How women’s basketball was dragged into Georgia’s Senate race

Sue Bird is no stranger to political speech. The four-time Women’s National Basketball Association champion once wrote an impassioned defence of her then-girlfriend, now-fiancée, footballer Megan Rapinoe, after she was attacked by Donald Trump.

But she never envisioned she would be a defining voice in a US Senate race, least of all one far from her native New York or Washington State, where she plays for the Seattle Storm.

“Who were we to get involved?” Ms Bird told the Financial Times this month, reflecting on the circumstances that led her and her teammates to endorse Raphael Warnock in the Georgia special election.

The race is now headed to a critical run-off on January 5 that could decide whether Democrats or Republicans control the US Senate, which in turn will determine the degree to which Joe Biden, the president-elect, can implement his legislative agenda.

In a year when athlete activism has soared around the world, players in the WNBA stood apart for becoming unlikely kingmakers in the Georgia race.

They shocked fans in August when they took to the court wearing “Vote Warnock” T-shirts in support of the Democrat challenging Kelly Loeffler, the incumbent Republican who is also the co-owner of a WNBA team, the Atlanta Dream.

Four months later, many of the players are still actively supporting Mr Warnock on social media and at virtual campaign events, as he and Ms Loeffler duel it out ahead of next month’s election.

Ms Bird said players did not initially intend to make an endorsement in the race, which began as a “jungle” primary with more than a dozen candidates challenging Ms Loeffler for her seat. But they decided to intervene after Ms Loeffler publicly opposed the league’s commitment to the Black Lives Matter movement.

Ms Loeffler “was telling us to keep politics out of sports. And here she was, pulling us into it,” Ms Bird said. “That’s clearly a strategy. So then it was just like, ‘OK, how can we be strategic with this?’”

Political analysts and campaign staffers say the players’ activism helped Mr Warnock build his name recognition at a time when Democrats were split over who to back in the primary field.

Andra Gillespie, a political-science professor at Emory University in Atlanta, said the demonstration “certainly got Warnock earned media, positive earned media, and it got Kelly Loeffler some very negative earned media”.

“That has a value in and of itself,” Ms Gillespie added.

Polls compiled by FiveThirtyEight indicated the effort coincided with a rise in public support for Mr Warnock. In the days that followed, the pastor overtook his Democratic rival Matt Lieberman.

According to the Warnock team, the campaign raised nearly $300,000 in the 72 hours after the WNBA players wore their T-shirts and added more than 3,500 new grassroots donors in the three-day period.

Terrence Clark, the Warnock campaign’s communications director, called it “one of our campaign’s first big moments.”

The T-shirt activism was the outcome of an acute feud between the players and Ms Loeffler, a former Wall Street executive who has surprised former associates in both sports and finance by taking a far-right tack since being appointed to the Senate seat.

“I adamantly oppose the Black Lives Matter political movement”, Ms Loeffler wrote in a July letter to the WNBA commissioner, a day after the league announced it would paint the words “Black Lives Matter” on court during the season. 

Ms Loeffler lamented that as an owner she was not consulted in the decision to support the movement, which “I believe is totally misaligned with the values and goals of the WNBA and the Atlanta Dream, where we support tolerance and inclusion.” 

Layshia Clarendon, a player on the New York Liberty who was previously on the Dream roster, wrote in a tweet in July: “I can’t believe I ever stepped foot in Kelly’s house and shared a meal with her. It’s actually really hurtful to see her true colours”.

Upon reading and rereading Ms Loeffler’s letter, Ms Bird said she came to view Ms Loeffler’s rhetoric not as “an owner being racist” but rather an attempt to win over Trump voters.

“In some ways, is she just trying to prove to her base just how . . . Trump-y she is?” Ms Bird asked. “Is she just trying to prove to people, ‘oh look at me, I own this team but I’m not going to let them speak on social justice matters, they should stick to sports’.”

Ms Bird said “the stars aligned” for the basketball stars to endorse Mr Warnock after they realised two politically connected women in their orbit, former league president Lisa Borders and union adviser Stacey Abrams, were involved with Mr Warnock’s campaign. 

Ms Borders and Ms Abrams were instrumental in co-ordinating Zoom calls between the WNBA players and Mr Warnock’s team, Ms Bird said, allowing the players to solidify their decision to formally endorse the Democrat. 

In response to the players’ T-shirts, Ms Loeffler said in a statement in August: “This is just more proof that the out-of-control cancel culture wants to shut out anyone who disagrees with them. It’s clear that the league is more concerned with playing politics than basketball.”

The Loeffler campaign declined to comment this month.

In a statement, league commissioner Cathy Engelbert said “WNBA players have a long history of activism . . . and the league continues to support the players as they use their platforms to talk about issues important to them.”

Terri Jackson, the executive director of the WNBA’s player association, said: “We are non-partisan, but we’re not blind”.

Now, with just over two weeks until the election, Ms Bird said she has a newfound appreciation for the political influence she wields with her teammates.

“We did this all on our own,” she said. “We just got as strategic as possible on how we could basically defend ourselves, but also promote and endorse this amazing candidate. And [now], oh my God, we could win and flip a seat blue? That’s even better than anything we could have done, as a league, in terms of basketball.”

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