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Sports Opinion: By speaking out, WNBA players are altering Senate race in Georgia

13:27  27 october  2020
13:27  27 october  2020 Source:   usatoday.com

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Midway through the summer, it looked as if the Rev. Raphael Warnock’s venture into politics would be a short one.

The leader of Atlanta’s famed Ebenezer Baptist Church, where Martin Luther King Jr. was once the pastor, Warnock had little name recognition and not much money. Both were crucial in a U.S. Senate race where he was challenging the multimillionaire incumbent, Kelly Loeffler, as well as Doug Collins, a U.S. representative from Georgia since 2013, so it was hardly a surprise that Warnock’s support in early polls was in the single digits.

a man wearing a suit and tie walking down the street: Raphael Warnock has seen a jump in the polls for his U.S. Senate candidacy thanks in part to support from WNBA players. © Elijah Nouvelage, Getty Images Raphael Warnock has seen a jump in the polls for his U.S. Senate candidacy thanks in part to support from WNBA players.

Then something extraordinary happened.

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On Aug. 4, with two games on ESPN2, WNBA players showed up to the arena wearing “Vote Warnock” T-shirts. That same day, Elizabeth Williams of the Atlanta Dream said on Twitter that players were endorsing Warnock because “he has spent his life fighting for the people and we need him in Washington.”

Within two days, Warnock’s campaign said it had raised over $183,000. A few weeks later, Warnock began airing ads on TV. By Sept. 30, a Quinnipiac poll showed Warnock had taken his first lead in the race, polling at 31% while Loeffler was at 23% and Collins 22%.

A Siena College poll last week show Warnock has increased his lead to 32%. While that is shy of the 50% he would need to avoid a January runoff, he leads both Loeffler and Collins in head-to-head matchups.

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“I think it was helpful,” Warnock told USA TODAY Sports of the WNBA’s endorsement. “It was one of many turning points in the campaign. It gave people a chance to look a little closer and say, ‘Who is this Warnock guy and what is he about?’ "

It didn’t hurt that there was a soap opera dimension to all of this.

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Loeffler, you see, is a co-owner of the Dream, and she criticized the league’s social justice efforts to try to burnish her credentials with conservatives. Players expressed outrage initially, but then went silent. They recognized that a public back-and-forth would only benefit Loeffler.

Instead, they reached out to Warnock.

Warnock, who was a young seminarian the first time he was arrested, at a protest of the killing of Amadou Diallo by New York City police in 1999, said he thought the conversation with WNBA players would be more of a pep talk. A chance to tell them how proud he was of them and to keep doing what they’d been doing.

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“I was surprised that their co-owner, Kelly Loeffler, would use them in such a cheap and obvious way, as a political foil, for her own political purposes,” Warnock said. “I was happy that I was able to talk to them, to encourage them to continue to stand up.”

But the players wanted to know about Warnock's history as a social justice activist and what advice he had on using their platform. They asked him to explain his stance on issues that mattered to them: Police reform. Criminal justice reform. LGBTQ rights. Reproductive rights.

It was soon clear they shared the same values and vision.

“In the same way that he says it was kind of a pivotal point for him in his race, for people who may not have known about him, we were those same people,” said Nneka Ogwumike, the Los Angeles Sparks forward and president of the WNBA Players Association.

“It was kind of a culmination of so many parts of our identities as WNBA players,” Ogwumike added. “It was really fun to be able to have conversations with him not just about his campaign, but his history, our history, and what we can do to be active with our platform.”

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While most saw the T-shirts and endorsement as the league’s way of clapping back at Loeffler, that’s too simple.

Of course any rise in Warnock’s popularity would be bad for Loeffler. But it mattered more to the WNBA players that Warnock would be good for the communities they represented – in Georgia and beyond.

Still, Ogwumike said the players had no idea how pivotal the moment would be, both for the Georgia Senate race and as an example to athletes and other young people of the power they have.

“It was certainly my most favorite moment of the summer, of the season,” Ogwumike said. “To be able to see the impact that we had, not just civically, but for us to be able to organize and mobilize in the way we did. It was truly the epitome of the work we’ve been doing and what the league has stood for for so long.”

The WNBA’s support for Warnock is part of the league’s longstanding social justice efforts. The players were protesting police brutality against people of color even before Colin Kaepernick began taking a knee, and dedicated their season to Breonna Taylor and other Black and brown women who’ve been killed. The league has a partnership with Planned Parenthood.

Funny how the now “unapologetically pro-life” Loeffler didn’t have a problem with that.

But to see the tangible results of their work, as well as the groundswell of activism by players from the NBA, NFL, Major League Soccer, the NWSL and even young gun-control activists, is both empowering and inspiring.

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For Warnock, too.

“These are young women in their 20s, largely,” Warnock said. “It took a lot of courage for them to do this.

"This is a defining moment in American history," Warnock added. "And this is one of those moments in which we have to push hard against the forces seeking to divide us and reach for the best in the American spirit. I think we can, and I believe that we will."

Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Opinion: By speaking out, WNBA players are altering Senate race in Georgia

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