Renee Montgomery did not expect to get much attention when she announced she would be opting out of the 2019–20 WNBA season. The Atlanta Dream point guard did not even think to schedule a press conference, electing to tweet her decision on June 18 and await the reaction.
But her team immediately reached out—a tweet was not going to be enough. The communications department was being bombarded by media requests from all over the country. Her announcement garnered a much bigger response than she had anticipated.
“That to me was when I was like, wow, so people really are ready to hear about this,” Montgomery says.
The two-time WNBA champion decided to forgo her 12th season to pursue a larger role in social justice reform. While Montgomery did not initially understand the impact her tweet would have, she was aware of how the decision would change her own life. By choosing to opt out of her job, Montgomery was influencing nearly every aspect of her life: diet, workout routines, travel schedule, friendships and more. All of these things had revolved around basketball since she was 10 years old. It was more than not playing a game—the decision would change not only her entire lifestyle, but also her income.
“If we’re being completely blunt, I didn't even know how I was going to get the bare essentials of life,” Montgomery says.
Yet, she felt pulled to take action, especially as killings of Black people by police continued to occur. She felt Atlanta’s shock after the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery in February, Breonna Taylor in March and George Floyd in May. As tension bubbled in Atlanta in response to the killings, Montgomery called her mother, Bertlela, hoping for guidance.
“I was just looking outside of the window and I'm asking her, How should I go about being involved in this moment?” Montgomery says. She listened as her mother shared her experiences during the 1967 riots in Detroit, where residents protested police officers’ unequal treatment of the city’s Black residents over the course of five days.
“If you can’t make your voice heard, you’re gonna make it felt,” Bertlela told her. Montgomery knew she needed to act, realizing these problems have spanned generations. “Different things [my mother] told me really confirmed that while we've come a long way, we still have a long way to go,” she says.
But there was no playbook for how to act in such unprecedented times. Between the pandemic, national unrest and the unknowns of the WNBA bubble, next steps were unclear. Giving up a paycheck during an economic crisis would be a huge risk. It was not until Montgomery received an outpour of reassuring messages from fellow athletes that she felt validated in her decision.
“That was huge, because I felt like I was giving up a lot, and I was happy to do it,” Montgomery says. “But then for people to acknowledge it and to show their support, it definitely meant a lot at that time.”
Montgomery has only increased her activism since making the big leap, expanding on her existing foundation, which she created in 2019. This year, Montgomery added two new initiatives, including the Remember the 3rd program, which focused on increasing her community’s involvement in local politics through the creation of workshops and pep rallies. Almost immediately, LeBron James’s team from his More than a Vote campaign reached out to partner with Montgomery and her initiative ahead of the 2020 election.
Montgomery does not see voting as not the only solution. Her other new initiative, The Last Yard, is raising money to improve education at HBCUs. The campaign will fund a new gaming center for Morris Brown College in Georgia. With a $300,000 goal, the point guard hopes to increase opportunities for students by bringing in better technology.
“I want the Black and brown communities to be in a space that's going to be in the future,” Montgomery says. “We're not necessarily ingrained in that space yet.”
Montgomery’s activism aligns with a league-wide message encouraging players to speak up. WNBA athletes used their platform to promote social justice reform during the 2019–20 season, forming a Social Justice Council led by some of the league’s biggest names. The group also partnered with the Say Her Name campaign and dedicated the season to Breonna Taylor.
Players have shared their thoughts about social issues in interviews and on social media as well. Many spoke out after Senator Kelly Loeffler, co-owner of the Atlanta Dream, made disapproving remarks about the league’s alignment with the Black Lives Matter movement, calling for her removal from the league.
This season, three other athletes joined Montgomery in opting out to focus on advocacy: her Dream teammate Tiffany Hayes, the Mystics’ Natasha Cloud and the Lynx’s Maya Moore. Through it all, Montgomery is grateful for the support she and WNBA players have received from league commissioner Cathy Engelbert.
“She time and time again shows that it's not just lip service, that the players can express themselves,” Montgomery says of Engelbert. “She did it by her actions … So for me, I was definitely excited to be a part of the WNBA this season.”
This year, Montgomery and other athletes have stressed the importance of using the platform sports allows to share their passions and educate others. Montgomery hopes athletes of all ages see the potential they have to make an impact.
“If you feel like you want to take a stand, then do it,” Montgomery says. “There's no better climate than it is right now for athletes to be activists.”