Senator Kelly Loeffler (R-GA), a co-owner of women’s professional basketball franchise the Atlanta Dream, and strong supporter of President Trump, wrote WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert on Tuesday opposing the leagues’ support of the Black Lives Matter movement. In explicitly rejecting WNBA plans to incorporate BLM messaging on team jerseys, Loeffler appears to be choosing the partisan needs of her close Senate reelection bid over of the social justice interests of her team’s players.
Loeffler’s letter’ to Engelbert was explicit in her rejection of the Black Lives Matter movement as well as other issues that are at the forefront of American political debate.
“I adamantly oppose the Black Lives Matter political movement, which has advocated for the defunding of police, called for the removal of Jesus from churches and the disruption of the nuclear family structure, harbored anti-Semitic views, and promoted violence and destruction across the country,” Loeffler wrote. “I believe it is totally misaligned with the values and goals of the WNBA and the Atlanta Dream, where we support tolerance and inclusion.”
The letter by the Georgia senator comes at a delicate time when both WNBA and NBA players are preparing to resume professional basketball games in Orlando amidst a nationwide rise in coronavirus cases. As part of the discussions regarding the resumption of play, the league’s management, team owners, and representatives of the players unions have negotiated the terms of the restart, including issues related to BLM messaging on player jerseys. Although Loeffler is a co-owner of the Atlanta WNBA franchise, she has not been a part of the restart negotiations.
In a statement from the WNBA on Tuesday, the league didn’t back down from its recent decisions. “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. Sen. Kelly Loeffler has not served as a Governor of the Atlanta Dream since October 2019 and is no longer involved in the day-to-day business of the team.”
Loeffler’s letter has also drawn swift backlash from critics and players, with many demanding that the Senator no longer be part of the ownership of the Atlanta franchise. WNBA All-star and Atlanta Dream play, Renee Montgomery tweeted a swift reaction to Loeffler’s comments. Montgomery, who has decided to sit out the 2020 season in order to focus her efforts on social justice and voting rights matters in Atlanta, was honest and inviting.
“Dear @SenatorLoeffler… I’m pretty sad to see that my team ownership is not supportive of the movement & all that it stands for. I was already sitting out this season & this is an example of why. I would love to have a conversation with you about the matter if you’re down?”
Montgomery has yet to receive Loeffler’s response to her invitation.
Loeffler’s letter is not without substantial political context. After being appointed by Georgia Governor Brian Kemp (R) following Senator Jonny Isakson’s surprise 2019 retirement announcement, Leoffler began her term as Georgia’s junior senator in January of this year. Less than eight months later, Loeffler is running in an extremely tight and divisive re-election bid against fellow Republican and Congressman Doug Collins. Collins, also a strong supporter of President Trump, has been deeply critical of Loeffler, and no doubt her letter to the WNBA leadership was as much a response to the politics of her state as it was the policies of the WNBA.
Even more than politics though, Loeffler’s view is a striking rejection of the efforts of the WNBA and other professional sports leagues to respond to the fast-moving change in attitude around the Black Lives Matter movement and the overall fight against systemic racism in America. By using inflammatory language that plays better in partisan politics than it does in professional sports, Loeffler is clearly showing she is much more suited for the former than the latter.
In her letter to Engelbert, Loeffler addressed the issue of politics in sports, writing that she was “incredibly disappointed to read about efforts to insert a political platform into the league.” She continued, “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. And now more than ever, we should be united in our goal to remove politics from sports.”
By writing her letter, Loeffler paradoxically did the opposite. In using her position as an owner to bolster her political-grandstanding, she only deepened the seeds of division around issues related to Black lives that are supported by a vast majority of Americans. Loeffler’s comments also show exactly the kind of leadership she represents. In putting her own political interests over the interests of the players on the very team she owns, it begs the question, how does she respond to the interests of her constituents?
One thing is for certain – in the coming months Loeffler will know the outcome of her reelection campaign for the U.S. Senate and it is no easy lay-up that she will win. But for a significant number of professional women’s basketball players, fans and supporters, there is no question that Loeffler should no longer have the privilege of being an owner of a WNBA…
To them, that’s a slam dunk.