The pandemic resulted in the creation of a bubble that brought the entire league — all 12 teams and 144 women — to one place for the first time. And as the national focus shifted to include growing concerns about social justice, the teams decided to take action by dedicating the 2020 season to social change.
They wore jerseys with Breonna Taylor’s name, canceled a night of game play in protest of the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin, and at a critical moment, threw the full force of their support behind the Rev. Raphael Warnock, the Georgia pastor who has become the state’s first Black senator.
Warnock won the runoff election against Kelly Loeffler, the Atlanta businesswoman who has co-owned the WNBA’s Atlanta Dream for a decade though negotiations to sell the team are underway, according to a WNBA spokesperson.
It was a bold move for the players whose grand display of unity — arriving to games wearing “Vote Warnock” T-shirts — not only helped make political history but also proved to be a high point in a new era of athlete activism that is driven more by a show of solidarity than the actions of an individual.
Atlanta Dream player Elizabeth Williams put herself out front during the WNBA's social justice activity in 2020.
Credit: Elizabeth Williams/Twitter
Credit: Elizabeth Williams/Twitter
“It was not like we just woke up and said we are going to wear Breonna Taylor’s name on the back of our jerseys,” Williams said. “None of these decisions were made on a whim, but we understand the power of a unified voice.”
To be a female athlete is to know the meaning of quiet struggle, said Mary Jo Kane, professor emerita at the University of Minnesota, founder of the Tucker Center for Research on Girls and Women in Sport and a self-described pre-Title IX tomboy.
“Female athletes have long been denied the opportunity to participate in sports. They come to it with a particular knowledge of social injustice around gender,” she said.
Athletes like Billie Jean King, the legendary top women’s tennis player who won 20 titles at Wimbledon and in 1973 defeated Bobby Riggs and social mores in the “Battle of the Sexes,” put their careers on the line to protest inequalities, Kane said.
Martina Navratilova (left) and Billie Jean King cheer on Jesse Levine for team Billie Jean King during a singles match against Andy Roddick.
Credit: Jessica McGowan / email@example.com
Credit: Jessica McGowan / firstname.lastname@example.org
More recently, women’s U.S. soccer players protested inequities on everything from the playing surface in the FIFA World Cup — women got artificial turf while men played on actual grass — to their treatment by the U.S. Soccer Federation, which claimed that the women’s team was less skilled and had a less demanding job than the men’s team in an equal pay lawsuit. All the members of the women’s national team wore their jerseys inside out to hide the USSF logo during a match in March and the federation apologized.
Concerns about racial injustice have also come to the forefront, said Kane, an issue that is evident at the end of each season when dozens of WNBA players, 83% of whom are persons of color, ship off to foreign countries to play a second season, putting themselves at risk for injuries, largely because they can earn more by playing in foreign leagues than playing in the U.S.
“There is a direct correlation between being involved in sports and being increasingly involved in issues of racial and social justice,” Kane said. “One thing you learn as an athlete is that you never give up, especially if you are an elite athlete like those in the WNBA.”
On the Wednesday after the historic results of Georgia’s Senate runoff race, the women of the WNBA savored the satisfaction of a major off-court win. New York Liberty’s Layshia Clarendon, who played for the Atlanta Dream in 2016 and 2017, tweeted: “Woke up and just smiled remembering that one time Kelly Loeffler tried to come for the (win) and we helped @ReverendWarnock take her senate seat.”
As a league, it was a victory in a season that had been unlike any other.
In early 2020, when Loeffler, appointed by Gov. Brian Kemp, took the vacant Senate seat of the ailing Johnny Isakson, the transition appeared relatively uneventful.
But a few months later, as the teams gathered in Bradenton, Florida, to form a COVID-19-free bubble, the atmosphere would shift. In July, the players announced the creation of the WNBA Social Justice Council and the intention to use the season to speak out against injustice, specifically by supporting Say Her Name, a movement designed to raise awareness of Black female victims of police brutality, and by extension, Black Lives Matter.
“Systemic change can’t happen overnight, but it is our shared responsibility to do everything we can to raise awareness and promote the justice we hope to see in society,” said WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert in a statement supporting the players.
Loeffler publicly opposed the Black Lives Matter movement, saying it didn’t align with the values and goals of the WNBA or the Atlanta Dream.
For some players, it was a turning point. They had spent hours talking, debating and planning how to address issues of social justice with intention. They’d had weighty conversations with family members of the women who had been lost to violence. They were not about to let their efforts be reduced to a back-and-forth debate.
Tiffany Hayes, guard for the Atlanta Dream and one of several WNBA players who opted to sit out the 2020 season, is currently playing in Spain. During the season, she was spending time with family in Atlanta and doing her own social justice work. At her gym, Hoop Nation in College Park, she hosted giveaways to help families during the pandemic.
August 26, 2018 Atlanta: Atlanta Dream guard Tiffany Hayes (left) and center Elizabeth Williams fall 87-84 to the Washington Mystics in a WNBA semifinal playoff game on Sunday, August 26, 2018, in Atlanta. Curtis Comptonemail@example.com
She stayed connected with her teammates through Zoom calls as they discussed their strategy.
“All eyes were on our league, and our team especially, getting that message out and keeping it out and keeping eyes on social injustice and things that need to change in the government,” said Hayes. “It goes to show that people were watching and they were listening and they understood this was serious.”
Supporting Warnock was a risky move, and at the time, they had no idea what the outcome would be, she said. They only knew, as a team and as a league, that they needed to be united in their efforts.
“I have never seen anything like it and I think the women did a wonderful job,” said Marcus Crenshaw, founder of the FAM, a sports agency which manages several Atlanta Dream players including Hayes. “It just goes to show how powerful they really are. This is one of those generations that is going to keep it 100 and keep it real.”
Teams are becoming more intentional about aligning with the values that are important to them, said Ellen J. Staurowsky, professor of sports media at Ithaca College, and it is a trend that is likely to continue over the long term.
“For so long, we have had sports organizations — a reflection of the relationship between players, audience, franchises and leagues — where athletes were really dehumanized,” she said. “I think we have so much work to do in that area, but I don’t think there is any turning back on this.”
WNBA average viewership increased by 68% this past season, and while some of that was due to an increase in games broadcast on television networks, some of it also must be attributed to the nature of the work the WNBA took on, Staurowsky said.
Atlanta Dream center Elizabeth Williams sets up for a shot during the second half of a WNBA basketball game against the Dallas Wings, Sunday, July 26, 2020, in Bradenton, Fla.
The team may also have a new owner soon. This week, a spokesperson for the WNBA said in a statement, “As it relates to the Atlanta Dream, we understand a sale of the franchise is close to being finalized. Once the sale negotiation is concluded, additional information will be provided.”
With the season over, Williams has continued to sit for countless interviews, patiently fielding questions about what it means to be part of history, but she also offers a reminder, that while the WNBA has been unapologetic in its activism, it is still in the business of entertainment.
“A lot of conversation has been about what we have done off the court, but we are professional athletes and we are a highly talented league,” she said, “so people can come see what we do on the court as well.”