City exhibition game at the Georgia Dome, and Betty invited the basketball-loving Loeffler to attend a Dream game. A few weeks later, Loeffler and Sprecher sat courtside next to another prominent Atlanta couple who had also been invited by Betty: Mary and John Brock.

Kelly Loeffler, pictured with co-owner Mary Brock, says she has no intention of selling her part of the Dream. David Tulis/AP Photo

In January 2011, Loeffler and Mary Brock joined Betty in the Dream’s ownership group and formed the only all-female ownership group in Atlanta professional sports. Following the 2011 season, Loeffler and Brock became the team’s sole owners. In 2013, ICE completed a takeover of the New York Stock Exchange.

Clarendon, who played for the Dream from 2016 to ’18, remembers her days in Atlanta fondly, from Pride nights to honoring 2018 gubernatorial candidate Abrams.

“I thought the Dream was so cool,” Clarendon says. “That’s the first team I played for that was that liberal.”

Which was exactly the image Loeffler needed to shake when she was appointed to the Senate in December 2019 and looked at preparing for this November’s special election.

Despite considering a run for Senate in 2014 and having a long history of donations to Republican candidates, Loeffler was considered an outsider.

“No one knew anything about her,” says Kerwin Swint, a political science professor at Kennesaw State University outside Atlanta. “Is she a conservative? Is she a moderate? … She was a blank slate.”

So when Kemp chose Loeffler for the Senate seat — despite a reported push from President Donald Trump to choose U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, the ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee and an established conservative and Trump ally — it did not go over well with some conservatives.

Loeffler’s involvement with the WNBA, the $1.5 million in donations (between Sprecher and Loeffler) to Republican Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign and the lack of large donations to Trump’s 2016 campaign cast doubt about Loeffler’s Trump loyalties.

The flip side, political analysts said, was that Loeffler could expand the Republican base in Georgia by appealing to suburban women. She also had money to spend — a recent article in Forbes claimed that Loeffler is the richest member of Congress, with a combined net worth around $800 million. And thus far, campaign finance records show $15 million of the $17.5 million she’s raised for the Nov. 3 election has come from her own accounts.

The winner would serve through 2022. Twenty-three days after Loeffler was sworn in, Collins announced he would seek her seat.

The decision by Collins put Loeffler in a political bind. Not only would she need to fend off a slew of Democratic candidates, but she would also have to win over Georgia Republicans who had a decades-long relationship with Collins. Georgia law dictates that unless a candidate receives more than 50% of the vote in the special election, there will be a runoff election in January between the top two contenders. What was Loeffler’s path to victory? Should she step left? Step right? Dip to the middle?

“The key to finishing ahead of Doug Collins is appealing to Republican voters,” says Alan Abramowitz, a professor of political science at Emory University in Atlanta. “The messaging that we’re seeing from her has been aimed at appealing to these conservative Republican voters as if it was the Republican primary. And she’s emphasizing her support for President Trump, she’s emphasizing her agreement with some of the issues that he tends to emphasize, particularly support for the military and law enforcement and attacking Democrats as radical leftists.”

She continued to trumpet the difference between her beliefs and the actions of the Atlanta Dream and the WNBA, which in July announced, in addition to its social justice initiatives, the creation of the Social Justice Council, which was established as a “driving force of necessary and continuing conversations about race, voting rights, LGBTQ+ advocacy and gun control.”

Loeffler’s play seems to be working. Long trailing Collins in the polls, she took the lead in the most recent Monmouth University poll, released July 29 — three weeks after her letter to Engelbert denouncing the WNBA’s support for the Black Lives Matter movement. Loeffler’s support was at 26%, followed by Collins at 20%. Matt Lieberman was the top Democrat with 14%, followed by Rev. Raphael Warnock at 9%.

“I think a lot of the players and people who were associated with her through the Atlanta Dream have been surprised to see her very conservative views, support for President Trump, etc.,” Abramowitz says. “Because apparently that’s not the way she came across to them prior to being appointed to the Senate seat.”

The Liberty’s Layshia Clarendon started her WNBA career at Indiana and was traded to Atlanta in 2016. “I thought the Dream was so cool,” Clarendon says. Ned Dishman/NBAE/Getty Images

CLARENDON REMEMBERS VISITING Descante, the 4-acre estate Sprecher and Loeffler bought for $10.5 million in 2009, for team dinners. She remembers the cars in the garage — a Porsche (or two or three), a Corvette, an old-school red truck. She remembers the conversations with Loeffler — supportive, encouraging and open.

Montgomery recalls that the extravagance of Loeffler’s home — “It was like going to a museum” — contrasted with her down-to-earth conversations with the owner. “She doesn’t talk down to you,” Montgomery says.

Lindsey Harding, who played for the Dream in 2011 and 2012, recalls that Loeffler took time to mentor her in business, invited her to her office and put her on the guest list for fundraisers Sprecher and Loeffler hosted at Descante.

“Big charity events you get dressed up for and meet a bunch of people,” Harding says. “It was great.”

Unlike many of her teammates, Harding said she knew that Loeffler was a Republican and had been active in GOP politics, but she said it never became a source of tension.

“She was at all our games, shaking our hands in the locker room, win or lose,” Harding says. “There was no white or black. It was just, ‘I’m so excited to have this women’s team.'”

Loeffler regularly sat courtside, took notes, watched game tape and sent suggestions to players and coaches.

“I do think,” Montgomery says, “that she is a fan of the WNBA.”

On Twitter on July 7, Montgomery offered to talk to Loeffler about the letter she sent and the objections she made to the WNBA’s support for the Black Lives Matter movement, but she doesn’t think Loeffler will accept.

“I bet the only way that she would talk to me is if they needed a big push at the end,” Montgomery says. “Because politics really is a game. They try to do different things to manipulate the numbers. So if we do talk, I feel like it would be for the benefit of her campaign.”

If they did talk, what would Montgomery say?

“If you weren’t running, would you have still written the letter?” Montgomery says. “I think she would say yes, she would have still written it.

“But then that opens up a whole can of worms because then I’d say, ‘Well, why didn’t you write any in the past? The WNBA has stood for a lot of different things that the right doesn’t like. We’re a highly prevalent LGBTQ community. So if you feel that strongly about these things, how come you’re just now speaking up about them?'”

“There was no white or black. It was just, ‘I’m so excited to have this women’s team.'”

Lindsey Harding

In 2018, the WNBA launched its Take a Seat, Take a Stand initiative, which gave fans an opportunity to direct a portion of their ticket sales to organizations focused on working with women — including Planned Parenthood.

In an interview with ESPN, Loeffler said, “Our franchise chose not to promote, to participate in that initiative” and that “we have never given as an organization to Planned Parenthood because we didn’t participate in that.”

Jenny Lawson, executive director of Planned Parenthood Votes, disputed Loeffler’s claim and provided photos, reviewed by ESPN, of volunteers and staff at a table, talking to fans at a Dream game on Aug. 11, 2018.

The organization, which has endorsed Warnock in the special election, confirmed that it received a donation from the WNBA in 2018 but said the amounts were not differentiated by team.

“In 2018, under Kelly Loeffler’s co-ownership, the Atlanta Dream recognized its shared values with Planned Parenthood,” Lawson said in a statement. “Loeffler’s stark departure from the very values we witnessed under her co-ownership is dishonest, disingenuous, and dangerous.”

When asked to clarify the Dream’s involvement with Planned Parenthood, a spokeswoman for Loeffler’s campaign said that neither Loeffler nor the Dream “have given a dime to Planned Parenthood.” She neither confirmed nor denied that the Dream had hosted volunteers and staff for Planned Parenthood at a home game on Aug. 11, 2018.

It’s not just players who recall a different side of Loeffler. Marynell Meadors coached the Dream from the time they entered the league in 2008 until she was fired in 2012 after leading Atlanta to two WNBA Finals appearances. She had nothing but positive things to say about her experiences with Loeffler and Brock as owners.

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“They always provided opportunities for all women,” she says. “It didn’t matter what race they were or anything like that. They were always trying to help women.”

Brock and Loeffler, Meadors says, were especially generous to the players in terms of housing and car service.

“They wanted everything first class,” she says. “Whatever we were supposed to do with the WNBA guidelines, we went the extra mile to make it a little bit better.”

Loeffler estimates that she has lost around $10 million since 2011 and describes her role with the Dream today as “limited” to funding the team.

Multiple sources told ESPN that Loeffler and Brock have approached the league over the years about selling the Dream or taking on limited partners to share in the operating losses. But the discussions never progressed because, sources said, both women enjoyed owning the team so much.

“She really does care about this team,” says a longtime friend of Loeffler’s who requested anonymity. “She’s worth an enormous amount of money now, but 10 years ago, she was writing a million-dollar check out of her pocket every year to help cover the losses. And I believe it was truly because she cared about the players, the team, the importance of having a professional women’s basketball team in Atlanta.”

Betty, who transferred ownership to Brock and Loeffler in 2012, is grateful for Loeffler’s perseverance.

“Without Kelly and Mary, the Dream would not be in Atlanta,” Betty wrote in a text message. “As a big fan, I am glad we have a WNBA team and grateful that Mary and Kelly stepped up.”

Behind the scenes, however, sources have told ESPN that Dream president Chris Sienko and Mary and John Brock, the former CEO of Coca-Cola Enterprises, have been providing financial information to potential buyers of the team.

One of those potential buyers is former Clipper Baron Davis, who says simply, “I would say, just from the Donald Sterling thing, I think it’s just life coming full circle.”

Davis said he was not at liberty to disclose whether Loeffler was willing to sell her ownership stake in the team, reportedly 49%, or what role the Brock family would have with the team going forward.

Numerous voicemails and text messages left by ESPN for Mary and John Brock were not returned.

Loeffler did not deny the current discussions with potential buyers but described them as limited in scope. “I have long welcomed additional partners as part of making sure that we continue to grow the team,” Loeffler says. “But I will continue to remain part of the team.”

Fred Williams, Harding’s coach during the 2012 season, has been racking his brain, wondering whether there was something he missed during his time in Atlanta that would have predicted Loeffler’s political confrontation with the league this summer.

He’d been with the Dream since their inception as an assistant coach under Meadors. He was let go as head coach after leading the Dream to the WNBA Finals in 2013. About the only negative thing he can point to is the turnover in the front office and with coaches.

“I really think it was a function of just not really knowing the women’s game,” Williams says. “And not really trusting the sources that are around you.”

Michael Cooper, who coached the team from 2014 to ’17, said that while Loeffler and Brock may have been a little zealous in terms of their involvement in roster construction or game strategy, he took it as a sign of enthusiasm.

“They were in the business of the team,” Cooper says. “But being new owners, especially in a league that they truly, truly wanted to develop into what it has become today, I didn’t have a problem with it.”

But like Clarendon and Montgomery, Cooper can’t reconcile how the owner he developed a close relationship with could take a position so at odds with the league she’d supported for many years.

“They were never, ever disrespectful to me,” Cooper says. “And I never saw that political side. … So for Mrs. Loeffler’s political views to come into play, I think that’s very unfortunate that she would let that happen to a sport and a league that has come a long way and has gone over a lot of hurdles.

“But it will survive.”

Elizabeth Williams spoke with Raphael Warnock prior to wearing the “Vote Warnock” shirt on Aug. 4. “He is the real deal,” she says. Ned Dishman/NBAE/Getty Images

ON JULY 14, Elizabeth Williams sent a note to Stoner asking for some ideas. The players had been brainstorming ways to respond to Loeffler without distracting from their main mission this season.

Williams wanted the Dream to wear something to promote social justice to their opening game on July 26. Then on Aug. 4, in a nationally televised game in prime time, she wanted them to wear something directed at Loeffler that would land with the same force her letter had landed with them.

The executive committee’s group text chain started humming with ideas. Finally, Bird came up with the idea of endorsing Warnock, one of Loeffler’s Democratic challengers.

“We were having internal conversations about how to keep approaching the Kelly Loeffler stuff,” Clarendon says. “And [union president] Nneka [Ogwumike] and I both were like, ‘Sue, as a white ally, you have to take this on. We can’t muster any more of this. It’s too hurtful.’

“The weight of experiencing this as a Black player is different than Sue experiencing it as a white player. The stuff [Loeffler] said is just ridiculously hurtful, even if you haven’t played on her team, just calling people ‘mob rule’ and all that.”

Bird understood. She set up Zoom calls with Warnock to vet the candidate the 144 women in the WNBA were about to throw their support behind. She set up Zoom calls with each team so players understood why they were escalating this fight.

She ordered T-shirts for players on all 12 teams to wear to their games on Aug. 4 and 5.

One by one, players from Dream rookie Chennedy Carter to Mercury veteran Diana Taurasi filed into the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida, wearing the black T-shirts with “Vote Warnock” in bold white lettering.

“I’m not some political strategist,” Bird says. “But what I do know is that voting is important. And I think our league has always encouraged people to use their voices and to get out and vote.

“So what a great way for us to get the word out about this man, and hopefully put him in the Senate. And if he’s in the Senate, you know who’s not. And I’ll just leave it at that.”

Having been in the WNBA since 2002, Bird knew how big of a leap this would be for a league that had — until the past few years — mostly kept its head down to avoid controversy as it tried to build its fan base.

“Politics are something that some people at times used as a scary word, a bad word, because of what it represented to all of us,” Bird says. “The thing I’m learning in the last couple of years, especially with dating [U.S. soccer star] Megan [Rapinoe], is that politics is everywhere. Whether you want to deal with it or not, it is impacting your life.”

Bird had always been out to friends and family, but she valued her privacy and never felt comfortable or compelled to open that part of her life for public consumption.

“I was never told to be feminine or told to be the girl next door,” Bird says of her early years in the league. “But I have eyes, I watch commercials, I see how people are talking. And I think it just was easier to fall into that box.

“So I just did what was socially acceptable. I think our whole league did that early on.”

Controversy was to be sidestepped. Politics were best left to politicians. When you’re trying to grow a new league, the thinking goes, it’s best not to risk offending anyone.

“But slowly but surely,” Bird says, “we’ve gotten to a place where we just own who we are … versus trying to be something we’re not. Because that route wasn’t working.”

Loeffler issued a statement after players on all 12 teams wore the “Vote Warnock” shirts. In an interview with Ingraham on Fox News, she went even further.

“We’ve gone from being a league of tolerance and unity and diversity to being intolerant,” Loeffler said. “I think that’s a cautionary tale. This is emblematic of what’s happening across the country.

“This isn’t about me. I’m standing up because I have a platform for Americans that feel like they can’t have a voice. I’m speaking out. I worry about the student, the business owner, the employee who feels like they are silenced because of this.”

The WNBA did not issue an official statement on the “Vote Warnock” shirts. But Borders, the league’s former president, who has endorsed Warnock, issued this statement:

“The Atlanta Dream is a city asset, uniting us through the power of sport — one of only two international languages. As the former President of the Atlanta City Council who co-led the effort to bring the Dream to my home city, I remain a faithful team fan.

“As a former President of the WNBA, I stand firmly alongside these women — saluting our professional athletes who are lifting their voices to add to the clarion call for racial reckoning and social justice in our country. Their current position and actions are the most recent in the tradition of serving and sustaining communities where they live, work and play. We should all be inspired by their examples of courage, charisma and compassion.”

The Warnock campaign issued a statement too and noted that it had raised more than $185,000 online on the first day the WNBA players wore shirts to endorse him.

Later, Williams thought back on that brutally hot day in early June when she’d marched through the streets of downtown Atlanta.

“There was a level of unity between everyone there,” she says. “All ages, all races. Because we all understood the unfairness and injustices that we have been seeing for a long time.”

She thought about that black-and-white photo. The one that reminded her that these protests in America in 2020 weren’t new. That it always felt a little scary but also brave to take a stand.

She took another photo with a mask on. Her arms were down and crossed at her waist. The “Vote Warnock” shirt was in black and white. But this photo was in color.

“I think one of the things we’ve noticed in communicating, whether it’s with Breonna Taylor’s family or Sandra Bland’s sister, for effective change to happen, there has to be policy changes,” Williams says. “And so if we’re going to sit here and talk about wanting justice reform, part of that is making sure that we have officials in office that understand that, have done the work, and as [the late Rep.] John Lewis said, had gotten into the ‘good trouble.'”

She posted that photo too.

“We’re not just basketball players,” the Mystics’ Ariel Atkins says. “And if you think we are, then don’t watch us. You’re watching the wrong sport because we’re so much more than that.” Stephen Gosling/NBAE/Getty Images

PROTEST IS NOT a singular action. It is a long march. And it takes a deep collective toll. Three weeks after the WNBA players wore their “Vote Warnock” shirts, a new cause beckoned. Their “brothers” in the NBA had decided not to play, in protest of another shooting of another Black man by police.

Jacob Blake, 29, was shot seven times by police on Sunday in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Blake was shot as he attempted to enter the driver’s side door of his vehicle with three of his children inside. Video of the shooting was distributed on social media.

Williams and the Dream were one of six WNBA teams scheduled to play on Wednesday. But it didn’t feel right. And so they collected their thoughts, and asked Williams to deliver the message.

With players from the Washington Mystics on the court behind her, wearing shirts that spelled his name on the front and were designed with seven bullet holes on the back — the number of times and the location where Kenosha police shot Blake — Williams stepped to the microphone.

“These moments are why it’s important for our fans to stay focused, hear our voices, know our hearts and connect the dots from what we say to what we do,” Williams said.

She spoke of the urgent need to take action: to vote, to take part in the 2020 census, to engage.

“We will continue to use our platform to speak of these injustices that are still happening and demand action for change,” she said. “Black lives matter. Say her name. Say his name.”

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