Explained: How a women’s basketball team helped Rev Warnock enter US Senate


That players of Georgia’s Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) team Atlanta Dream – named after Dr Martin Luther King Jr – campaigned for a Black Democrat in the Senate runoff races, isn’t surprising.

What made this summer of quiet, persistent protest fascinating was that the Rev Raphael Warnock, a Black pastor, was contesting against the co-owner of Atlanta Dream, the sitting Republican Senator Kelly Loeffler.

Rev. Warnock defeated Sen. Loeffler in the January 5 runoff, becoming the first Black Democratic Senator from the United States South.

As a pastor since 2005 at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Rev. Warnock preaches from the same pulpit from which Dr King spoke as co-pastor from 1960 until his assassination in 1968. The historic church is where the funerals of both Dr King and the iconic civil rights campaigner, Congressman John Lewis, were held.

Loeffler had asked the 67 per cent Black-majority WNBA to stay away from Black Lives Matter protests. Appalled by her anti-BLM stance, her team wore ‘Vote Warnock’ shirts at televised warm-ups through the summer, raising his profile. Atlanta Dream found raging support in other teams.

On Wednesday, Layshia Clarendon of the WNBA team New York Liberty tweeted: “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. Winning never felt so damn good.”

How did Loeffler wade into this self-created quicksand?

In July 2020, Loeffler wrote to WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert urging her to “remove politics from sports”, that is, drop their decision to dedicate the season to social justice. Denouncing women players for speaking out on the BLM and Say Her Name movements after the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, Loeffler was seeking to pander to pro-Trump Georgian Republicans who scoffed at the BLM protests, The Washington Post reported.
This happened when the delayed season was re-assembling, and BLM was front, right, and centre on the playing courts. Rev. Warnock was still largely unknown at the time.

How did Atlanta Dream players react?

Aghast that their owner would seek to stifle their voices, the team players consulted lawyers and players unions in August to decide on a strategy. Union president Nneka Ogwumike of the Los Angeles Sparks and Seattle Storm’s champion player Sue Bird suggested the team should check out Loeffler’s Senate competition in the November elections.
Stacey Abrams, the respected Democratic political organiser who had narrowly lost the race for Governor earlier, helped players across the league meet with Rev. Warnock over Zoom. Once assured, the league got behind the pastor.

What did the players actually do?

From August, the Dream donned Warnock’s name on their warm-up gear in televised games. For a whole week, other WNBA teams from New York, Seattle, Chicago, and Phoenix wore “Vote Warnock” shirts during warmups in televised games.
Engaging in mass voter education, sporting names of Black victims of police brutality, and Dream guard Renee Montgomery, sat out the 2020 WNBA season to focus on social justice initiatives. They sustained the movement right up to this week, urging voters to track online if their vote had been counted.

How did the league respond?

After Loeffler dubbed BLM “mob rule”, the league distanced itself from Loeffler, clarifying she wasn’t part of day-to-day operations of the team.
“The WNBA is based on the principle of equal and fair treatment of all people and we, along with the teams and players, will continue to use our platforms to vigorously advocate for social justice,” the league said.

Loeffler has also taken positions against abortion rights – while owning a women’s franchise. Her views invited calls for a sanction from WNBA superstars Bird, Natasha Cloud of the Washington Mystics, and Skylar Diggins-Smith of the Phoenix Mercury – even though Dream players never mentioned her by name or attacked her; they just supported Rev. Warnock.

The league kicked off the season with uniforms bearing names of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, a big leap from 2016 when black shirts were fined. WNBA had taken up the cudgels at least two years before the NBA woke up to BLM.

How did the players’ support help Warnock?

The league has 144 players who have fought for equal pay for years, and “developed this backbone”, Bird, a WNBA legend herself, said. Within 48 hours of the players coming out sporting Warnock shirts, his campaign raised more than $185,000 online, and added 3,000 grassroots donors, CBS reported. Warnock would eventually win with 92 per cent of the Black vote, and also give a leg-up to his fellow Senate runner, Georgian Democrat Jon Ossof, the son of Jewish immigrants, who defeated Sen. David Perdue in the second runoff.

What about the team ownership now?

While Loeffler has insisted that she has no plans to sell, NBA legend LeBron James has announced that he has put together a consortium willing to buy, should the opportunity arise.

Loeffler was accused last year of benefitting from stock trades worth millions just before the general public was informed of the severity of Covid-19. The Senator, who sat on crucial health committees, sold shares in industries that were expected to be affected adversely by the coming epidemic in late January, and bought in companies making protective gear and telecommuting.

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Her personal integrity is in shambles, and after the election defeat, it remains to be seen if she can hold on to the Dream.

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