Back in July, Raphael Warnock was polling fourth in a crowded pool of candidates vying for the Georgia Senate seat held by incumbent Kelly Loeffler.
Six months later, he’s the state’s first ever Black senator.
He’s also the candidate that WNBA players endorsed over Loeffler, a partial owner of the Atlanta Dream. Loeffler had been appointed senator to fill a vacancy late in 2019. Just a few months later in July 2020, the league was preparing to play a bubble season in Florida. While players discussed how they would use their national platform to respond to nationwide mobilization over racism and police brutality, Loeffler critiqued their participation in the Black Lives Matter movement.
She even wrote a letter to commissioner Cathy Engelbert critiquing the league for allowing players to wear shirts and jerseys with messages related to the movement. She also argued, paradoxically, that players should wear American flags on their jerseys to make the sport less “political.” Loeffler’s letter clearly stated a desire to prevent the league’s base of majority Black women players from using their national platform to voice their concerns, beliefs, and demands for change.
So the Dream and other players from around the league decided to invest their advocacy into Georgia’s Senate race, where they endorsed Raphael Warnock, Loeffler’s direct competitor. Starting in August, players from the Dream and other teams wore “Vote Warnock” t-shirts to games, where they would be seen on social media and national television alike.
Their efforts weren’t just as simple as wearing shirts, either: players also directed their efforts in the months leading up to November 2020 to promote voter registration and participation. Players from across the league were involved, including ones who sat out the season to focus their time on social justice, like Natasha Cloud.
The way that WNBA players organized in 2020 demonstrates the power of an organized collective of athletes with both the initiative and momentum to stand behind their principles. Many of these players have been involved in social justice movements for years (take Maya Moore, for example), and continue to do so in lasting ways beyond what gets media coverage.
And by November, their efforts had paid off. Warnock’s polling numbers steadily climbed throughout the summer and into the fall. He beat Loeffler and led the race by a narrow margin that would force January’s runoff election. Reporter Nader Issa’s timeline shows how his numbers rose after the WNBA endorsed him:
May 13: Warnock polls 4th, 9%
July 29: Warnock 4th, 9%
Aug 4: WNBA players wear “Vote Warnock” shirts
Aug. 10: Warnock 3rd, 14%
Sept. 10: Warnock 3rd, 19%
Oct. 2: Warnock 1st, 28%
Nov. 3: Warnock forces a runoff
Jan. 5: Warnock wins a Senate seat
— Nader Issa (@NaderDIssa) January 6, 2021
This isn’t to say that WNBA players were the sole reason that Warnock won. They’re not, and to say so would completely disregard Warnock himself, and the work of Stacey Abrams and countless other activists who have been working to the overturn structural barriers that have long suppressed Black voters in Georgia and across the country.
And these two influences had overlap, too, since Abrams has been involved with the WNBA for years, first as a fan and supporter who advocated for the league to create a team in Atlanta, and then as a member of the WNBPA’s Board of Advocates to advise members on how they could utilize their platform to its best potential.
Those years of collaboration helped make the WNBPA the effective tool that it is today. In a recent interview with Forbes, Abrams said that these athletes “are finally reaching a level where they can leverage their power and their position to live out their values and to push our society to confront how our values have to be represented.”
There are a lot of complex factors that make an election happen, and publicity is a huge factor. these players amplified both Warnock’s campaign and the importance of the race at large at a time when many candidates were struggling to stand out of the crowd. And they also brought national attention to Loeffler’s treatment of Black women and opposition to free speech, not to mention allegations of insider trading.
And early evidence shows that the WNBA’s advocacy did impact Warnock’s campaign. The Washington Post found that the publicity from the league early in August boosted donations to Warnock, which in turn changed the financial landscape of the race.
The voices of these athletes combined with the efforts of voting rights advocates like Abrams are what made this election a departure from the ones of years past. As these activists empower more people to vote, our elections get a shot at becoming more democratic.
So, what happens to Kelly Loeffler now? For one, she loses her Senate seat. Her future with the league is less clear. When players asked for her removal over the summer, the league responded in a press release that Loeffler does not serve on the Dream’s Board of Governors or participate in any day-to-day operations. But for now she remains listed as an official partial owner of the team, despite the clear divide in priorities and values between players and herself.
And who knows— now that more people are paying attention, the Dream might have some other ownership offers soon.
Warnock’s win inspires a clear message: don’t write off the power of the WNBA organizing for the causes its players care about. We might not ever know exactly how much these athletes impacted the outcome of the election, but we know that they did impact it. Opponents can continue to ignore the rising power of women in sports, but it won’t change the fact that WNBA players were some of the most influential athletes of 2020.