Loeffler hopes her WNBA criticism rebounds to November support

Woodstock-U.S. Senator Kelly Loeffler speaks to supporters at a campaign event at the Tuscany Italian restaurant in Woodstock on Wednesday, July 8, 2020. Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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Woodstock-U.S. Senator Kelly Loeffler speaks to supporters at a campaign event at the Tuscany Italian restaurant in Woodstock on Wednesday, July 8, 2020. Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

The crowd at U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler’s stop on Wednesday heard the usual message about her support for President Donald Trump and the importance of the November election.

But new to the Republican’s stump speech was an element that’s sure to become a campaign trail staple: Her demand that the WNBA abandon plans to honor the Black Lives Matter movement and instead put an American flag on every jersey.

“I want to speak for all Americans who feel like they don’t have a voice, who feel like they’re going to be canceled if they speak out against a political movement,” said Loeffler, who was appointed to the job in December. “That’s not freedom, that’s not America.”

Since she objected to the league’s stance on Tuesday, Loeffler has faced stinging pushback from national Democrats, WNBA stars and former players of The Atlanta Dream, the franchise she co-owns.

Both Stacey Abrams, the 2018 Democratic gubernatorial nominee, and Doug Collins, Loeffler’s most formidable Republican challenger, criticized her remarks. So did Angel McCoughtry, the former Dream star who was for a decade the face of the franchise.

“I’m actually shocked by her actions. Sometimes you gotta play the political game, and I get it. But don’t mess with us in this political game,” McCoughtry told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

“If this is the person that she really is, I know that I don’t wanna be around someone who just doesn’t advocate for what’s right.”

But Loeffler didn’t stake her position to win over Democrats or even moderates. It was meant to rev up conservatives whose support she will need in the November special election, when she faces 20 candidates in a free-for-all election. Several GOP activists at her event Tuesday said her remarks resonated with them.

“Everyone believes that black lives matter, but the movement is using the protests as an opportunity to shut down other voices,” said Kerry Luedke, a Cherokee County Republican. “Sports shouldn’t be a place for a political statement. And a sports team isn’t the place to show specific political views.”

‘Cancel culture?’

Loeffler sparked the uproar with a letter Tuesday urging Commissioner Cathy Engelbert to scrap plans to honor the movement by, among other measures, requiring players to wear warmup jerseys reading "Black Lives Matter" and "Say Her Name."

The senator urged Engelbert to instead consider putting an American flag on all uniforms and apparel, calling it a “common-sense recommendation to ensure we reflect the values of freedom and equality for all.”

Current and former players in the league responded quickly. The WNBA players union called for Loeffler’s ouster, and the league distanced itself from the senator, noting she isn’t involved in day-to-day operations of the team.

Dream guard Courtney Williams called Loeffler “a goofy,” and Alaina Coates, a center who played a stint with the Dream during the 2019 season, said she was glad “to not have her have ties to my team any more.”

Diamond DeShields, a Chicago Sky star who is one of the most decorated Georgia high school basketball players of this decade, mocked the Republican on Instagram: “‘When u gonna come play for the Dream?’ Yeah right..”

Pressed on Wednesday about her stake in the Dream, Loeffler said she hasn’t decided whether she would sell the team she’s co-owned since 2011. But she blamed the criticism on a broader “cancel culture” she said the Black Lives Matter protests has fueled.

“This is what I’m fighting against. I’m putting my foot down,” said Loeffler. “I’m not going to be canceled for having a view.”

Her November rivals called the move a desperate attempt to gain traction in the polls. The Rev. Raphael Warnock, the top Democrat in the race, assailed Loeffler for giving into the “narrow impulses of tribalism and bigotry” to score political points against Collins, a four-term congressman.

“While we’re seeing an amazing outpouring of Americans across this country standing up — a multi-racial coalition of people — lifting up the value of human life, Kelly and Doug are playing politics,” he said.

And Collins questioned why she hadn’t been as vocal about earlier league initiatives, such as a promotion a few years ago that allowed fans to donate a portion of ticket sales to Planned Parenthood, the reproductive healthcare organization vilified by some conservatives.

“Now that she’s pretending to be a conservative to run for public office, she should explain her silence and divest herself of this team and her past progressive advocacy,” Collins said.

Dismissing the criticism, Loeffler took aim at Black Lives Matter organizers seeking to “cancel” her.

As she spoke to a crowd of dozens at an Italian restaurant in Woodstock, Donna Kosicki nodded along. After Loeffler’s remarks, Kosicki predicted the senator’s stance on the WNBA will become a new rallying point for her supporters.

“Politics needs to stay out of sports,” said Kosicki, who is active in the Cherokee County GOP. “I’m proud of her for making the decision to write the letter. It will help distinguish herself and show Georgians what an authentic senator she is.”