When history records what happened in the Georgia Senate runoff, I hope it will remember the women of the WNBA and how they quite literally refused to “shut up and dribble.”

Because the women who play hoops for the Dream in Atlanta helped change the course of history when they walked onto the court in August wearing black shirts that bore the phrase “Vote Warnock.”

At that point, Raphael Warnock was registering at less than 10 percent in the polls. He had virtually no national profile. Until then, people could very well have asked, “What’s a Warnock?”

That all changed that day in August, and it’s a story of courage, comeuppance and consequence.

It’s a story that began a month before in July, when a co-owner of Atlanta’s WNBA franchise wrote a letter to Commissioner Cathy Engelbert asking to reverse the league’s decision to dedicate the season to social justice. That co-owner, a newly appointed U.S. senator named Kelly Loeffler, wrote that, “Now more than ever we should be united in our goal to remove politics from sport.”

I can’t help but roll my eyes when I read that. At the time, Loeffler was a political newcomer trying to hold onto her Senate seat in a special election. If anything, it was she who was injecting politics into sport by using her position (and the now-famous letter) to denounce the players for centering the Black Lives Matter and Say Her Name movements after the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. A relatively quiet owner of the Atlanta team since 2011, Loeffler was suddenly speaking out in a transparent attempt to court Trump-loving Georgians who disdained the BLM movement.

Well, as they say in basketball, if you take it to the rim, you’d best be ready for what comes next.

Now, remember everything about the truncated 2020 WNBA season was fraught when it began last summer. The season was delayed due to the pandemic. Many teams played in cities that erupted in summer protests. When competition finally began in late July, the words “Black Lives Matter” were emblazoned on the league’s courts and WNBA players were already wearing warm-ups that featured “Say Her Name.”

Loeffler’s letter created a particularly sticky situation for Dream players — a team whose name invoked the spirit of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., yet was partially owned by someone who claimed the BLM movement was “misaligned with the values and goals of the WNBA.” (That was a strikingly tone-deaf statement for a league in which 67 percent of the players are Black.)

The players had to decide how to keep working in an already precarious season, while still paying attention to their own moral compasses. They had to weigh their stated values against their value to the team. In the end, their personal values won.

If Loeffler was going to play politics, Dream players decided, they had to take up their game. They released a statement on July 10 confirming their support for Black Lives Matter and proclaiming, “We are strong and we are fearless.” They were also determined to order their steps carefully, consulting lawyers and their players’ union for guidance. Union President Nneka Ogwumike told me “We were able to understand this was a bigger than sports moment.” At some point during this quandary, Sue Bird, a star player for the Seattle Storm and vice president of the WNBA players’ union, reportedly suggested that the Atlanta squad check out Loeffler’s other Senate opponents in the November election.

Ogwumike said Stacey Abrams stepped in with a strong assist. As a WNBA player advocate, Abrams helped set up meetings with the Rev. Raphael Warnock, pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church, who preached from the same pulpit where King once stood. After a series of phone calls and Zoom meetings with players throughout the league, they decided to back Warnock despite his lagging position in the polls.

What came next was an aggressive move, like a guard leaping above the rim to block a dunk. In August, the Dream placed Warnock’s name on their warm-up gear at a key game in front of a national audience. They weren’t alone: For almost a week, a series of WNBA players from other teams — Chicago, Seattle, Phoenix and more — also wore “Vote Warnock” shirts during warmups in televised games.

It was a turning point for Warnock. It elevated his social media presence, stoked his campaign coffers and lifted his national profile.

Many lessons will be drawn from the protracted Senate contests in Georgia. Chief among them, for me, is the way the women of Atlanta and the entire WNBA ran a master class in staying true to your values even when it means putting your life and livelihood at risk. Let’s not forget what happened to the NFL quarterback who took a knee.

The team did more than wear shirts with a slogan. They educated themselves and engaged in mass voter education. They used their platforms to teach people about Black women killed while in police custody — stories that tend to be overshadowed by the more frequent tragedies involving men. They told those women’s stories. They said their names.

They never mentioned Loeffler’s name. They didn’t need to.

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