Atlanta Dream’s Elizabeth Williams on finding her voice ahead of Georgia’s Senate runoff

WNBA player Elizabeth Williams of the Atlanta Dream discusses finding her voice and her decision to endorse Rev. Warnock in the U.S. Senate race
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By Elizabeth Williams, as told to Alex Azzi

Editor’s Note: WNBA player Elizabeth Williams is the longest standing member of the Atlanta Dream. Ahead of Georgia’s upcoming Senate runoff, Williams wrote about finding her voice during the 2020 WNBA season and why she decided to endorse Reverend Raphael Warnock, who is running against Kelly Loeffler, the co-owner of her WNBA team.

In June, I went to my first ever protest. I live in Atlanta and a whole group of us gathered at Centennial Olympic Park. It was incredible. It wasn’t only black people or white allies who were there. There was this sentiment that ‘we’ve had enough.’ Everyone felt it.

It was a peaceful, nonviolent protest. At most there was yelling and chanting. Of course, some people tried to change the narrative. But it was peaceful. Intimidating? Yes, but peaceful. It was a really unique experience for me, and one that stuck with me as I contemplated how to approach the 2020 WNBA season, which was scheduled to start in July.

I’m on the Executive Committee of the WNBPA (our union) and a member of the Atlanta Dream. As we were negotiating what the WNBA bubble (eventually nicknamed “the Wubble”) was going to look like, we were adamant that social justice was going to be at the forefront. Given that we had the opportunity to play, we wanted to use our voices and fight for the issues that are important to players in the league.

Ultimately, we decided to dedicate the season to social justice initiatives, which included highlighting the Black Lives Matter movement and the #SayHerName campaign.

You might already know what happened next. The co-owner of my team – who is also a U.S. Senator – wrote a letter denouncing the WNBA’s support for Black Lives Matter. For an owner of a team, in a league that is nearly 80 percent Black, to denounce a movement that affects the lives and families of the majority of its athletes, it felt disheartening and frustrating to say the least.

Now at this point, I’m the longest standing member of the Atlanta Dream. I got drafted into the WNBA in 2015, but I was traded to Atlanta in 2016 and I’ve been with the Dream ever since. So… I’ve known our co-owner for a few years. We would have our end-of-year dinners at her house, which is not even a house. It’s a mansion.

When our co-owner made her statement, different players in the league commented, saying things like, ‘This is unacceptable, she shouldn’t be an owner.’ And then our union, and the league itself, also made statements… But our team was struggling with what to do, what to say… Because at the end of the day, she does cut our checks, regardless of how little or how much involvement she has as an owner.

Anyone who knows me knows I’m not super outgoing. I’ve always been someone who enjoys learning and being a sponge, but I’m not the person you would expect to be out there on the front lines of all of this.

But as things developed, I found myself asking, ‘How can I effectively make sure that we’re getting our points across?’

Within the WNBPA Executive Committee, we have a group chat via WhatsApp. I remember Sue Bird wrote something like, ‘Alright, this owner is in a senate seat that nobody actually voted for. What about looking at who else is running for the seat come the election?’

And that’s how we learned about Reverend Raphael Warnock.

We’re not politicians, we didn’t really know how the political system worked, but we wanted to see what Reverend Warnock was about.

And so, we used the political connections we already had. Between Lisa Borders, the former Commissioner of the WNBA, and Stacey Abrams, who is on our union’s Board of Advocates, we had little pieces to help put a plan in motion.

We set up a Zoom call with Reverend Warnock and his team. He explained all the work that he had done, his role as an activist, his support for women’s rights, reproductive health, universal health care – all of these issues that are important to our social justice movement.

Atlanta Dream's Elizabeth Williams and teammates wearing Vote Warnock T-shirts

After talking with Reverend Warnock, the discussion became, ‘Okay, we like this guy, so how do we express our support for him?’ We decided on T-shirts, because that was our whole M.O. in the Wubble. When we would walk off the bus and into the arena, the media would take pictures of us. It became a way to make statements about things that mattered to us.

So on August 4, the day of the Dream’s first nationally televised game of the season, we walked off the bus wearing “Vote Warnock” T-shirts. Every other team followed suit.

The WNBA has always been bigger than just us players. We’re a relatively small league – just 12 teams and 144 players – but we’re the longest standing women’s professional league in the country. We know that there are little kids who look up to us and that we are in this really unique position.

I think that, as female athletes, as majority Black athletes, we’re inherently political. Some people don’t like seeing women in sports or women in positions of power. We are this unique cohort of people that represent things that are universally not in the majority. We can’t control how we’re viewed, so at the end of the day, our authenticity drives us.

We’re also very different from the NBA in that we’re not on TV all the time. So, when we have the chance to have games on TV, on ESPN or on ABC, it’s hard to just say, ‘Alright, we’re not going to play.’ But after Jacob Blake was shot, that was a question we asked ourselves. That moment felt different.

On Wednesday, August 26, we were scheduled to play the Washington Mystics at 7pm on ESPN. When we got to the arena, we had a conversation on the court with the Mystics players. Then the teams for the 8pm game arrived. We had four teams just talking to each other out on the floor, something that could only happen in the year 2020 in the Wubble. We were asking each other, ‘If we decide not to play today, how do we do something with it?’ I remember Nneka Ogwumike, our union President, helping lead the conversation and making sure different perspectives were heard.

Regardless if games were played or not, we knew we needed to make a statement, something to share with the media on behalf of the players. Between conversations on the court, I was also on the phone with Terri Jackson, the executive director of our union. We worked together to draft a statement.

When we decided we weren’t going to play that night, or the following day, I looked at the statement on my phone and revised it to reflect the conversations I had with other players.

If you had told me three months earlier that I would be the person to read a statement like this, I never would have believed you. But in that moment, it was a no-brainer that I was the one sharing our message with the world. I took a deep breath, looked straight into the camera, and began reading.

By not playing, we didn’t just not play. We used the next day to reflect and to strategize. We made sure people registered to vote and had a plan to vote by mail or in-person. It was one of those moments when you stop and realize ‘Alright, we’re really doing something.’ There were different opportunities for players to be on major networks like CNN and MSNBC. In the past, you just wouldn’t see athletes – especially Black female athletes – with that type of platform.

Even after the WNBA season ended in October, and players left the Wubble, our social justice work continued.

In November, Reverend Warnock forced our team owner into a January 5th runoff election for her senate seat.

A few weeks ago, the Washington Post published a story that looked at the statistical impact WNBA players had on Warnock’s campaign. It found that after our T-shirt campaign in August, Warnock’s campaign brought in 20 percent more donations than previous days, for a boost of $40,000 in just 48 hours. As WNBA players, we can say we made a big impact on this election with those shirts. But when you actually have the raw data, you can’t deny it. Numbers don’t lie. And that is really motivating for this last push before January’s runoff election.

I’m currently playing overseas in Turkey, and while I can’t be on the ground in Georgia for these final days, I’ve remained involved with Warnock’s campaign by phone banking and posting on social media.

That said, I’m still not a politician. I still don’t claim to be. But I have a better understanding of how the system works. Putting myself out there and becoming more vocal has been a big shift for me. While I’m appreciative that I was put in this position, I’m also glad that I’ve embraced being in it.

I also know that little things – things like signing petitions or wearing a T-shirt or responding to a WhatsApp message – can result in big things, perhaps even flipping the U.S. Senate.

[RELATED READING: Sue Bird on activism in the WNBA: “Who better to speak on these issues?”

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Utah Royals FC announce NWSL return as new ownership addresses Utah’s abortion restrictions

Real Salt Lake owner, Ryan Smith, left, and NWSL Commissioner Jessica Berman pose at a press conference where they announced the return of Utah Royals FC.

SANDY, Utah – The 2023 NWSL season kicks off Saturday and there’s one thing we know for sure: This is the last year the league will be 12 teams after the Utah Royals FC recently announced its return to the league for 2024.

“I knew that this was going to be one of the most important things that we do,” Jessica Berman said at the announcement March 11 regarding her priority initiatives over her first year as NWSL commissioner. “I lead on behalf of the NWSL, who is making sure that we bring this team back because we know the NWSL fans here are avid, and they care and they’re passionate, and that’s why we’re so excited to bring this team back to the community that’s been asking for [it].”

The Royals ownership group includes Ryan Smith, owner of Smith Entertainment Group, a sports, technology and entertainment investment group whose portfolio includes the Utah Jazz (NBA), Real Salt Lake (MLS), Vivint Arena, America First Field, the Salt Lake City Stars (NBA G-League), Real Monarchs (MLS NEXT Pro) and management of the Salt Lake Bees (Triple A baseball); and David Blitzer, owner of sports investment group Global Football Holdings, which has interests in the Philadelphia 76ers (NBA), New Jersey Devils (NHL), Cleveland Guardians (MLB) and seven European soccer entities including Crystal Palace (England) and FC Augsburg (Germany).

Also joining the ownership is Kraft Analytics Group CEO Jessica Gelman and Philadelphia 76ers exec Daryl Morey, who are part of a five-investor consortium named 42 Futbol Group. Rounding out the group are Netflix vice president Amy Reinhard, former Ernst & Young partner Jim Steger and Eleanor Health CEO Corbin Petro. Gelman will serve as the team’s alternate governor alongside Blitzer, while Michelle Hyncik has been named the club’s president. Hyncik has served as RSL’s general counsel for the past three years and spent five years working as a senior legal counsel for Major League Soccer.

In a recent interview with Sportico, Gelman said the group believes that analytics was being underutilized in leagues such as the WNBA and NWSL, noting “there was a natural fit between 42 Futbol Group’s vision and the commitment from Utah Soccer to dedicate appropriate resources toward the new women’s franchise.”

“This is the right opportunity, with the right overarching ownership group, which has the same vision as us: to empower women, affect change and to do it right,” Gelman said. “Alignment of values is so important.”

The new club is returning to a state with a very different landscape following the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade last June. Just four days after the Royals’ announcement, Utah’s Gov. Spencer Coxsigned into a law a bill that bans all abortion clinics by Jan. 1, 2024.

Berman stated last summer that a state’s abortion laws would factor into the league’s decision regarding expansion cities: “It’s one of the things that we’re actually currently analyzing, which is looking even at our current markets to see where we have some differentiation between our values and what we stand behind relative to where we have teams located, and what are the solutions we can put in place that we feel comfortable we can commit to and execute on,” she said.

Berman, Smith and Hyncik talked with On Her Turf about how they plan to address Utah’s reproductive health-care laws within the Royals organization, plus we unpack Utah’s new legislation and take a look at what’s new for the club’s second iteration.

Current Utah abortion legislation counting down to 2024 ban on clinics

Cox signed H.B. 467 into law on March 15 and it takes effect May 3, when abortion clinics will be required to close either by the end of the year or when their license expires, whichever comes first. Additionally, the Utah Department of Health and Human Services will not be allowed to grant or renew abortion clinic licenses starting May 2. The full ban goes into effect Jan. 1, 2024.

The bill does include exceptions for victims of rape and incest, when the mother’s life is in danger or when the fetus has a “lethal fetal anomaly.” It also classifies violations of Utah’s abortion laws as “unprofessional conduct” for health-care providers, requires doctors to offer perinatal hospice and palliative care options as alternatives to abortion for women facing a fatal anomaly, and prohibits abortion for victims of sexual assault and incest after 18 weeks.

“This bill clarifies that so that those abortions can continue. They will continue in a hospital setting, but there’s nothing to prevent those from continuing,” Cox said at a recent news conference.

Under the legislation, all abortions will be required to take place in a hospital, which is defined as “a general hospital licensed by the state.” Critics warn that moving abortions to hospital facilities will likely raise the cost of accessing an abortion in Utah, even when medically necessary, as out-of-pocket costs in a hospital can reach into the thousands compared to costs at abortion clinics.

How Royals ownership, NWSL are addressing Utah’s abortion laws

Both Smith and Berman addressed head-on the concerns over players’ and female staff health-care access in light of Utah’s restrictions. Smith noted that it’s something his companies have already addressed and implemented a policy for.

“Similar to what we’ve done with the Jazz and what we’ve done with all the employees that work in this organization: If there’s healthcare that is not provided by the state, we’ve offered a stipend, we’ve offered consideration for them to go receive whatever treatment they want elsewhere,” he said. “This is one of the greatest reasons why Michelle (Hyncik) is in this spot, because we worked hand-in-hand with her to develop all of this and roll it out.

“There’s a lot of opportunity we have to push forward what the women in this state can go do. I’m incredibly proud of the women that we have in the state, Look at the entrepreneurship and this platform – it’s way bigger than soccer. And as a girl dad, that’s what I want to see — I want my daughters want to work here. I want our stats department and our analytics to be the best in women’s sports, and I don’t know why we can’t officially own that. And with Jessica (Gelman) coming on board – that’s what she’s done out of Boston and with all of their analytics background, like, that’s right here.”

Berman expressed confidence in the Royals’ ownership, noting: “It’s something that we talk about often and in particular with Meghann Burke (executive director of the NWSL Player Association), and we know that it’s on players’ minds. It’s our responsibility to offer that safety net for players, and we know that the Royals ownership group is completely aligned to ensure that if an athlete’s medical needs are not able to be addressed in their home market, that we have the mechanisms and the tools to offer them the support they need, even if they have to leave the market. We’re going to work closely with the union and with our players and our health-care providers to make sure that our players are taken care of.”

In a statement to local Salt Lake City news outlet, a club spokesperson stated that: “For all employees enrolled in our benefits plan, we have had a policy in place where if there is a medical procedure that is not provided in the state of Utah, we will provide a reimbursement of up to $4,000 toward travel and lodging costs.”

The nearest abortion providers outside of Utah are in Colorado — in Durango and Glenwood Springs. Earlier in March, a proposed Planned Parenthood clinic in West Wendover, Nevada, was blocked when city council members denied the organization’s request for a conditional use permit. According to the Guttmacher Institute, however, Colorado is protective of abortion rights and has a shield law to protect abortion providers from investigations by other states.

What’s new for the Utah Royals

The new Utah Royals FC has a lot to look forward to, beginning with a new, state-of-the-art locker room at newly renamed America First Credit Union Field, the stadium they’ll share with MLS team Real Salt Lake.

“I personally have Saran-wrapped that locker room off,” said Hyncik. “Those facilities have been in hibernation, just waiting for the women to come back.”

Additionally, the stadium saved spaces for Royals murals, intentionally left blank when the team did recent improvements and now filled with artworks. Expect to see a depiction of the club’s updated crest, which still features a lioness wearing a crown and a blue, gold and red color scheme, but the new badge is a bolder, cleaner look that also pays homage to Utah with its iconic mountain range graphically incorporated into the crown. Philadelphia-based Tobah Kaiser and her women-run studio, Tov Creative, led the redesign project.

As for partners, the Royals announced the YWCA Utah as a foundational partner and donated $20,000 to the organization during halftime of RSL’s home opener. Hyncik said the Royals also will support STEM education opportunities for young women in the community. America First Credit Union, a longtime partner of RSL and the original Royals, will be the new Royals’ jersey front partner.

“Our foremost goal is to empower women, not only on the field but also the young women off the field who look up to them as heroes and women throughout the community,” she added.

History of Utah Royals FC

The Royals were first established in November 2017, the same week that FC Kansas City folded its club and the team’s player contracts, draft picks and other rights were transferred to the new Salt Lake City team. The expansion club debuted in 2018, packing in 19,203 fans at the home opener at Rio Tinto Stadium, and regularly averaging 11,000 fans or more during three seasons in the NWSL.

England’s Laura Harvey, who currently manages Seattle’s OL Reign, was hired as the first head coach and recorded an 18-17-12 (W-L-D) record over the first two seasons. Several U.S. national team members spent time with Utah including Kelly O’Hara, Christen Press, Amy Rodriguez and Becky Sauerbrunn.

The 2020 season was a tumultuous one for Utah. Head coach Craig Harrington was placed on administrative leave that September amid reports that he allegedly made inappropriate sexual and racist comments to staff and was being verbally abusive, and subsequently was fired in November. Harrington received a two-year suspension from the NWSL this past January after an investigation found he “made inappropriate sexual and objectifying comments” to players.

Amy LePeilbet stepped in as interim coach, and the team went 0-2-2 to finish the season. Additionally, MLS opened an investigation into Real Salt Lake and Royals owner Dell Loy Hansen for racist comments and behavior. Hansen sold his Utah soccer holdings, which included the Royals, RSL and USL’s Real Monarchs, at the end of the year.

The team officially finished 18-14-17 in three seasons in Utah, never reaching the NWSL Cup playoffs but making a statement during the pandemic when the league needed a place to play the 2020 NWSL Challenge Cup — a one-off tournament that marked the league’s return to action. The Royals donated $900,000 to help establish a bubble for the four-week tournament that stretched from June 27-July 26, as the NWSL became the first North American professional sports league to return to play following the national shutdown.

In December that year, the Royals moved back east to become the Kansas City Current, whose ownership group includes Brittany and Patrick Mahomes. In January 2022, Real Salt Lake transitioned ownership to Blitzer and Smith.

More about potential NWSL expansion teams 

In July, the NWSL announced that it would be adding two expansion teams in 2024 and a third later on. The other two cities expected to secure franchises are Boston and the San Francisco Bay area, according to a Wall Street Journal report that estimates the two cities will pay a record $50 million in franchise fees. Utah paid a much cheaper price, reportedly $3.5 million, thanks to a prior agreement by former NWSL commissioner Lisa Baird, who had agreed to a fixed reactivation fee.

The 2022 season debuted two new NWSL teams, both located in California: Angel City FC, which averaged more than 19,000 fans at games last year, and San Diego Wave FC, which reached the playoff semifinals and set several attendance records.

Like Utah, Boston would be making its return to the NWSL. The Boston Breakers, one of the NWSL’s original teams, played for five years from 2013-17. San Francisco and Utah are set to begin play in 2024, with Boston launching at a later date.

MORE FROM ON HER TURF: 2023 LPGA Drive On Championship — How to watch, who’s playing in season’s first full-field event

2023 LPGA Drive On Championship: How to watch, who’s playing in season’s first full-field event

Jin-young Ko of South Korea and Nelly Korda on the 17th tee during the final round of the CME Group Tour Championship.
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The LPGA Tour makes its return to the Arizona desert this week at the 2023 LPGA Drive On Championship at Superstition Mountain Golf and Country Club. The season’s first full-field event features eight of the world’s top 10 players plus a slew of fresh faces as this year’s rookie class gets its first taste of competition as tour members.

This week’s event features 144 players (plus two Monday qualifiers) competing for the $1.75 million prize purse in a 72-hole tournament that will implement the LPGA’s new cutline policy for the first time. Beginning this week, the 36-hole cut will change from the top 70 players and ties to the top 65 and ties advancing to weekend action. The LPGA says it hopes to “establish a faster pace of play” with the change.”

Arizona last hosted the LPGA for the 2019 Bank of Hope Founders Cup at Wildfire Golf Club, where Jin Young Ko earned her first of four LPGA titles that season. The tour last played at Superstition Mountain in the Safeway International from 2004 to 2008, where Hall of Famers Annika Sorenstam (2004, 2005) and Lorena Ochoa (2007, 2008) each won twice, and Juli Inkster won in 2006.

The tournament marks the first of four events over the next five weeks (taking off the week of the Masters, April 7-10) and kicks off the crescendo that’s building to the LPGA’s first major of the season, The Chevron Championship, April 20-23 in its new location at The Woodlands, Texas. The 72-hole LPGA Drive On Championship features 144 players, in addition to two Monday qualifiers, who will compete for a $1.75 million purse.

How to watch the 2023 LPGA Drive On Championship

You can watch the 2023 LPGA Drive On Championship on Golf Channel, Peacock, and the NBC Sports app. Check out the complete TV and streaming schedule:

  • Thursday, March 23: 9-11 p.m. ET, Golf Channel
  • Friday, March 24: 9-11 p.m. ET, Golf Channel
  • Saturday, March 25: 6-10 p.m. ET, live stream; 7-9 p.m. ET, Golf Channel
  • Sunday, March 26: 6-10 p.m. ET, live stream; 7-9 p.m. ET, Golf Channel

Who’s playing in the 2023 LPGA Drive On Championship

Sitting out this week are world No. 1 Lydia Ko and No. 5 Minjee Lee, but No. 2 Nelly Korda and No. 3 Jin Young Ko are back in action following Ko’s return to the winner’s circle two weeks ago in Singapore, where she held off Korda by two strokes. Also in the field this week are:

  • No. 4 Atthaya Thitikul
  • No. 6 Lexi Thompson
  • No. 7 Brooke Henderson
  • No. 8 In Gee Chun
  • No. 9 Hyo-Joo Kim
  • No. 10 Nasa Hataoka
  • 2022 major winners Ashleigh Buhai, Jennifer Kupcho, Chun, Henderson

Rookies and Epson Tour graduates making their first starts as LPGA members include 20-year-old Lucy Li, a two-time Epson Tour winner who might be best known for playing the 2014 U.S.  Women’s Open as an 11-year-old; South Korea’s Hae Ran Ryu, who took medalist honors at LPGA Q-Series; and 18-year-old Alexa Pano, who finished tied for 21st at Q School to earn her card but might be best known from her role in the 2013 Netflix documentary, “The Short Game.”

Past winners, history of the Drive On Championship

The Drive On Championship was initially created as a series of LPGA events that marked the tour’s back-to-competition efforts following the pandemic. Each tournament used the “Drive On” slogan in support of the tour’s resilience, beginning with the first series event in July 2020 at Inverness Club in Toledo, Ohio, where Danielle Kang won by one stroke over Celine Boutier. The second event, held in October 2020, replaced the three stops originally scheduled in Asia, and was held at Reynolds Lake Oconee Great Waters Course in Greensboro, Georgia. Ally McDonald captured her career first LPGA title by one stroke over Kang.

The last two “Drive On” events were staged in Florida, at Golden Ocala Golf Club (Ocala) in March 2021 and at Crown Colony Golf Club (Fort Myers) in February 2022. Austin Ernst cruised to her third career title at the 2021 edition, beating Jennifer Kupcho by five shots. The 2022 tournament marked a fresh start for the event (no longer including results or records from the 2020 and 2021 events), where Leona Maguire became the first Irish winner on tour with her victory in 2022.

Last year at the Drive On Championship

Ireland’s Leona Maguire gifted her mom and early birthday present with her first career win at the 2022 LPGA Drive On Championship. A 27-year-old Maguire, a standout at Duke and former No. 1 amateur, carded a final-round 67 to finish at 18-under 198 and won the 54-hole event by three strokes over Lexi Thompson. She became the first woman from Ireland to win on tour, and her 198 tied her career-best 54-hole score.

More about Superstition Mountain

Superstition Mountain’s Prospector Golf Course opened in 1998 and was a combined design effort by Jack Nicklaus and his son Gary. The course plays as a par-72 and stretches to 7,225 yards in length, with the women playing it at 6,526 yards. The course was home of the LPGA Safeway International from 2004-08, and was recently selected by Golfweek as one of the “Top 100 Residential Courses.”

Of note, Superstition Mountain is a female-owned facility, originally purchased in 2009 by Susan Hladky and her husband James, who died in 2011. Hladky has made a point of opening her courses to women and college players, twice hosting U.S. Women’s Open qualifying and the site of a 2025 NCAA women’s regional tournament. She’s also given membership to eight LPGA players, who play out of the club: Carlota Ciganda, Mina Harigae, Dana Finkelstein, Jaclyn Lee, Charlotte Thomas, Caroline Inglis, Jennifer Kupcho and Brianna Do.

MORE FROM ON HER TURF: 2023 March Madness — Utah Utes engineer dramatic turnaround for third-ever Sweet 16 appearance