When Republican Kelly Loeffler was tapped for an open U.S. Senate seat, her stake in Atlanta’s WNBA franchise was promoted as a sign of her deep ties to the community. It’s also become a growing political headache.
Her most formidable GOP adversary, U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, has assailed her over her appearance with Democrat Stacey Abrams at midcourt of an Atlanta Dream game. And he’s blasted the league’s connection with an abortion rights group.
Loeffler has tried to use the platform to her political advantage, penning an open letter to the league commissioner denouncing the Black Lives Matter movement — a move that brought a surge of attention that her allies credit with sparking a recent rise in the polls.
The demonstrations over the police shooting of Jacob Blake this week in Wisconsin present a different challenge for Loeffler, who faces Collins and 19 other challengers in a November special election. With no party primary to filter out nominees, the race is sure to end in a January runoff.
A protest by the NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks triggered walkouts involving hundreds of athletes in sports leagues across the country, including the Dream, which Loeffler has co-owned since 2011. On Friday, she criticized the team’s players for refusing to play.
“I tend to believe that walking away from problems and walking away from a dialogue is not the right approach,” she said after a rally in Cobb County where she asserted that politics and sports don’t mix.
“Walking away from that moment prevents us from having those important dialogues,” she added, shifting to a critique of Black Lives Matter, which she said promotes ideas about “defunding the police and radically changing America.”
“I don’t think they have a place in sports,” Loeffler said. “Sports need to be about unity and bringing us together.”
Collins, meanwhile, has 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 health care organization vilified by some conservatives.
”She’s not who she says she is,“ he said at a campaign stop in Gainesville. “She was one thing this time last year, now she’s another thing, because they told her, ’You got to be a conservative.’ Well, that’s not who she is.”
Loeffler spokesman Stephen Lawson said that neither Loeffler nor the Dream “have given a dime to Planned Parenthood.”
Loeffler’s relationship with the team she co-owns with Mary Brock has steadily disintegrated.
After she criticized the Black Lives Matter movement, the Dream released a pointed statement that rebuked her. It concluded with: “Black Lives Matter. Vote in November.”
And weeks later, Dream players joined dozens of others across the league who wore “Vote Warnock” T-shirts before games — a reference to the Rev. Raphael Warnock, the establishment-backed Democratic candidate in the race.
On Friday, ESPN published a lengthy story about the “stalemate” between Loeffler and the league, which revealed that Dream officials have provided financial information to potential buyers. Among them is former Los Angeles Clipper Baron Davis.
“I would say, just from the Donald Sterling thing, I think it’s just life coming full circle,” Davis told ESPN, a reference to the then-Clippers owner who was forced to sell the team after he was caught on tape making racist statements to his mistress.
Pressed on Friday, Loeffler said she’s entertained “expressions of interest” from investors who want to join the Dream’s ownership team. But she said repeatedly that she has no plans to sell her stake.
“It’s very important we have conservative voices in sports, people that are willing to speak out and stand up for what’s right for our country,” she said. “I’ll continue to be part of it.”