Loeffler’s embrace of Trumpism had shocked those who had known her as an inclusive boss in a league dominated by Black women. But it appeared to be working: She was leading the crowded race, while one of her opponents, the Rev. Raphael Warnock (D), polled at only 9 percent.
Then WNBA players responded. They rejected Loeffler’s letter. And in early August, players from across the league, including those from her own team, wore shirts that read “VOTE WARNOCK.”
In the three days that followed, Warnock’s campaign raised more than $236,000 and added nearly 4,000 followers on Twitter. His support grew from there, catapulting him into a runoff with Loeffler. And on Tuesday, he defeated Loeffler and soon will become the first Black senator from Georgia. Jon Ossoff’s win in a race called Wednesday gave Democrats slim control over the Senate, with Vice President-elect Kamala D. Harris as the tiebreaking vote.
WNBA players, many of whom are overseas with international teams, spent Wednesday celebrating their assist — and wondering what it means for Loeffler’s future in the league.
“It’s a special moment for us because we’re constantly at the forefront of every issue, but we don’t get the respect we deserve,” said Washington Mystics guard Natasha Cloud, who opted out of this past season to focus on social justice causes. “Whether it’s on the court or off the court in our influence. You have a moment like this where you can’t say we didn’t help determine the outcome.”
Loeffler has been with the Dream since 2010, and she has vowed not to sell her stake in the team. But she would return next season to a roster and league of women who openly campaigned against her.
Dream center Elizabeth Williams, playing in Turkey, took part in a virtual Warnock for Georgia event last month. Over the summer, her teammate, Tiffany Hayes, who also opted out, posted to Instagram a letter signed by the players expressing unity with Black Lives Matter, including the hashtag “UOwnTheDreamNotMe.” Last month, she co-hosted a voter registration event in Atlanta.
“Some might call her our boss, in a sense, and for you to go against your boss, it can go wrong in a lot of ways,” Hayes said in an interview. “I definitely commend all the girls, all of us, for stepping up and standing up, even though there could have been consequences.”
In July, as most of the league formed a bubble in Bradenton, Fla., Loeffler stayed away, campaigning in Georgia and working in Washington. Yet her presence was felt, even as it was concealed. Players refused to say her name in interviews, but the campus presented the opportunity to quickly mobilize in opposition.
They were disappointed in the league’s response, a two-sentence statement that did not address Loeffler’s future in the WNBA. So they huddled in a meeting room and decided to send their own message. But first, a small leadership group had a frank talk with Seattle Storm all-star Sue Bird.
“There’s some pain involved in this. There’s some hurt feelings involved,” said Terri Jackson, executive director of the WNBA players’ union. Jackson applauded the players for “being honest with themselves and each other and reaching out across all the teams and letting their White sisters know we need you in this. And Sue’s like, ‘I got you.’ ”
They researched the race, requested Zoom conference calls with the candidates and landed on Warnock.
“When we wore the Warnock shirts, we didn’t just wear them because Kelly denounced the Black Lives Matter. We did our research,” said Angel McCoughtry, who spent 10 seasons with the Dream and now plays for the Las Vegas Aces. “We looked at health care. We looked at LGBT rights. We looked at social justice issues.”
Bird came up with the idea to wear T-shirts.
“I’m not a political strategist. Who am I? Who are any of us in the WNBA to get into any kind of verbal spat about politics with her? Why would we do that?” Bird said in an interview Wednesday. “We kind of took that part out of it and redirected all of our energy and support into Reverend Warnock, and it got us back in line with what we got into that bubble season for anyway — to talk about Black Lives Matter, to talk about ‘Say Her Name,’ to encourage people to vote.”
On Aug. 4, players from the Dream and Phoenix Mercury arrived to the arena in the shirts. Throughout the week, players across the league wore them. The images went viral. By Aug. 7, Warnock had surpassed Loeffler in the polls, according to statistical website FiveThirtyEight.
“Go back to the stat [polling at 9 percent], and if you turn back time, you almost wonder, was there any talk across the players: ‘Why are we backing him?’ ” Jackson said. “They didn’t flinch. They said: ‘We’re going to do our research. We’re going to back to the person who aligns with us, whose message resonates with us, and to hell with everything else.’”
To Bird, a reigning WNBA champion, the flipped Senate seats are bigger than basketball.
“Someone was like: ‘Your four gold medals are cool and all, but you may have just saved democracy,’” Bird said. “‘That might be your biggest accomplishment.’”
What happens next? Ousted from politics but still part of the WNBA, Loeffler, at minimum, faces an awkward homecoming.
“I know from a social and personal standpoint, no one wants her in our league,” Cloud said.
Marcus Crenshaw, the founder of the all-Black sports agency the Fam, who represents four Dream players, said he believes Loeffler will have no choice but to leave her team.
“[Players are] hoping that somebody else will buy it or the lady will move on. But I personally think it’s a lot of pressure on her right now to be hated by everyone on the team,” Crenshaw said. “So I personally think she’s going to sell it and get out of there.”
On Wednesday, WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert said in a statement that “discussions with potential buyers are ongoing.” She gave no timeline as to when a possible sale could happen. After Loeffler’s loss, NBA superstar LeBron James mused on Twitter about putting an ownership group together to purchase the Dream. His support is welcome: “I’m glad we have the men in our corner now,” McCoughtry said.
But it’s the women’s influence that could ultimately decide Loeffler’s fate. If Loeffler somehow makes amends and shows players she cares about their views, she could find a pathway to forgiveness, McCoughtry conceded. If not, she said, WNBA players will flex their political muscles again.
“If we have to take more measures to get her out … that’s what we’ll do,” McCoughtry said. “It’s kind of like we were forced to show our power and we didn’t know how much power we had, but there’s so much power in these women’s voices. They are powerful. Everybody’s listening.”
Kareem Copeland and Michael Lee contributed to this report.