Editor’s Note: Roxanne Jones, a founding editor of ESPN Magazine and former vice president at ESPN, has been a producer, reporter and editor at the New York Daily News and The Philadelphia Inquirer. Jones is co-author of “Say it Loud: An Illustrated History of the Black Athlete.” She talks politics, sports and culture weekly on Philadelphia’s 900AM WURD. The views expressed here are solely hers. Read more opinion on CNN.
The women of the WNBA are not to be taken lightly, ever.
Back in 1997, the sports world was put on notice when squads of trailblazing women stepped on to the court, including Sheryl Swoopes, Lisa Leslie, Rebecca Lobo, Tina Thompson, Cynthia Cooper and one of my favorites, Teresa (T-Spoon) Weatherspoon. Their fearless leader? No-holds-barred sports executive Valerie Ackerman, the league’s first president, and current NCAA Commissioner of the Big East basketball conference.
Their message was clear: women were done sitting on the sidelines. It was their game, too. And they were taking their shot.
They were then – and are now – determined to command respect and forge a future for young girls and women that confirms: when we play the game, we win – on and off the court.
So today, when I watch amazingly talented players like Renee Montgomery (Atlanta Dream) and Breanna Stewart (Seattle Storm) not only pushing the game forward but leading conversations around social justice and equality, I know they are a testimony to the strong legacy left behind by those original WNBA icons. Those of us who follow women’s basketball closely, know that often it’s been the WNBA, not the NBA, that has initiated conversations about justice and equality, prompting their male counterparts to speak out, though the women received much less fanfare.
That’s why the players’ recent resounding rebuke of Sen. Kelly Loeffler of Georgia, co-owner of the WNBA’s Atlanta Dream was such a proud moment for me – and I’m sure, many other WNBA fans.
These women have come too far to be silenced by the likes of Kelly Loeffler.
An avid supporter of President Donald Trump, Loeffler, on Tuesday, strongly urged the league to cancel plans to allow players to wear jerseys with the words “Black Lives Matter” and “Say Her Name,” a reference to Breonna Taylor and untold numbers of other women who have been killed by police or died in custody. Instead, Loeffler wrote in a letter to league Commissioner Cathy Engelbert, she wants to see the American flag on all WNBA apparel.
In the letter, obtained by the Atlanta Journal Constitution and ESPN Loeffler argued Black Lives Matter was a “political movement, which has advocated for the defunding of police” and “promoted violence and destruction across the country. I believe it is totally misaligned with the values and goals of the WNBA.”
But the women of the WNBA, which is more than 80% Black, are not buying Loeffler’s brand of politics and now some are calling for her to relinquish her co-ownership of her team.
The outrage was immediate.
Breanna Stewart, who is White, is just one of a growing number of WNBA players of all races who are challenging Loeffler’s fitness be a part of the league, tweeting:
“How is she still a owner? Bye Kelly. Keep that negative energy out of our league.”
Renee Montgomery, who plays for Loeffler’s team but had already decided to forego the 2020 season weeks ago to focus on social justice issues, said she was saddened by her team owner’s stance, tweeting:
“I’m pretty sad to see that my team ownership is not supportive of the movement & all that it stands for. I was already sitting out this season & this is an example of why, I would love to have a conversation with you about the matter if you’re down?”
Despite the criticism, it looks like Loeffler isn’t shying away from the attention.
She’s playing to her crowd. And likely hopes her race-baiting message will resonate in November, when she faces a tough special election among a field of 20 other candidates for her US Senate seat. The Republican senator was appointed back in 2019 by Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp.
And ironically, or perhaps intentionally, the senator appears guilty of the very thing she’s accusing the WNBA of doing – injecting politics into sports.
A day after she penned her letter, Loeffler ripped a page out of Trump’s campaign playbook and paused to disparage athletes who take part in protests against police brutality and murders of unarmed citizens. On Twitter, Loeffler said, “We should keep politics out of sports. We shouldn’t promote movements that encourage violence. And I will not be silent about it.” Several politicians, especially Democrats, have already called this move a desperate ploy to score political points.
Loeffler is not backing down. And though the league is clearly trying to distance itself from their Atlanta team owner, it remains to be seen what, if any, repercussions she will face from the league.
For now it looks like the WNBA will continue with plans to honor the BLM movement taking place all around the globe. In a statement, Commissioner Engelbert asserted that the league “will continue to use our platforms to vigorously advocate for social justice.”
Fighting for social justice is nothing new to the women of the WNBA.
I should know, I was there in the beginning.
In 1996, I was assistant sports editor at the New York Daily News and in charge of coverage around the launch of the league. Like the women on the court, the WNBA gave many women in sports a chance to finally prove themselves at work. In media, it was by default – the mostly white-male sports writers mocked the game, balked at covering women’s basketball.
Today’s league is steeped in a culture that has long been vocal about matters of social justice and women’s equality, from equal pay for all women and mental health awareness to racial justice and LGBTQ equality.
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Back in 2009, when I was board co-chair of GLAAD (formerly the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) we were invited to work with the WNBA to develop and host team and fan events for the LGBTQ fans. Our goal was to help eradicate the toxic, homophobic attitudes that too often follow women in sports. The WNBA, guided by former NBA Commissioner and civil rights champion David Stern and then-WNBA president Donna Orender, fearlessly led these initiatives, long before gay marriage and other LGBTQ rights had been won on a federal level.
This time around, I’m betting Loeffler’s attempt to silence the players backfires. Players are right to want her out of the league. And there is precedent: Donald Sterling, former owner of the NBA’s Los Angeles Clippers. Sterling was banned for life from the league and fined $2.4 million after his racist tape recordings went public.
Today, watching the woman of the WNBA – indeed all the young voices – demanding justice in the face of such horrifying racial hate keeps me hopeful for the future.
It feels like they are playing for all of us to win.