Five days before WNBA players wore black T-shirts that read “VOTE WARNOCK” last summer, the Rev. Raphael Warnock was polling at 9% and fourth among 21 candidates vying for a Senate seat in Georgia.
Six months later, Warnock, a Democrat making his first foray into politics, won a runoff against incumbent Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler on Jan. 5 to become the first Black senator in Georgia.
Warnock’s victory combined with Democrat Jon Ossoff’s runoff win over Georgia incumbent Republican Sen. David Perdue gave Democrats control of the Senate, in addition to their majority in the House and White House win.
“I woke up on (Jan. 6) and saw the confirmed news and was just really excited,” Storm guard Sue Bird said. “Super happy for everyone involved. Obviously, for Rev. Warnock and his campaign and those that have helped him on the ground in Georgia, people like Stacey Abrams.
“And also feeling really happy and proud for us in the WNBA that we played a small part in this. So it was a really exciting morning.”
The 40-year-old Bird had no intention to play a direct role in the recent elections, but she was one of the key architects behind the WNBA’s first political endorsement that helped boost Warnock, a relatively low-profile preacher at Atlanta’s famed Ebenezer Baptist Church, to national acclaim.
“I’m deeply honored by the support that I got from the WNBA,” Warnock said Dec. 28 during an interview with Storm forward Breanna Stewart on her podcast. “I don’t know if we’ve ever seen in history where an entire professional sports league endorsed a candidate.”
WNBA players wore the “VOTE WARNOCK” T-shirts to their nationally televised ESPN games on Aug. 4 inside the Bradenton, Florida, bubble, and the images quickly went viral on the league’s social-media platforms.
Within days, Warnock gained nearly 4,000 Twitter followers and raised over $250,000. And on Aug. 9, he took the lead for the first time in the polls at 23%, according to FiveThirtyEight.
“I’m grateful because the league standing with me was an important inflection point in my campaign,” Warnock told Stewart. “It gave fuel to our movement.”
Warnock’s polling numbers continued to climb during the fall and he beat Loeffler by a narrow margin in the Nov. 2 special election, which forced the Jan. 5 runoff.
“I probably said that night and into the next day like 30 times, ‘Omigod, he’s going to win,’” Bird said. “I don’t think any of us in the WNBA could ever have imagined we would play any kind of role in helping get a senator elected.”
Bird admits the WNBA wouldn’t have gotten so involved in the elections if not for Loeffler, the Atlanta Dream co-owner who had been a vocal critic of the league’s stance on racial justice and equality last summer.
Loeffler, who aligned herself closely with President Donald Trump, penned a letter to WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert condemning the Black Lives Matter and Say Her Name movements as divisive and polarizing.
“A lot of us were just emotional and feeling very hurt,” said Bird, who described Loeffler’s comments as a kick in the gut. “And you saw our responses. We had knee-jerk reactions and we were like, ‘Get her out’ and we don’t want her in the WNBA.”
For weeks, Loeffler engaged in verbal bouts with WNBA players, who wanted her out of the league.
“The WNBA is about inclusion and we are about equality,” Storm forward Alysha Clark said July 8 during an ESPN interview. “You’re constantly seeing the WNBA players at the front of social-justice causes and fighting for what’s right.
“So to have somebody a part of our league owning a team that opposes the equality of Black lives doesn’t make sense and she needs to go because you have players on your team that are sitting out this year to make a difference and do things in their community for social justice.”
At that time, Bird had a revelation after a conversation with her father, Herschel.
“It appeared as if Senator Loeffler was really just trying to make a political move and was using us as a pawn,” Bird said. “And that political move was to prove how Trumpy she was by standing up to a league full of Black women who were trying to say Black lives matter.
“I was like oh man and it really hit. So the louder we are, and the more we bark at her, that’s actually playing into her political strategy, which obviously there’s irony all over that considering her letter to Cathy was telling us to keep politics out of sports. … From there I started Googling and very quickly I found who her competition was on the Democratic side.”
Bird, who is vice president of the WNBA players union, worked with the union’s executive committee and the league’s social-justice council, which includes Stewart, to quickly settle on Warnock after a vetting process and a series of Zoom calls.
“Rarely in life do the stars align like they did here,” Bird said. “At that point, I talked to my agent Lindsay (Kagawa Colas) and started to reach out and see what was what. And what do you know, Lisa Borders, the former president of the WNBA, knows Rev. Warnock for like 20-plus years and is helping with his campaign.
“And Stacey Abrams, who is on our board of advisors for our union, has already endorsed him and is good friends with him. So it was just like all of these things had already fallen into place and we need to get to know him.”
Within a month of Loeffler’s letter to Engelbert on July 7, WNBA players threw their full support behind her opponent and walked into the league’s bubble at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida, wearing the pro-Warnock T-shirts.
Warnock’s Senate victory also proved to be a historic win for the WNBA, which is constantly fighting for equal footing among the professional leagues.
“I’m so proud of our entire league for stepping up and using our platform for change!” Clark tweeted on Jan. 6. “People joke about our league, but understand this: A LEAGUE OF AMAZING WOMEN TEAMED UP WITH AN AMAZING BLACK WOMAN TO HELP FLIP A SENATE SEAT! Keep making jokes while we keep making change.”
“Winning is cool, but have you ever flipped the senate???” Stewart tweeted. “Big time congrats @ReverendWarnock!! We are on the right side of history!!”
Washington Mystics guard Natasha Cloud told the Washington Post: “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. 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.”
So where do the WNBA and Loeffler go from here?
According to The New York Times, an investment group that includes former NBA player Baron Davis has expressed interest in purchasing the Dream.
Recently, Los Angeles Lakers star LeBron James and Portland Trail Blazers star Carmelo Anthony tweeted their interest in creating a group to buy the team.
“The league is aware that discussions with potential buyers are ongoing,” Engelbert said in a statement last week. “Once those negotiations are concluded, additional information will be provided.”
Meanwhile, WNBA players are exploring social-justice issues they’ll champion for the 2021 season. The league has a history of driving societal conversations on race, LGBTQ advocacy, voter registration and gun control.
“We do know that we don’t want it to stop here, but that’s been the case always,” Bird said. “We never stop. That much, I know for sure. We’re going to keep pushing forward. We’ll see. If we’re back in our cities this summer, I wouldn’t be surprised if we talk about education reform and helping our communities that way.”