WNBA players altered the course of the American Republic as 144 athletes went from fighting an enemy to advocating for something greater

WNBA players altered the course of the American Republic as 144 athletes went from fighting an enemy to advocating for something greater
"The WNBA has been doing it," Sue Bird told Insider. "It has been at the forefront of so many issues and our league is made of Black women and that's the reality."Julio Aguilar/Getty Images
  • WNBA players publicly endorsed Democratic candidate Raphael Warnock — the opponent of incumbent Georgia senator and Atlanta Dream owner Kelly Loeffler — in August.
  • Their support proved instrumental in Warnock's victory over Loeffler and the Democrats' successful efforts to take control of the US Senate.
  • Insider spoke with superstar Seattle Storm point guard Sue Bird and Wasserman WNBA agent Lindsay Kagawa Colas about how WNBA players successfully altered the future of the American Republic.

Historic may not be a strong enough word to describe the recent events in Washington DC and its resounding impact on American politics.

In a startling scene that flashed across television screens worldwide, pro-Trump insurrectionists stormed the US Capitol in an attempt to stop the nation's elected officials from certifying the results of the 2020 Presidential election.

WNBA players altered the course of the American Republic as 144 athletes went from fighting an enemy to advocating for something greater
An explosion caused by a police munition is seen while supporters of President Trump storm the US Capitol Building.REUTERS/Leah Millis
But that same day, mere hours before President Trump instigated the most destructive breach of the US Capitol in more than 200 years, Democrats secured unified control of government for the first time in a decade thanks to Democratic victories in both Georgia runoff elections for US Senate seats.
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And 144 WNBA players proved pivotal to the monumental feat.

"I'd like to just go to bed thinking about that tonight," Seattle Storm point guard Sue Bird told Insider Wednesday night. "It's sad that there's been other things to take away from that, because it has been such a historical day, a momentous day, a happy day for the most part - prior to about, I don't know, three or four hours ago."

WNBA players altered the course of the American Republic as 144 athletes went from fighting an enemy to advocating for something greater
Senators-elect Jon Ossoff (right) and Reverend Raphael Warnock.AP Photo/Brynn Anderson
Well before the Georgia elections were thrust into the national spotlight, the women of the WNBA backed Reverend Raphael Warnock - a Democrat who, at the time, was far from a frontrunner - in the Peach State's crowded jungle special election. In doing so, they embarked on a precarious battle: attempting to oust Republican Kelly Loeffler - a co-owner of one of their teams - from her US Senate seat.
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This is the story of David versus Goliath. Dark horses outrunning the thoroughbred. A group of overlooked and underappreciated athletes - the vast majority of whom are Black women - versus a white billionaire who wielded her power to suppress their voices.

Here's how the women of the WNBA altered the course of American history, as told by two of the masterminds on the inside.

A former supporter becomes the enemy

The early part of 2020 was an emotionally draining period for many Americans - particularly for people of color. The players of the WNBA, more than 80% of whom are Black, were no exception. As George Floyd and Breonna Taylor's deaths sparked a widespread reckoning with race relations and prompted protests, the WNBA's athletes were negotiating the terms under which they'd safely compete in the raging COVID-19 pandemic.
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WNBA players altered the course of the American Republic as 144 athletes went from fighting an enemy to advocating for something greater
A WNBA staffer cleans and sanitizes the ball before gameplay.Julio Aguilar/Getty Images

"We were on Zoom calls nonstop, trying to negotiate to get going. And that's strictly basketball talk," Bird said. "But then, on top of that, we were also negotiating, trying to make sure our season was about all the social unrest and about shedding light to 'Say Her Name' and to Black Lives Matter."

"So there was a lot happening, and our plates were loaded," Bird said.

Eventually, the best women's basketball players on the planet convened at IMG Academy and completed the 2020 WNBA season in a bubble - or "Wubble," as it became known. With the backdrop of disease and difficult conversations consuming the country, 144 WNBA players arrived in Bradenton, Florida.
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"When we got to the bubble, we almost could exhale for two seconds," Bird said. "And then - BOOM - this letter gets dropped on us."

WNBA players altered the course of the American Republic as 144 athletes went from fighting an enemy to advocating for something greater
Tipoff of a 2020 WNBA game in the "Wubble" at IMG Academy.Julio Aguilar/Getty Images

The letter was the one Loeffler sent to WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert in July. The pro-Trump politician came out against the players' plan to wear "Black Lives Matter" and "Say Her Name" warm-ups because it endorsed a "particular political agenda" and "sends a message of exclusion."

Players and fans erupted into calls for Loeffler's banishment from the WNBA. But for many of the players, especially those who knew Loeffler personally, their response comprised equal parts of anger and sadness. Dream player Renee Montgomery tweeted that she was "sad" to see her team's ownership speaking out against the Black Lives Matter movement. And former Atlanta point guard Layshia Clarendon described the letter's contents as "hurtful" on Twitter, adding that they couldn't believe they "ever stepped foot in Kelly's house and shared a meal with her."
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"When [Loeffler] got into the WNBA, she knew exactly who we were. She knew what our league was, what it's good for. And, in fact, she was behind it," Bird said. "And I think it's really been that 180 if you talk to players like Angel McCoughtry or Layshia Clarendon, that's been the most hurtful. Because that's not the person they know or knew."
WNBA players altered the course of the American Republic as 144 athletes went from fighting an enemy to advocating for something greater
Kelly Loeffler attends a 2011 Atlanta Dream game.AP Photo/David Tulis

Lashing out against Loeffler proved fruitless as the league declined to take formal action. Instead, they issued a statement that the longtime franchise owner isn't "involved in the day-to-day business of the team."

But the women of the WNBA would not go down quietly or without a fight. To agent Lindsay Kagawa Colas - who represents a star-studded list of WNBA players including Bird, Nneka Ogwumike, Breanna Stewart, Diana Taurasi, Maya Moore, Brittney Griner, and more for Wasserman - "it was very clear that the women needed to do something."
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"It's also very clear that they are more powerful when they move together," Colas told Insider. "And that the women have a very clear understanding of the power of collective actions. I think they are a model for that in sport. And so whatever they were going to do, they wanted to make sure that they had as many of the players on the same page."

Instead of backing down, WNBA players got creative - with Bird taking point

Bird, a legend of the basketball world, has long served as the WNBA and USA Basketball face. But advocacy is a newer addition to the point guard's illustrious career. An introvert by nature, the Syosset, New York native, has emerged from her shell and found her voice on social justice issues in recent years.She attributes that evolution, at least in part, to her relationship with one of the most outspoken athletes on the planet - US women's national team captain Megan Rapinoe. With the pink-haired forward by her side, and, more recently, as her fiancée, Bird has increasingly grown comfortable speaking out on the matters about which she is most passionate.
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WNBA players altered the course of the American Republic as 144 athletes went from fighting an enemy to advocating for something greater
Sue Bird (right) and her fiancée, USWNT star Megan Rapinoe.Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Bird was ready by the time she and her WNBA counterparts found themselves isolated from their loved ones in Florida. As the women attempted to process Loeffler's letter, digest the constant onslaught of world news, and juggle their on-court responsibilities, Bird recognized her duty to act as an ally for her Black colleagues.

"In that moment, I think for Nneka and Layshia specifically - who are obviously Black - it just was too much," Bird said. "Both of them essentially asked me to take this one... and that's where I really found my voice as a white player and how I could be of use, I guess. I don't know if that's the right term to use."

"My allyship showed up as being able to kind of lighten the load and lighten the burden in that moment," she added.
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So Bird took it upon herself to start "really researching" ways in which the players could effectively respond to Loeffler's slight. With Colas' help, Bird and the WNBA executive committee organized conversations with political strategists, vetted candidates, and discovered Reverend Warnock's campaign.

WNBA players altered the course of the American Republic as 144 athletes went from fighting an enemy to advocating for something greater
Reverend Raphael Warnock.Elijah Nouvelage/Getty Images

A senior pastor of the Ebenezer Baptist Church, Warnock was one of many candidates challenging Loeffler in Georgia's senatorial special election. He was not among the top-polling contenders - not even ahead among Democrats - but his stances on hot-button issues like voting rights, LGBTQ+ equality, and criminal justice reform largely aligned with the views of the WNBA's athletes.

"They did the work just like anybody who's going to vote or endorse," Colas said. "And they were really, genuinely all in on that process of evaluating her opponent. And they chose Reverend Warnock, not just because he was running against her, but because they liked him as a candidate, they liked where he was on a lot of the issues that were central to their lives."
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"And then they moved together."

Vote Warnock

WNBA players altered the course of the American Republic as 144 athletes went from fighting an enemy to advocating for something greater
Atlanta Dream players huddle up during a 2020 game.AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack

As players organized behind the scenes, it appeared as though the feud with Loeffler had flamed out. Aside from stars actively avoiding saying her name during interviews - referring to her only as "the Atlanta Dream owner" - little outward progress had been made.

But before the Phoenix Mercury and the Dream played the first of three August 4 WNBA games, everything shifted. Members of both teams arrived dressed in "Vote Warnock" T-shirts. Players on the Chicago Sky and the Dallas Wings were dressed in kind a few hours later. Bird, her Storm teammates, and their opponents wore the shirts that night as well.
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Loeffler responded to their public support of her opponent by blaming "out of control cancel culture" and accusing the WNBA players of being "more concerned with playing politics than basketball."

But the damage was already underway.Warnock's campaign saw a substantial boost in donations thanks to exposure from the WNBA players' endorsement. According to an analysis conducted by Yale University Ph.D. candidate Angele Delevoye, "Warnock's campaign brought in 20 percent more than what the campaign had been getting in previous days" - equivalent to a $40,000 increase - in the 48 hours following the WNBA players' "Vote Warnock" T-shirt endorsement.
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WNBA players altered the course of the American Republic as 144 athletes went from fighting an enemy to advocating for something greater
Sue Bird wears a "Vote Warnock" T-shirt during a Seattle Storm game.Julio Aguilar/Getty Images

Though there's no definitive way to determine causation between the players' contributions to the campaign and Warnock's summer polling surge, the timing of his meteoric rise suggests that the players helped moved the needle. Continued support from the WNBA players propelled Warnock through Georgia's jungle special election in November and enabled him to force a head-to-head runoff against Loeffler. Two months later, he finished the job. He bested Loeffler by nearly 100,000 votes to become America's first Democratic Black senator from the South. Alongside Jon Ossoff, they also officially reclaimed control of the US Senate on the Democratic Party's behalf.

David used a slingshot and a stone. WNBA players used T-shirts and a worthy candidate. In both stories, Goliath fell.

"It mattered," Colas said. "It really mattered."
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'We've shown who we are as a country'

As I spoke with Bird, the world watched as a mob of mostly white men pushed past police officers and into the hallowed halls of the US Capitol building. For many - Bird included - the scene served as a stark reminder of American society's disparate treatment of its Black and white citizens.

"I think we can all agree that if this was a Black Lives Matter protest, things would be looking different," she said. "There's really no way around that now - we've shown who we are as a country."

WNBA players altered the course of the American Republic as 144 athletes went from fighting an enemy to advocating for something greater
An insurrectionist carries a confederate flag through the US Capitol during Wednesday's attempted coup.Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images
And while Bird acknowledged that the moment was "very scary," she allowed herself hope that Wednesday's attempted coup could serve as America's "breaking point."
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"And usually with breaking points comes a rebuild," she said. "That's what I'm hopeful for right now."

A rebuild - or at least a progressive, forward-thinking reconstruction the likes of which Warnock and Ossoff campaigned upon - would not be possible without the tireless efforts WNBA players put into electing Warnock to the Senate.

"I think I'm just angry and scared," Bird admitted. "But you know, maybe Warnock and Ossoff winning can mark the start of that rebuild."
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