Can WNBA Players Take Down a U.S. Senator?

Sen. Kelly Loeffler poured gas on her feud with WNBA players by filing a bill targeting trans woman and girl athletes. But running against the WNBA could backfire on the Atlanta Dream co-owner.
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On Sept. 22, Atlanta Dream co-owner and U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler (R-Ga.) fired the latest salvo in her months-long battle with WNBA players. She introduced a bill that would effectively ban trans girls and women from playing publicly funded sports, potentially affecting thousands of youth, high school and collegiate athletes nationwide. Previously, Loeffler had clashed with WNBA players over their support for Black Lives Matter and Say Her Name, a campaign spotlighting Black women killed by police.

But with the Protection of Women and Girls in Sports Act, Loeffler could not have picked an issue closer to the hearts of WNBA players, many of whom are LGBTQ. During their just-completed season, set in the Bradenton, Fla., “Wubble” due to the coronavirus pandemic, players constantly reminded the media and fans that all Black lives matter—including those of Black trans people. For example, New York Liberty players and staff wore “Black trans lives matter” shirts throughout the season, and before the first game, slain Black trans woman Rem’mie Fells’s name was among those read as part of the league’s Say Her Name efforts.

Loeffler’s bill, says Washington Mystics star guard Natasha Cloud, goes “against everything that is human rights and civil rights, and it’s disgusting.”

“She’s basically saying that she’s against women’s sports and women can’t play sports,” adds Las Vegas Aces small forward Angel McCoughtry, a longtime Dream player.

Stars like Nneka Ogwumike, Natasha Cloud and Sue Bird have rallied their league against Loeffler.

Stars like Nneka Ogwumike, Natasha Cloud and Sue Bird have rallied their league against Loeffler.

Across the country, 17 state legislatures and the U.S. House have introduced similar bills that that would restrict trans women and girls from competing in sports aligned with their gender identity as opposed to their biological sex. Only one, in Idaho, has passed so far (and in August a judge granted a preliminary injunction against its enforcement), but together advocates say they represent the next wave of anti-trans discrimination, following on the heels of last decade’s so-called “bathroom bills,” in which legislators sought to prevent trans people from using bathrooms and locker rooms that aligned with their gender identity.

In truth, Loeffler’s bill has virtually no chance of passing Congress; it’s unlikely to see the light of day in the Senate before the current term’s end and would almost certainly not pass the Democratic House. The bill does, however, escalate her war against WNBA players, in an apparent bid to burnish her conservative credentials as she attempts to hold onto her Senate seat. It also positions an extremely vulnerable population as a political chess piece—a decision that dismayed WNBA players who spoke to Sports Illustrated. (Neither the WNBA nor the Dream returned requests for comment.)

Loeffler, who was appointed to her seat earlier this year by Georgia’s governor, is fighting fellow Republican Doug Collins and a host of others to be among the top two candidates to emerge from a Nov. 3 special election ahead of a January runoff. Her strategy of turning professional athletes into foils comes from a well-established political playbook: Led by President Donald Trump, conservative candidates in recent years have frequently railed against the likes of Colin Kaepernick, LeBron James and Megan Rapinoe.

But the fight between Loeffler and the WNBA players is unfolding entirely differently than previous conflicts between politicians and athletes. The main reason: An entire league of players has never been so united against a political candidate, nor so sophisticated in their approach.

“I don’t recall a league unifying in the same way that the players appear to be [in opposing Loeffler],” apart from labor rights movements, says Mary McDonald, a sports and society professor at Georgia Tech.

“That is fairly unprecedented to have this level of strategic collective action,” says Amira Rose Davis, a Penn State assistant professor who specializes in history, race and sports. “Certainly you had times where individual athletes or what seems like a considerable amount of athletes from a certain team or a certain league being in political alliance, but I think what we’re seeing with the WNBA and Kelly Loeffler is very different because it has been very coordinated and it’s been strategic.”

Players have been pushing since July for Loeffler, who owns a 49% stake in the Dream, to be removed from the ranks of league ownership. “She’s got to go,” says Cloud, who took the 2020 season off to focus on social justice efforts. “It’s very plain and simple.”

If Cloud and her peers have their way, they may well drive Loeffler from public office, too.

***

The New York Liberty wore "Black trans lives matter" shirts throughout the season.

The New York Liberty wore "Black trans lives matter" shirts throughout the season.

The 2020 WNBA season began in late July, following more than a month of protests in the aftermath of the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the earlier fatal police shooting of Breonna Taylor in Louisville. As the league prepared for its Wubbled start, Loeffler wrote a letter to commissioner Cathy Engelbert objecting to the WNBA’s plans to embrace and promote the Black Lives Matter movement. The letter read in part, “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.” She also called for U.S. flags on jerseys.

“What better way to rile up your base than to show you’re against a league full of Black women who are standing here saying, ‘Say Her Name’ and ‘Black Lives Matter,’ while simultaneously being able to say, ‘Oh, but look, I’m helping women and women’s sports by owning a team’?” says legendary Seattle Storm point guard and WNBPA vice president Sue Bird.

The WNBPA called for Loeffler’s removal from the league in a tweet: “E-N-O-U-G-H! O-U-T!” The league’s statement didn’t go as far, but distanced the WNBA from Loeffler, noting that she hasn’t served on the board of governors since October 2019. “The WNBA is based on the principle of equal and fair treatment of all people and we, along with the teams and players, will continue to use our platforms to vigorously advocate for social justice,” it read.

Days after the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported on Loeffler’s letter to Engelbert, the Dream players, led by center–power forward Elizabeth Williams, shared a signed statement from the franchise account: “Our team is unified in the Movement for Black Lives,” it read. “It is not extreme to demand change after centuries of inequality.” The message did not mention Loeffler by name.

The players didn’t stop there. Realizing that Loeffler was using their attacks to play victim, they made a strategic shift: Instead of simply aiming to take the senator down, they would try to lift one of her opponents up. Led by Bird, they vetted the 21 candidates running in the special election and decided to throw their weight behind one.

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On Aug. 4 and 5, players from all 12 teams wore black T-shirts reading VOTE WARNOCK to their games, in support of one of the Democratic candidates facing Loeffler, Rev. Raphael Warnock, a Black man who supports criminal justice reform and LGBTQ issues. At the time, Warnock had a relatively low profile: In the most recent poll before the players’ endorsement, he had come in fourth place overall and second among Democrats, with just 9% of the vote. Suddenly, though, his name was national news.

The level of organization necessary to bring together 144 players in support of a political candidate may not have been possible outside the pressure-packed Wubble. “There was a convenience level that I really think helped us unify before we decided to make a move,” says Blake Dietrick, an Atlanta Dream point guard. “We could just see Sue on the road and be like, ‘Hey, we need some advice on this.’ It was actually Elizabeth [Williams] on Zoom with her or Elizabeth calling Nneka [Ogwumike, the WNBPA president] at any hour.”

Today, outside the Wubble, players are scattered again, and only some want to speak out publicly against Loeffler; others are wary of giving her more airspace.

“For a while, when everything was going on with our league and her not supporting Black Lives Matter, we can push her off to the side because she’s irrelevant,” Cloud says. “But when it comes to protecting trans women in sports, it’s our job to stand up. It’s our job to use our voice to make sure that this bill doesn’t pass.”

***

While leading the Seattle Storm to a championship inside the Wubble, Bird organized her league against Loeffler.

While leading the Seattle Storm to a championship inside the Wubble, Bird organized her league against Loeffler.

Politics and sports are, of course, inseparable.

“Sport has always been political,” McDonald says, “because it’s always been about exclusion: the exclusion of women because of presumed frailty, exclusion of people who don’t identify within the gender binary because it’s built upon the gender binary, and obviously exclusion of people of color ... organized around the Black-white binary in segregated America.”

Adds the Dream’s Dietrick: “[Loeffler] wants to say that we should leave politics out of sports, but when she’s creating a bill that is controlling who can or cannot play women’s sports, she is emphatically putting politics in athletics.”

WNBA players were particularly well equipped to respond to Loeffler for several reasons. First, the league is far more compact and unified than the NFL or NBA. Plus, Davis points out that WNBA players have such a long track record of activism because they’ve all been agitating their whole careers just to get chances to play. As a result of their experiences fighting, they don’t have the same fear about the repercussions of protest.

“Women of color and Black women, especially, have often led the charge in social justice movements and rarely get the credit,” adds Anne Lieberman, director of policy and programs at Athlete Ally, a nonprofit dedicated to promoting LGBTQ inclusivity in sports. “They understand their collective power.”

Sponsoring the trans bill, whether or not it was meant as a direct shot at the WNBA, is arguably a strange choice while the nation is facing so many pressing issues—most notably a pandemic that’s killed more than 7,500 Georgians and 225,000 people nationwide. Loeffler is likely courting her base, even if it’s at the expense of her potential runoff odds against Warnock, says Audrey A. Haynes, an associate professor of political science at the University of Georgia. Loeffler has also been chummy with a “QAnon candidate” running for U.S. House. “Some of that’s going to rub off on you, and it may not come off in the wash when you need to pivot to a general election campaign.”

As an owner in the league, Loeffler’s pivot to attacking WNBA players and their interests could also create some cognitive dissonance for voters. “A lot of people didn’t understand why Loeffler would criticize a group that had been something that she had kind of championed,” Haynes says. “That was a part of her brand, too. And suddenly it’s not.”

As for those players? Their actions seem to have made a difference: On Aug. 4 alone, the first day WNBA players wore shirts supporting Warnock, his campaign raised over $185,000. Loeffler attributed the move to “cancel culture” in a press release. Since then, Warnock has steadily risen in the polls, gaining publicity from not only the W but Loeffler herself, who turned her focus to him. Now, Warnock leads Loeffler and the rest of the field in many polls, topping 30% recently.

The WNBA players who spoke to SI said they were particularly galled by Loeffler’s choice to use trans people as a pawn for political gain. LGBTQ advocates fear that the enforcement of Loeffler’s bill would require kids and adults, both transgender and cisgender, to undergo invasive genital exams, though Loeffler’s team denied that in an email to SI, saying officials would check birth certificates instead. (Most states allow trans people to change their birth certificates.)

In a statement, Loeffler said that the “level playing field is being tilted by schools that allow males to compete in girls sports. Males, regardless of how they self-identify, have physical differences such as larger bodies, more muscle mass, and larger lung capacities that give them advantages over females. That’s a basic biological fact." She said that she introduced the bill "to ensure that females compete against other females—not biological males."

It is widely considered offensive to refer to trans women as "males" or "biological males."

The science remains unsettled on whether trans woman and girl athletes retain any physical competitive advantage over cis peers: More research is needed. But we do know that trans youth experience higher levels of suicidal ideation and actions than their cisgender counterparts, and discrimination in arenas like sports certainly doesn’t help.

“I have shared meals with Kelly, stepped foot in her home,” wrote Layshia Clarendon, the WNBPA’s first vice president and the league’s only out gender-nonconforming player, in The Undefeated. “I have introduced her to my wife and played my heart out for the team she owns with her cheering on the sidelines. I stood with pride as I watched her honor Stacey Abrams at center court, donate ticket sales to Planned Parenthood and roll out a Pride campaign that made me feel seen. While her comments surrounding BLM aren’t new, it has been shocking and hurtful to see her turn this league into a moment for her own political gain.”

For Cloud’s part, she wants future generations of athletes to get the same experiences she did—regardless of their gender identity.

“Sports have given me so much in my life,” says Cloud. “It’s given me so many opportunities, so many cool relationships and friendships. And for me to try to steal that from a child, steal those experiences, steal those life lessons that we’ve learned through playing sports, that’s just really hard for me to even swallow.”

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