Last fall, only a handful of people had reason to regularly think about Kelly Loeffler, then a cryptocurrency executive and hands-off owner of the Women’s National Basketball Association’s Atlanta Dream. Now, as a member of the Senate running in a special election, she is functioning as the focal point of the women’s basketball league’s most prominent culture clash.
Loeffler has owned 49 percent of the Dream franchise since 2011, but she has created friction with the players since Georgia Republican Governor Brian Kemp picked her to replace the resigning Senator Johnny Isakson this past January. Her jump into politics wasn’t totally random, as she briefly entertained running for Senate following the retirement of Republican Saxby Chambliss in 2013. But since taking office in January, Loeffler—who was initially branded as possibly not being conservative enough—has quickly risen to the task of fitting the Trump-era Republican mold. So far, she’s voted 100 percent in line with the president’s desires and has spent her time sponsoring bills like the Stopping Big Tech’s Censorship Act, the Cracking Down on Gangs and Deporting Criminals Act, and the Stop Greenlighting Driver Licenses for Illegal Immigrants Act.
Loeffler has also leveraged her position as a now prominent conservative WNBA owner during America’s ongoing reckoning with its racist police. During protests in Atlanta sparked by the police killing of Rayshard Brooks, Loeffler spoke on Fox News in late June and said, “We cannot allow mob rule,” doubling down on the statement on social media two days later (where she was not censored). Alex English, a member of the WNBA’s board of advocates, tweeted that Loeffler’s comments gave off “Donald Sterling vibes,” a reference to the ousted Los Angeles Clippers owner who was caught on tape asking his then girlfriend to stop publicly “associating with black people.” English’s comments were then further publicized in a column by Yahoo Sports’s Shalise Manza Young that questioned why the WNBA allowed Loeffler to keep her ownership position. That column was shared by a number of high-profile WNBA players.
What differentiates Loeffler from Sterling in this particular case, anyway, is that Loeffler is purposefully not hiding her rhetoric from public consumption. It is the defining facet of her presence as a public figure in American life. She is a petulant Trump acolyte who recognizes that her sole path to political and personal success will be sprinting to, not from, controversial remarks and embracing any resulting backlash. She does not voice the same explicit anti-Black rhetoric that Sterling did, but she clearly grasps that there are necessary dog whistles she needs to sound in order to mobilize those in her target demographic.
In July, the WNBA announced that its forthcoming games would be resumed with a “commitment to advancing social justice,” which included special uniforms with the name of Breonna Taylor printed on them and “Nike-branded warm-up shirts that display ‘Black Lives Matter’ on the front.” Loeffler pounced. She wrote a peevish letter to WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert, including the complaint that “we need less—not more politics in sports.” Referencing the BLM movement, Loeffler wrote that “this is not a political movement that the league should be embracing, and I emphatically oppose it.” Later, during a campaign stop, she said, “There is an organization—different from the saying—an organization called Black Lives Matter founded on Marxist principles. Marxism supports socialism.”
This line, that Black voices speaking against systemic forms of racism are the product of the communist agenda, is an argument with a distinct connotation. It’s a line that was ridden into the dirt by segregationists during the civil rights era. In 1956, Mississippi convened a State Sovereignty Commission to oppose integration and educate the public on the “evils of communism,” then kept it alive in the subsequent decades to denigrate the movement’s work. In 1983, North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms railed against the “action-oriented Marxism” of Martin Luther King, Jr. as he argued against a national holiday in King’s remembrance.
Loeffler’s comments forced the Dream players to respond in kind. Last week the team, along with the Phoenix Mercury, wore warm-up shirts that read “Vote Warnock,” encouraging Georgia voters to vote for Raphael Warnock, a Democratic candidate who is running against Loeffler for Senate in November’s special election. Speaking with The New York Times, forward Elizabeth Williams addressed the spot that Loeffler had put herself in. “Honestly, I think that she wants the league to push her out,” Williams said. “She wants that to be part of this statement that she’s making that, ‘Oh, Black Lives Matter is divisive. They pushed me out because they feel differently, blah blah blah.’” Williams noted that by ignoring Loeffler and instead advocating for an opposing candidate, the players are trying to avoid a situation that gives their owner the attention she desires.
The question for the WNBA is this: How do you punish someone who so desperately wants to capitalize on that punishment?
Williams’s assessment seems accurate: that Loeffler is angling for the WNBA to oust her a la Sterling so she can claim to have been “canceled” by the liberal establishment ahead of a tight special election. For now, the league is trying to thread the needle instead. Engelbert said in mid-July that Loeffler is “no longer involved in the day-to-day business of the team,” but she was emphatic that the league will not force Loeffler to sell the team, despite a demand from the WNBA players’ union.
Even if the WNBA helped tender a sizable exit package in exchange for Loeffler agreeing to sell, there would be no reason for Loeffler to do so because antagonizing her employees has now become such a central and valuable political asset for her. That alone should justify her removal as an owner. Even at the height of former National Football League quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s police brutality protest, with Trump calling for teams to fire players who joined in, NFL owners did not openly belittle their players this way (though they did continue to blackball Kaepernick). This isn’t the reality for the Dream players. Any time the team tries to speak on Black Lives Matter or WNBA attempts its brand of corporate social justice, Loeffler will be right there with a quote about how it’s all socialism.
Citizens using their First Amendment rights to promote a candidate for the United States Senate is not proof of “out of control cancel culture,” as Loeffler claimed in a statement last week following her team’s warm-up shirt protest. It is a reaction to a situation that Loeffler, in her roles as both owner and politician, engineered to build her personal brand. As Williams pointed out to the Times, there’s little the players can do to affect Loeffler’s ownership status. “We can control who we vote for,” she said. But Warnock is currently polling at 9 percent behind Loeffler and Republican Doug Collins. Barring a sudden surge from the teams’ sartorial endorsement, the election seems likely to end in a January runoff between the two uber-conservative candidates, leaving the players in the unenviable position of having flipped their boss the bird and then being left to deal with the league’s inaction.
It is undoubtedly an infuriating situation for the WNBA and more so for the players, who have to question whether their employer or the league truly believe in the progressive values they spout. It’s true that forcing Loeffler to sell, or otherwise pushing her out, will galvanize Loeffler and her supporters. But as Williams noted, you can only control what you control. The players alone cannot unseat Loeffler from Congress, but the league certainly has the authority to ditch her as an owner, and that would be in the best interests of the Dream players. The National Basketball Association proved it’s possible, if the will exists. Eliminating her negative influence from the lives of her employees is worth the cost of a few delirious Fox News segments.