The American political landscape has shifted dramatically since the new year. Democrats now have control of the presidency and both chambers of Congress, thanks in large part to President Biden’s victory in Georgia and the runoff victories of Jon Ossoff and Reverend Raphael Warnock in January. In the intervening weeks since Warnock’s and Ossoff’s wins, many observers have tried to trace how Georgia flipped blue. Numerous factors led Reverend Raphael Warnock to victory over Kelly Loeffler in the Georgia Senate race. But way back in the summer, long before the race became the focal point of national politics, a concerted push for Warnock’s candidacy came from an unexpected place: the players of the Atlanta Dream, the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) team that Loeffler co-owns.
The Dream, which includes former Princeton basketball player Blake Dietrick ’15, advocated against Loeffler and later in favor of Warnock throughout the season. Other WNBA teams joined the Dream in promoting Warnock’s candidacy, making national headlines. Their actions demonstrate the unique power that athletes have to create tangible change and the necessity of allowing players the opportunity to voice their values.
The Dream’s advocacy started in late June after Loeffler wrote a letter to the WNBA commissioner objecting to the league’s plan for players to wear t-shirts with Black Lives Matter and the names of women killed by police. Loeffler argued that “the truth is, we need less — not more politics in sports. In a time when polarizing politics is as divisive as ever, sports has the power to be a unifying antidote… now more than ever, we should be united in our goal to remove politics from sports.” The letter also came after Loeffler had described protests against the killing of Rayshard Brooks by Atlanta police as “mob rule.”
Loeffler’s statements were new, but the sentiment behind them was not. Athletes have long been told to stick to sports, and conservatives have long objected to Black athletes advocating for social justice issues. Laura Ingraham famously told LeBron James to “shut up and dribble.” Loeffler’s message to players was essentially the same.
In response to Loeffler’s comments, the WNBA and many players reiterated their commitment to social justice and using the league’s platform to voice their views. Players on other teams as well as the WNBA Players Association called for Loeffler to step down as team owner while Dream players released their own statement, reversing Loeffler’s invocation of unity to say the team was “united in the Movement for Black Lives,” and declaring that it “is not extreme to demand change after centuries of inequality.” Moreover, they asserted that their protest “is not a political statement,” as Loeffler portrayed it, but “a statement of humanity.”
The WNBA is a majority-Black league and its players have a history of protesting police brutality and have pushed the league to engage as well. In 2016, the league fined players for wearing t-shirts protesting police violence before later rescinding the penalty. But never have WNBA players taken a stand against a team owner. Loeffler’s comments changed that, and the Dream’s opposition only escalated over the course of the season.
In August, players on the Dream and around the league shifted from just opposing Loeffler to endorsing Reverend Warnock, one of many of the people running against Loeffler at the time. Players started wearing “Vote Warnock” shirts before games, using their press interviews and social media to advocate for Reverend Warnock. The Washington Post found that WNBA players’ actions influenced the outcome of the Georgia race by raising Warnock’s national profile and driving donations to his campaign. Warnock called their demonstrations a “turning point” for his campaign.
Thus, amidst a summer of protest across sports, WNBA players used their unique platforms to create concrete change, defeating not just someone who stood against their values but someone with direct power over them. In doing so, these athletes demonstrated the power that they have and the strength they hold as a collective.
Loeffler argued that WNBA players should keep politics separate from sports. The implication of this argument is that athletes should leave their humanity at the door; once they enter the stadium, they should only think and talk about basketball. This of course ignores the fact that they are not basketball-playing machines but human beings, mostly Black women, who play basketball as a job.
It also elides the fact that when they take off their uniforms and leave the arena, many athletes face the very forces of racism and police brutality that they protest. Sterling Brown, a player for the Milwaukee Bucks, was tased by police in 2018 for example. In a story I heard growing up, Boston Celtics player Dee Brown was surrounded by police with guns drawn in 1990 when they claimed to mistake him for a bank robbery suspect in Wellesley, Mass., my and Dietrick’s hometown. Athletes can escape societal forces no more than any other Black person; athletes are already wrapped up in politics, whether people like Loeffler acknowledge it or not.
Moreover, if Loeffler views Black protests as political and wants politics separate from sports, she should also object to her team’s name, which evokes Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech.
In this country, we don’t often pay attention to protests or listen to the words of Black people decrying a system that targets and brutalizes them. Loeffler herself dismissed protesters as members of a mob threatening people’s safety. So why should athletes, who attract the nation’s eyes and ears daily, give up their chance to speak? Loeffler showed she won’t listen to regular people, so why would Dream players, who already have her ear, stay silent? By leveraging their platforms, players across the WNBA forced the nation to hear their message. Moreover, they used that attention for tangible change, helping to oust Loeffler from political power. Now, it looks like Loeffler will sell her stake in the Dream.
The Princeton community can draw two takeaways from WNBA players’ activism. Dietrick exemplifies the first, as it seems that — while gaining experience on the court — she also absorbed another lesson from her time at Princeton: the importance of using one’s privilege in the service of others. Throughout the season, Dietrick joined her WNBA teammates in centering the Black Lives Matter and Say Her Name movements, as well as endorsing Warnock.
Second, the players’ advocacy shows how athletes can channel people’s attention into a productive cause and help to reshape the political scene. WNBA players’ actions proved why athlete activism is so crucial and that it is possible to speak and dribble at the same time.
Julia Chaffers is a junior History concentrator from Wellesley, Massachusetts. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.