On Monday, the W.N.B.A. announced that its upcoming season would be “dedicated to social justice with games honoring the Black Lives Matter movement.”
It did not seem to be a relatively controversial or surprising message, considering how engaged W.N.B.A. players have been in the movement, which has also drawn support from a wide range of corporations and even the most controversy-averse sports leagues, like the N.F.L., since the killing of George Floyd in May.
But the expression — and the movement it supports — bothered at least one W.N.B.A. owner, who also happens to be a sitting senator in a difficult election fight. Senator Kelly Loeffler, Republican of Georgia, is a co-owner of the Atlanta Dream and has been vocally criticizing the Black Lives Matter movement and the league’s embrace of it.
Loeffler is now facing widespread denunciations from players around the league. The W.N.B.A. commissioner, Cathy Engelbert, released a statement this week distancing the league from Loeffler. Now, the league is grappling with questions about whether an owner who appears to be fundamentally opposed to the league’s stated values can remain in her position.
The conflict spilled into the open on Tuesday after Loeffler publicized a letter, first reported by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, that she had written to Engelbert, in which she expressed opposition to the league’s plan to allow players to wear warm-up jerseys with the words “Black Lives Matter” and “Say Her Name,” a reference to a movement to spotlight Black women who have died at the hands of the police.
“The truth is, we need less — not more politics in sports. In a time when polarizing politics is as divisive as ever, sports has the power to be a unifying antidote,” Loeffler wrote. She added, “I adamantly oppose the Black Lives Matter political movement, which has advocated for the defunding of police, called for the removal of Jesus from churches and the disruption of the nuclear family structure, harbored anti-Semitic views, and promoted violence and destruction across the country.”
Instead, she called for an American flag to be placed on every jersey when the league starts play later this month at the IMG Academy in Florida.
The backlash from the W.N.B.A. community was immediate. The players union posted on Twitter, “E-N-O-U-G-H! O-U-T!” in reference to Loeffler. Engelbert issued a statement that reaffirmed the league’s commitment to “vigorously advocate for social justice.” The statement added: “Sen. Kelly Loeffler has not served as a governor of the Atlanta Dream since October 2019 and is no longer involved in the day-to-day business of the team.”
In an emailed statement, the Dream said, “The Atlanta Dream is not a political entity — we are in the business of sports and entertainment. The Dream players and staff are focused on building a successful team on the court, winning games and creating a second-to-none fan experience.”
Even the team’s statement seemed to contradict the identity that the W.N.B.A. has been trying to cultivate — one of a “bold, progressive basketball league,” as its statement on Monday said.
Indeed, in 2016 W.N.B.A. players were among the first professional athletes in the U.S. to demonstrate against police brutality. After initially fining those players, the W.N.B.A. reversed course, and in recent years the league has gone out of its way to lean into politics and encourage their players to do the same. In 2018, for example, the W.N.B.A. partnered with Planned Parenthood for the “Take a Seat, Take a Stand” initiative — which sent a portion of ticket proceeds to several groups, Planned Parenthood included.
These initiatives have led many to wonder whether Loeffler’s values can coexist with the W.N.B.A.’s.
“There’s no place in the league for her,” the Los Angeles Sparks star Candace Parker said Tuesday on TNT.
Terri Jackson, the executive director of the Women’s National Basketball Players Association, said in an interview that the union planned to meet with Engelbert to discuss next steps in addressing Loeffler’s role in the W.N.B.A.
“This is not about a disagreement,” Jackson said. “What we have right now is a situation which reasonable minds could agree that there is just no room for divisive language.”
It is unclear whether the W.N.B.A. will sanction Loeffler any further. A spokeswoman for the league declined to comment.
But Loeffler has given no indication that she plans on stepping down as owner. Quite the opposite: On Wednesday night, she told Fox News’s Laura Ingraham that she would not be giving up her ownership stake. She also cited so-called “cancel culture” as the reason for the backlash.
“This isn’t about me,” Loeffler said. “This is about every American’s right to speak out. To enjoy free speech and to support whatever cause and not be canceled. We have this cancel culture that is threatening America and the foundation of it is that Americans are afraid to speak out because of the cancel culture. And I am not going to be silenced by it.”
A former high school basketball player, Loeffler took over ownership of the team, along with the philanthropist Mary Brock, in 2011 — forming a rare all-female ownership group in professional sports.
“It was the opportunity to solve that business challenge,” she told CNN of what drew her to the team, while “being a part of the growing movement towards growth in professional women’s sports.”
In 2013, Loeffler’s name was floated as a possible candidate for an open Senate seat in Georgia to replace the retiring Saxby Chambliss, a Republican. With her wealth and outsider status she was seen as a possible boon to a run. She had also been a longtime donor to Republicans. She ultimately passed on running.
But at the end of last year, when Senator Johnny Isakson, Republican of Georgia, announced that he was resigning for health reasons, there was another opportunity. Gov. Brian Kemp, a Republican, appointed Loeffler to the seat, over the objections of President Trump, who preferred Representative Doug Collins — setting up a contentious special election in November. (For this Georgia election, there is no primary. To win, a candidate must get 50 percent of the vote. If no candidate reaches that threshold, the top two candidates have a runoff. The Rev. Dr. Raphael G. Warnock, is considered to be the top Democrat in the race.)
Loeffler’s appointment was a sore spot for some of Trump’s most ardent supporters, and she has gone to great lengths to show that she is in lock step with the president, who has made several inflammatory racial comments in the wake of Floyd’s death.
“Collins is thought of as being very conservative and very popular with Trump supporters and I think she wants to solidify her bona fides in that same fashion and this might be a way of doing that,” Scott H. Ainsworth, a political-science professor at the University of Georgia, said, referring to Loeffler’s letter to Englebert.
But the letter also drew a flood of criticism from players, including Renee Montgomery, a Dream player who is sitting out the season to focus on promoting social justice.
“I’m pretty sad to see that my team ownership is not supportive of the movement & all that it stands for,” Montgomery wrote on Twitter, addressing Loeffler directly. “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?”
Layshia Clarendon, a guard for the Connecticut Sun, also denounced Loeffler in a joint interview with Engelbert with ABC News on Tuesday.
“That’s what we see so often with sports, with culture, with music, is that you’re OK with Black people as long as they kind of stay in their place,” Clarendon said.
Clarendon, who spent multiple seasons as a member of the Dream, lamented on Twitter that she had “shared a meal” with Loeffler and “stepped foot in her house.”
And Stacey Abrams, a Democrat who came in second for the Georgia governor’s seat to Kemp and who joined the board of the W.N.B.A. players’ union last summer, said Loeffler’s letter was a “regrettable choice of division over unity” in a statement on Twitter. (An extra twist: Abrams was a lawyer for Loeffler when Loeffler purchased the Dream.)
The conflict has spilled over into the Senate race. On Tuesday, Collins expressed agreement with many W.N.B.A. players, but for a different reason: He called for Loeffler to “get out of the liberal agenda advocacy business” and to sell her stake in the Dream. Dr. Warnock, conversely, said that Loeffler had “chosen to give into the narrow impulses of tribalism and bigotry.”
While Loeffler’s future role with the league is unclear, Engelbert made her organization’s position clear in the interview with ABC: “Kelly’s views are not consistent with those of the W.N.B.A. and its players.”