On Aug. 4, the Atlanta Dream walked onto the court for their first nationally televised WNBA game of the 2020 season. Their warmup shirts displayed a simple, yet clear, message.
Five months later, on Jan. 5, Reverend Raphael Warnock (D-GA) defeated incumbent and co-owner of the Atlanta Dream, Kelly Loeffler (R-GA) in the Georgia Senate runoff election, securing a seat in the United States Senate. Warnock is Georgia’s first Black senator, and his victory was vital in helping the Democratic Party gain control of the Senate.
The path to the Aug. 4 endorsement from the Atlanta Dream began last summer.
“Our team, along with the whole league, had decided to make a statement during the George Floyd protests by wearing Black Lives Matter shirts honoring Breonna Taylor, the 26-year-old Black woman killed by police this summer in Louisville, and other Black women killed by the police,” Atlanta Dream forward, Elizabeth Williams, wrote in a personal essay for Vox.
This initial stand in support of the Black Lives Matter movement drew criticism from team co-owner Loeffler.
“This prompted our co-owner, who was appointed as Georgia senator after the previous senator resigned, to make a statement about us. She said she opposed Black Lives Matter and that we need less, not more, politics in sports,” Williams wrote.
Prior to the start of the season, Williams and the rest of the Atlanta Dream had the chance to speak to Reverend Warnock, who was planning to challenge Kelly Loeffler. Shortly after, they wore shirts endorsing him at their first nationally televised game.
This trailblazing decision was no surprise to those who follow the WNBA. Players within the organization have been arguably the most vocal on social justice issues compared to other professional sports leagues in the United States.
“WNBA players have been at the forefront of social justice movements in sports in recent years,” Sean Gregory wrote for Time Magazine. “Players were among the first, in 2016, to wear Black Lives Matter warmup shirts before games after several incidents of police violence.”
These efforts, alongside the rest of the WNBA, were crucial to Warnock’s eventual victory, according to Angele Delevoye, a PhD candidate in political science and quantitative methods at Yale University.
“The WNBA helped generate momentum,” Delevoye said. “The WNBA has a long history of activism [….] The players were ready for this moment.”
The results of the runoff election were the culmination of years of hard work in Georgia—a state that has voted staunchly Republican for over two decades. Stacey Abrams, a prominent Georgia Democrat, and former House Minority Leader for the Georgia General Assembly, was one of the few who believed that her state could flip to Democrat leadership, despite her eventual loss to Brian Kemp in the 2018 Georgia gubernatorial race.
Abrams herself met with the Dream in 2018, with hopes of a Democratic future in Georgia.
Two years later, the work of Abrams, the Dream, and organizers across Georgia led to the historical election of Senator Raphael Warnock and a blue shift in Georgia for the first time in nearly 30 years.
The southern parts of the United States have been a stronghold for Republicans since the so-called “Southern strategy” began in the 1960s. Four years ago, Georgians voted for President Trump, a Republican, by five percentage points.
In 2020, Georgia voted for Democrat Joe Biden for president and Democrat Raphael Warnock to be one of their next senators.
There is something to be said about the effectiveness of the organizing work done in Georgia, whether it be by WNBA players, politicians who lost their races like Stacey Abrams, or people who care about their state.
Kelly Loeffler underestimated her team and the rest of Georgia. Ironically, her purchase of the Atlanta Dream was integral to her dream of remaining a United States senator. However, that dream soon turned into a nightmare.
Never underestimate the power of the people when they work as a collective.