Kelly Loeffler is never going to win this one.
Oh, the Atlanta Dream’s co-owner might be able to hang onto her U.S. Senate seat if enough Georgians fall for the opportunistic race-baiting that’s behind her mischaracterization of the WNBA’s support for Black Lives Matter. But WNBA players have been at the forefront of the social justice movement for years, well before it became trendy, and they’re in this for the long haul.
They’re not going to be distracted by Loeffler’s pandering, and they’re sure not going to be silenced.
“The end game is still seeing effective social justice change,” Elizabeth Williams, who has played for the Dream since 2016 and is also an executive in the WNBA’s union, said Wednesday. “That’s something we’ve focused on since even before we got into the bubble, and it was a priority for all of us players. Something we’ve talked about is the importance of voting and its role in the democratic process.
“It just so happened that Reverend Warnock was running in this specific seat, and he also supports Black Lives Matter and all that we as players have been fighting for.”
The Rev. Raphael Warnock is, of course, one of Loeffler’s opponents for the Senate seat to which she was appointed late last year. WNBA players are wearing “Vote Warnock” T-shirts this week, and publicly throwing their support behind him.
It’s a masterful clapback to Loeffler’s criticism of the league’s social justice efforts, as clever as it is righteous.
“I’m not some political strategist, but what I do know is that voting is important,” Seattle star Sue Bird, who had the idea for the T-shirts, told ESPN on Tuesday. “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.”
WNBA players were incensed last month when Loeffler, trailing in the polls to an even stauncher conservative, hijacked the league’s plans for anti-racism messaging during its tournament at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida.
In a letter to Commissioner Cathy Engelbert, Loeffler decried “efforts to insert a political platform into the league” – only to then suggest adding an American flag to uniforms. She claimed the league was supporting the Black Lives Matter political organization, which Loeffler called “Marxist,” rather than the movement, which arose in response to the deaths of Black and brown people at the hands of law enforcement.
But after their initial reaction, which included a call for Loeffler’s removal by the players’ union, the players went silent. They’d recognized her scam for what it was – despite being a co-owner of the Dream since 2011, only now does Loeffler find the WNBA’s long-standing social consciousness objectionable — and didn’t want to play into it.
Sure enough, Loeffler has made the rounds of conservative media, painting herself as a victim of “cancel culture.” She went so far as to do an interview with Jack Posobiec, who has been affiliated with white supremacists and promoted conspiracy theories.
After players from the Dream, Mercury, Chicago Sky, Connecticut Sun, Dallas Wings and Seattle Storm — all six teams that played Tuesday — wore the T-shirts, Loeffler huffed that the league was “more concerned with playing politics than basketball.” What she thinks she’s doing, I’m not sure.
It would have been easy, and understandable, had WNBA players howled at Loeffler’s subversion of their efforts to fight systemic racism. But they’re not trying to win a verbal food fight.
Or a Senate seat.
They’re trying to do actual good, and end the racist policies that rig every aspect of our society against Black and brown people. Same as they’ve been doing since 2016.
A month before Colin Kaepernick began taking a knee, members of the Minnesota Lynx, New York Liberty and Phoenix Mercury were wearing Black Lives Matter T-shirts.
Maya Moore, a four-time WNBA champion and league MVP in 2014, has put her career on hold for two seasons now to focus on freeing a wrongly convicted man. Renee Montgomery, who plays for Loeffler’s Dream, is sitting out this season to focus on social justice efforts.
Stacey Abrams, the former minority leader in Georgia’s House of Representatives who is now a voting rights activist, is an original member of the WNBPA’s Board of Advocates. The players also have worked with Michelle Obama on her “When We All Vote” initiative.
This is not a fad or a cause celebre for WNBA players. It’s who they are.
“Our league is the majority of the minority. We’re around 80 percent black. We’re all women. We have a lot of LGBTQ members in our league,” Nneka Ogwumike, president of the WNBA Players Association, said on USA TODAY’s “Changing the Game” podcast.
“We have no choice,” Ogwumike said. “We naturally represent a lot of the under-represented portions of our communities.”
The WNBA players are acting out of principle while Loeffler is driven by personal gain. She’s always going to look small and foolish by comparison.
Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.