Atlanta Dream, Co-Owned By Former Sen. Kelly Loeffler, Is Close To Being Sold

Jan 21, 2021

Ever since former Georgia Sen. Kelly Loeffler denounced the WNBA's support for Black Lives Matter last summer, players have been pressuring the league to force her to sell her stake in the Atlanta Dream basketball team.

Now, according to the WNBA, a deal for the sale of the team "is close to being finalized." The league did not release any further details.

The WNBA has a history of racial justice activism, and last year the league and its union decided to put "Black Lives Matter" and "Say Her Name" slogans on warmup gear and opening weekend team uniforms.

Last summer, Loeffler, who was campaigning as a Republican candidate in a tough race for one of Georgia's U.S. Senate seats, called on the league's commissioner to drop support of the Black Lives Matter movement.

"The truth is, we need less ā€” not more politics in sports," Loeffler wrote in a letter to WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert. "In a time when polarizing politics is as divisive as ever, sports has the power to be a unifying antidote."

Sen. Kelly Loeffler, R-Ga., waits for Vice President Mike Pence to arrive for her swear-in reenactment for the cameras in the Capitol on Monday, Jan. 6, 2020.
Bill Clark / Getty Images

Players for the Atlanta Dream responded at their next nationally televised game. They wore black t-shirts with big white letters saying "VOTE WARNOCK." It was an endorsement of the Rev. Raphael Warnock, pastor of Atlanta's historic Ebenezer Church and one of Loeffler's opponents in the Senate race.

Players from across the league joined in the protest and also wore Vote Warnock shirts for their games that night, including Las Vegas Aces forward Angel McCoughtry. A former Dream player, she says it wasn't just a protest against Loeffler but an endorsement for Warnock and his positions on racial justice, LGTBQ issues and health care.

"We didn't just do it because she denounced Black Lives Matter," said McCoughtry. "Before we even put 'Vote Warnock' shirts on, we did our research. We said, let's make sure we're doing this for the right cause."

At the time, Warnock was polling at just 9 percent. After the players' endorsement, the Warnock campaign says it was flooded with donations and followers on social media. "It was a pretty immediate and noticeable spike," said Warnock campaign spokesman Terrence Clark.

After the general election, the race went to a runoff and Warnock won. Looking back on it, McCoughtry says she wasn't surprised by the result.

"When you get a bunch of winners together what do you think the outcome will be?"

Before she left the Dream, McCoughtry had played for the team for about as long as Loeffler has been a co-owner. Initially, she says players supported Loeffler's leadership. And after the former financial services executive was appointed senator in January, replacing retiring Sen. Johnny Isakson, they even saw a possible opportunity in her political ambitions.

"At first we were excited, like, 'Oh, wow. This is cool. Kelly's running for Senate. That should be interesting. Maybe that might open some doors. She'll listen to our ideas to make this a better world.'" said McCoughtry.

But when Loeffler criticized Black Lives Matter and alleged it was "founded on Marxist principles," McCoughtry saw it as a sort of betrayal of the league's players who are mostly Black.

"How can you look your girls in the face after that and be an owner of a team?" said McCoughtry.

Other players in the league made it clear they also wanted Loeffler to sell her 49 percent stake in the team. (Mary Brock, the wife of Coca-Cola CEO John Brock, owns the remaining stake.)

Last summer, the players' union tweeted out a photo of Loeffler with the words "ENOUGH" and "OUT."

After Warnock was declared the winner in the Senate race on Jan. 5, big name prospective buyers showed interest in the Dream.

Lebron James tweeted that he was thinking of putting together an ownership group. Mookie Betts of the Los Angeles Dodgers, Carmelo Anthony of the Portland Trail Blazers, and tennis legend Billie Jean King also replied to the tweet saying they were interested.

For her part, Atlanta Dream guard Tiffany Hayes says it's time to move on.

"We did our part. We got the world to see us. We got the world to, you know, vote," she said.

And after seeing the impact of their voices, the players say they have no plans to stop mixing political activism and basketball.

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

A deal for the sale of the Atlanta Dream women's basketball team is close to being finalized. The WNBA has not said who's buying the team, but the current owners include former Georgia Senator Kelly Loeffler, a Republican. The team's mostly Black players wanted the league to force her to sell after the candidate came out against Black Lives Matter during her senatorial campaign. NPR's Emma Peaslee reports.

EMMA PEASLEE, BYLINE: When the WNBA announced its support for the Black Lives Matter organization last summer, Kelly Loeffler sent a letter to the league criticizing it for bringing politics onto the basketball court. And that's where the players made their voices heard.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: A political statement tonight from members of the Atlanta Dream against their owner.

PEASLEE: The players wore black T-shirts with big white letters saying Vote Warnock at their next game against the Phoenix Mercury. They were endorsing Reverend Raphael Warnock. He's the pastor of Atlanta's historic Ebenezer Church and one of Loeffler's opponents in the race for a Georgia Senate seat. Players from across the league joined in the protest and also wore Vote Warnock shirts for their games that night. Angel McCoughtry was one of them. She's a former Dream player now on the Las Vegas Aces. She says it wasn't just a protest against Loeffler, but an endorsement for Warnock and his positions on racial justice and other issues.

ANGEL MCCOUGHTRY: We didn't just do it because she denounced Black Lives Matter. Before we even put Vote Warnock shirts out, we did our research. We said let's make sure we're doing this for the right cause.

PEASLEE: At the time, Warnock was polling at just 9%. After the players' endorsement, the Warnock campaign says they were flooded with donations and followers on social media. The race went to a runoff and Warnock won. Looking back on it, McCoughtry says she's not surprised by the result.

MCCOUGHTRY: When you get a bunch of winners together, what do you think the outcome will be?

PEASLEE: Before she left, McCoughtry had played for the Dream for about as long as Loeffler has been a co-owner. Initially, she says, players supported Loeffler's leadership and her political ambitions.

MCCOUGHTRY: So at first, we were excited. Like, oh, wow, this is cool. Kelly's running for Senate. That should be interesting. Maybe that might open some doors.

PEASLEE: But when Loeffler criticized Black Lives Matter, McCoughtry saw it as a sort of betrayal of the league's players, who are mostly Black.

MCCOUGHTRY: How can you look your girls in the face after that and be an owner of a team?

PEASLEE: Other players in the league also made it clear they wanted Loeffler to sell her 49% stake in the team. Last summer, the players' union tweeted a photo of Loeffler spelling out the words enough and out. And prospective buyers lined up quickly. LeBron James tweeted that he was thinking of putting together an ownership group for the Dream. Big names like Mookie Betts of the Los Angeles Dodgers and tennis legend Billie Jean King replied that they were interested. For her part, Atlanta Dream player Tiffany Hayes thinks it's time to move on.

TIFFANY HAYES: Like, we did our - we did our part. Like, we got the world to see us. We got the world to, you know, vote. We got Georgia to vote.

PEASLEE: And after seeing the impact of their support for Warnock, the players say they have no plans to stop mixing political activism and basketball.

Emma Peaslee, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF CASHMERE CAT'S "MIRROR MARU") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.