When Raphael Warnock was sworn in as Georgia’s new senator on 20 Jan., helping to hand the Democratic party the keys to the Senate, it was apparent that he was there because of Black women. Stacey Abrams and other grassroots organizers in Georgia had spent the last few years, and especially the last few months, registering and mobilizing millions of voters in their state, working to disprove the notion that Georgia, or any other Southern state, couldn’t be blue. These organizers celebrated all over Twitter and rightfully so. Yet, there is one group of women that were largely left out from these celebrations—those responsible for originally launching Warnock into the purview of the national eye.
Warnock was polling at just nine percent when players across the WNBA decided to wear “Vote Warnock” t-shirts in August of last year, setting his campaign alight and catapulting his Senate race to the forefront of minds across the country. Why was the WNBA throwing their support around this one candidate in this one state?
The answer is simple: Kelly Loeffler, former U.S. senator and former co-owner of the Atlanta Dream. Loeffler bought the team along with Mary Brock in 2010, and in subsequent years could often be seen courtside mingling with Dream staff. After she was appointed to retiring Senator Johnny Isakson’s spot in late 2019, Loeffler established herself as a hardcore Trump loyalist, but it wasn’t until she publicly condemned the WNBA’s support for the Black Lives Matter movement in an open letter to commissioner Cathy Engelbert that the calls for her head, and her seat, came to fruition. When her comments criticized the peaceful BLM movement for violence and echoed the popular “stick to sports” rhetoric, there was an immediate outcry from players across the league, which is one of, if not the most, politically active in all of sports. When their first demand to oust Loeffler from her ownership was denied by the league, the players turned to Loeffler’s senate race. After some deliberation and talk over Zoom, Seattle Storm star Sue Bird came up with the idea of the Warnock t-shirt and it played out from there.
After Warnock successfully beat Loeffler in January’s special Georgia run-off, the WNBA returned to their original objective: ousting Loeffler from the league. And that is where Renee Montgomery comes in. A former Dream player herself, the two-time WNBA champion and UConn all-star had decided to initially sit out the 2020 season due to concerns about COVID-19 and to dedicate herself to social justice activism. When Loeffler’s comments about BLM surfaced, Montgomery sought to meet with Loeffler to discuss her concerns––but Loeffler refused the conversation. Later, when Lebron James announced on Twitter that he would be interested in forming a group to buy the Dream from Loeffler, Montgomery immediately reached out to see what steps she would need to take to get involved. That inquiry led to her joining a triple-pronged investment team with Larry Gottesdiener and Suzanne Abair, two executives from the Massachusetts-based real estate firm Northland Investment Corp. The trio purchased the Dream in late February 2021.
It’s a Hollywood-worthy tale: after being denied a meeting, former player ousts racist owner by buying the team herself. It is certainly a wish come true for the Dream’s new Vice President Montgomery, who is the first retired WNBA player to become both an owner and an executive. The idea of a Black woman owner and sports executive receives little representation, but this is a promising step. Montgomery’s investment comes after a period of many high-profile women investing in National Women’s Soccer League teams, including the new expansion team Angel City, which has a majority female ownership group whose members include Natalie Portman, Serena Williams and Mia Hamm. The visibility of these women in positions of power demonstrates an encouraging move towards legitimizing women in sports, a world in which they have consistently been harassed, demeaned and taken for granted. Women’s leagues are never marketed, televised or supported at the same level as their male counterparts, even when they bear the brunt of off-field community work. The WNBA brought attention to police brutality and the BLM movement even before Colin Kaepernick, and the U.S. Women’s National Team as well as the National Women’s Hockey League have both consistently spoken out about equal pay opportunities.
It was a great day for the WNBA when Kelly Loeffler was officially no longer a part of its league, and it was even better that she was ousted by a former player. More than just expelling a villain, the WNBA demonstrated the power they have over their league, a place where hate, bigotry and disrespect will face retaliation. It is clear from the example of Loeffler that if you violate any of the league’s standards, they will come for your head, your seat and your stake.