WNBA Players Defy Team Owner

Photo credit: Sue Bird/Twitter. Players from across the WNBA wore shirts in support of Georgia Democratic Senate candidate Raphael Warnock, who is running against Atlanta Dream co-owner Kelly Loeffler.

Georgia Republican Senator Kelly Loeffler apparently forgot in which league she co-owns a team. And, apparently, she also forgot how informed, opinionated and outspoken players are on that team and in that league. Her memory lapse is coming back to bite her in the ass. Besides being the Peach State's junior senator, a position to which she was appointed last year by governor and Donald Trump sycophant Brian Kemp, Loeffler co-owns the WNBA’s Atlanta Dream. The WNBA is a league full of college-educated high performers, 74 percent of whom are Black, according to the league. Per OutSports, a third of the league, including some of its highest-profile stars like reigning MVP Elena Delle Donne and Olympic gold medalists Sue Bird, Seimone Augustus, Brittney Griner and Diana Taurasi, are out lesbians. These players, brimming with social awareness, have a platform and aren’t shy about using it. After Loeffler criticized the WNBA last month for supporting Black Lives Matter, players across the league responded this week by sporting warm-up T-shirts emblazoned with “Vote Warnock” on the front, a nod to Reverend Raphael Warnock, Loeffler’s leading Democratic opponent. Bird, who has starred in the league since 2002 and is one half of a romantic power-couple with social-justice champion Megan Rapinoe, reportedly came up with the idea. It was a blatant act of defiance, a middle finger to a tone-deaf owner who had the temerity to criticize athletes for mixing sports and politics in a move meant to curry favor with her political base. Rarely in the history of team sports has an owner been so publicly dissed by players. But almost from its inception, the WNBA’s raison d’etre has been about more than just hoops. From serving as role models for and empowering young female athletes, to helping normalize lesbians as a rightful part of the mainstream, WNBA players have always been vocal about an array of social issues. Over the years, they have fought for rights unique to female athletes, such as increased maternity leave and employer-assisted payment for egg-freezing to allow them to have children after their playing careers have ended. Witness Maya Moore, one of the sport's most accomplished players, male or female, who put her WNBA career on hold the past two seasons to successfully lobby for the release of Missouri inmate Jonathan Irons, a man who had served more than two decades of a 50-year prison sentence for a crime he did not commit. So, naturally, when what seemed like the entire sports world was speaking out about race and supporting Black Lives Matter, WNBA players were at the forefront, calling for more, not just from politicians but their league and society as a whole. None of this should have surprised

Loeffler, if she was paying attention.

Odds are, she was paying attention. And you can bet that Loeffler’s speaking out against her own players was a calculated move. What she didn’t calculate was the players’ resounding response.

Loeffler is in a unique spot as she seeks to keep her seat in a special election. Georgia law requires appointed senators to run to finish their term in a non-partisan blanket primary where candidates, regardless of party, face-off against each other. If no candidate gets more than 50 percent, the top two finishers advance to a run-off election.

As a result, Loeffler is facing a challenge from her right flank in uber-conservative Congressman Doug Collins and from several on the left, led by Warnock, a civil-rights activist and senior pastor at Ebenezer Baptist, the church once led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Polls show a tight race and it’s unclear which candidate Georgia voters will choose. It is, however, not unclear which candidate WNBA players are supporting.

Loeffler’s criticism is part of a trend, usually by conservatives, of telling athletes to pipe down and just play ball. But, apparently, it’s OK for those in the sports world to have political opinions if those opinions are right-leaning. No one in Trump World or Fox News criticizes Loeffler. No conservative bloggers say former Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville shouldn’t run for Senate in neighboring Alabama. No one tells NFL owners like Dan Snyder of the Whatever Washington Is Calling Itself These Days or Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross or New York Jets owner Woody Johnson (seriously, that’s his name!) not to donate big money to GOP candidates. And no one on the right told ultra-religious and proudly pro-life-quarterback-turned minor league baseball strikeout machine Tim Tebow to keep his opinions to himself.

I don’t expect conservatives to criticize people with like-minded opinions. Nor should conservative athletes, coaches or owners be discouraged or criticized for expressing opinions on political or social-justice matters. But the double-standard of lauding Tebow for kneeling in prayer while squawking to the high-heavens when Colin Kaepernick kneels to protest police brutality is hypocrisy of the highest order.

That the Atlanta Dream and the WNBA players were willing to fight back defiantly against an owner whose values seem to run so counter to the league’s is not surprising, but it is refreshing. It’s also something some male athletes could learn a thing or two from.

Compare the Warnock T-shirts with NFL players, who always genuflectively refer to their team owners as “Mr. Kraft” or “Mr. Snyder.” They never criticize owners for supporting a president who calls them “sons of bitches,” or right-leaning politicians who undercut their union. They rarely, if ever, speak out when owners fail to hire Black coaches and executives that better reflect the league’s player pool.

Perhaps because merely being a female athlete often meant making a social statement, and because they stand on the shoulders of female-athlete pioneers who had to fight tooth-and-nail for acceptance, the WNBA and its players are cut from a different, louder and more defiant cloth -- one with a conscience.

Kelly Loeffler should have remembered that.