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.
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?”]