This year, the WNBA said all the right things.
As the 2020 bubble season was being organized (an effort that preserved the league’s PR momentum through the COVID-19 pandemic but put workers’ lives at risk), Minneapolis police murdered George Floyd on video. In response, the WNBA’s players — who often use their platforms to speak out against racism and police brutality — once again helped put those injustices front and center.
The difference was that this time, instead of attempting to stifle their efforts (as they had in previous years), the league more or less embraced them. In collaboration with the WNBPA, the player’s union, the WNBA announced that they would be dedicating the 2020 season to social justice — specifically, to the Black Lives Matter and #SayHerName movements. There was a new Social Justice Council of players, and programming intended to foster any activist inclinations.
It was a move that, as any move made by a massive corporation is bound to be, was ultimately as cynical as it may have appeared altruistic. The league had already launched a rebrand in 2019, deploying the services of an expensive consulting firm to tell them that marketing should focus on the remarkable people who play in the WNBA.
It was a correct assessment that, all the same, almost certainly would not have been made prior to this moment, one in which diversity, inclusion and representation — especially when it comes to Black women and non-binary people, a category that includes most of the league’s players — has become an increasingly (again, correctly) mainstream concern.
Encouraging players’ interest in activism, in advocating for the kinds of issues that affected them the most deeply because of — unfairly — their identities, is then in line with the WNBA’s broader mission of doubling down on the idea that Black women and non-binary people’s empowerment can be bolstered by watching them play sports. Regardless of your take on that conclusion, seeing it deployed for profit — which is, of course, what the WNBA is doing, because not only is it not a 501(c)(3), its leaders are constantly griping about its insufficiently ample revenue stream — is discomfiting.
The players characteristically took the inch the league was willing to give them and ran miles, speaking out consistently and compellingly to advocate for equality, for progress, for an end to systemic racism. Nowhere was their impact felt more potently than in the Georgia senate race, which included incumbent Senator — and Atlanta Dream co-owner — Kelly Loeffler.
When the league announced its dedication of the 2020 season to social justice movements, Loeffler wrote an open letter to the WNBA in which she said, “I adamantly oppose the Black Lives Matter political movement.” The league’s response to this, an open rebuke of not only WNBA players but the safety and well-being of Black people in America, was toothless.
The players’ was not. They immediately began campaigning for Loeffler’s senate challenger, Rev. Raphael Warnock, with a tangible impact on Warnock’s reach and visibility. Players, including players on Loeffler’s own Dream, fearlessly spoke out against her cruel, proudly Trumpist policies and statements — and their work has been rewarded with her election loss. Where she still has a seat at the table, though, is within the WNBA — this league that has made progressive thinking and activism part of its marketing campaign.
Loeffler has done plenty to justify a Donald Sterling-esque lifetime ban from the WNBA. There were the suspicious stock sales that just happened to capitalize on the COVID-19 pandemic, as Americans died at an unprecedented clip and even more fell into poverty. The bill Loeffler introduced to ban transgender girls from girls’ sports. The fact that she donated her Senate salary to anti-abortion groups, and an adoption agency that explicitly discriminates against LGBTQ adopters.
All this without considering her countless bigoted, hateful speeches — and her rejection of her own players. Maybe LeBron will come through on his interest in buying the team, but even if he doesn’t, if the WNBA wants their commitment to social justice to be even slightly believable, Loeffler needs to go.