Could the WNBA's activism help flip a Georgia senate seat blue?

Election 2020
Election 2020

The prevailing comment on WNBA content for a quarter of a century has been “who cares?”

The 2020 election is another example of that put-them-in-their-place remark ringing untrue. Because the WNBA players’ activism could be what lands Georgia a Democratic Senator for the first time since 2004.

When WNBA players collectively threw their support behind Rev. Raphael Warnock for Georgia’s special election in August, he was polling at 9 percent. Now, the first-time Democratic candidate has earned a spot in a January runoff against the candidate who dragged the WNBA into the race to begin. That result could determine the majority party as it’s one of five races yet uncalled as of Wednesday afternoon.

It was Sen. Kelly Loeffler, the co-owner of the Atlanta Dream, who used her team — players she has called role models active in their community — as a political pawn. In July, before the WNBA’s season tipped off at IMG Academy in Florida, Loeffler sent an open letter to commissioner Cathy Engelbert bemoaning the league’s support of Black Lives Matter and the “Say Her Name” campaign. That she was using her position in the sports world to ratchet up support for her politics was not lost on those following.

Players initially called for her ouster on social media platforms. The league office distanced itself, announcing that Loeffler hadn’t served as governor of the team since December 2019. Weeks later, the season already underway and none of Loeffler’s rhetoric disappearing, players found the winning game plan.

Loeffler was appointed late last year by Gov. Brian Kemp to fill the remaining two years of Johnny Isakson’s term. That meant she was up for reelection with a total of 21 candidates in the free-for-all race. WNBA players decided that instead of making it a fight, they wouldn’t give her the time of day at all.

They interviewed her opponents and found that Warnock, a Black preacher at Martin Luther King Jr.’s Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, lined up with their own views well. The 51-year-old first-time candidate is running on a platform aimed to expand access to health care, protect voting rights, fight for workers’ rights and address criminal justice reform.

That’s when players, led by four-time Seattle Storm champion Sue Bird, showed up at games in “VOTE WARNOCK” T-shirts. It was an eye-opener for everyone not following the crowded race. Within 48 hours, Warnock’s campaign raised more than $183,000 in online donations and picked up 3,500 new donors. That’s critical since Loeffler and her husband, Jeff Sprecher, head of the International Exchange and New York Stock Exchange, are helping fund her campaign to the tune of $30 million so far. Warnock raised $12.9 million from July through September, triple that of the previous quarter.

Sue Bird in a "Vote Warnock" T-shirts with her Seattle Storm team.
The WNBA put their voices behind Raphael Warnock. (Julio Aguilar/Getty Images)

The WNBA players’ activism didn’t stop at T-shirts and one night of explanation. In a season focused on “Say Her Name,” they nixed Loeffler’s from the roll call. It was a brilliant offensive play executed at the start by Bird, who explained the shirts on ESPN’s broadcast by saying “in regards to the owner of Atlanta.” She hasn’t spoken the name since.

When Yahoo Sports spoke with rookie Satou Sabally of the Dallas Wings, the youngest team in the league, she was the one to reference Warnock and Loeffler while speaking about the social justice council’s work.

But never once did she use the sitting senator’s name.

“Being able to use our platforms to support someone like him is just an amazing thing,” Sabally said in late August. “Without mentioning his opponent, who had really critical words to say about the Black Lives Matter movement, she basically turned a whole world against her with us and our power to influence. And with our power to speak up and support Warnock and his fight for the Senate.”

Warnock won more than 1.5 million votes, besting Loeffler (approximately 1.2 million) and four-term Republican congressman Doug Collins (950,000). The race has been called, but there are still an estimated 6 percent of ballots not counted. Since no one won at least 50 percent, Warnock and Loeffler will go to a runoff. It is an uphill climb for Warnock as Republicans have won every statewide runoff in Georgia history, dating back to a narrow win in 1992. But it’s not insurmountable.

It’s unfair to say the WNBA’s activism did this alone. The COVID-19 pandemic shined a life-or-death light on health care issues, and rural communities in Georgia were hit hard. The Black Lives Matter movement has kept social justice issues, a value of Warnock’s and constituents, in the limelight. And efforts like Stacey Abrams’ voting initiatives have pushed back on voter suppression in a state with a lengthy history of it.

But give the WNBA players their rightful, caring due. Warnock was arguably “that pastor from MLK’s church” before they promoted his campaign in every way they could, from national broadcasts to millions of Instagram followers. That meant more money. More eyes. More votes. And conversely, it meant less attention on the sitting senator.

If no one cared about the WNBA, if no one watched, none of that would have happened.

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