“I’m not a role model,” NBA Hall-of-Famer Charles Barkley declared in 1993. “Just because I dunk a basketball doesn’t mean I should raise your kids.”
Barkley’s bold pronouncement flew in the face of global ad campaigns like Gatorade’s “Be Like Mike,” which asserted that Michael Jordan’s excellence on the court translated into good citizenship off.
There’s no question that athletes are major stakeholders in American society. They get called out, as Olympic champion swimmer Klete Keller did for taking part in the Capitol Hill insurrection in his Team USA jacket, when they step out of line, and they’re heralded when they solve problems, like when NBA rookie Zion Williamson pledged to pay Smoothie King Center workers when COVID-19 shut everything down.
And then there is retired Atlanta Dream guard Renee Montgomery, who right now stands in a class by herself.
Montgomery recently made headlines as the first former professional player to become both an owner and an executive of a WNBA franchise, carving a new model for athletes after their court time is over.
This semester at Manhattanville College, I am teaching a course entitled “Sport and Social Change.” Athletes like Montgomery make class discussions pretty easy. The course is relatively new, but students have galloped into the subject, exploring Jackie Robinson’s historic first-at-bat and Billie Jean King’s battles for equal pay. The mantra of the course, I often tell students, is to listen to athletes for a change.
The WNBA, which dedicated its 2020 season to “the justice movement” and created a Social Justice Council in partnership with its Players’ Association, stands at the forefront in terms of who we should be listening to, boasting the most politically progressive athletes in professional sports. In January, we saw the fruits of the WNBA’s efforts, alongside the broad political networks spearheaded by Stacey Abrams, as upstart senate candidate Raphael Warnock dethroned Atlanta Dream co-owner Kelly Loeffler, an outspoken critic of the league’s BLACK LIVES MATTER warm-up jerseys.
Warnock’s victory over Loeffler means a lot – and on many levels. Now Georgia’s first Black senator, last August he was polling at just 9%. But then the women of the court – the basketball court – got involved.
“Winning is cool,” tweeted Seattle Storm forward Breanna Stewart, “but have you ever flipped the senate???”
What a moment: a sitting senator, Loeffler, lost her seat largely at the hands of her own employees. It wasn’t lost on LeBron James, who tweeted, “Think I’m gone put together an ownership group for The Dream. Whose in?”
“Count me in!” responded my beloved Mookie Betts.
But no. It was Renee Montgomery, the player who stepped off the court for the 2019-2020 season to focus on a wide range of social justice initiatives, including her own foundation and a partnership with James’s “More than a Vote” campaign.
Her work, her hyper-vigilant focus on social justice, stood in direct opposition to Loeffler’s Senate campaign, making clear why Montgomery joined the ownership group that grabbed the Dream from the former senator. Montgomery has shown us what the road from collegiate star to WNBA powerhouse to social justice warrior to the front office looks like.
We are a few months out from the return of the WNBA. So here’s the thing: there’s no question that we need to continue to listen to athletes – take their politics seriously; understand how sport impacts society. Look no further than Georgia and its newly minted Democratic Senators, Warnock and Jon Ossoff. But if we are going to take these players seriously politically, let’s also take them seriously as athletes. As a league. As a sports entity worth its weight in both games and votes.
If you agree, it seems like a good time to pick a team, order a jersey or even buy a ticket. Let’s look ahead at 2021 as the year the WNBA explodes in popularity.
Me? I’m starting with the Dream.
Amy Bass is professor of sport studies and chair of the division of social science and communication at Manhattanville College. Bass is the author of ONE GOAL: A COACH, A TEAM, AND THE GAME THAT BROUGHT A DIVDED TOWN TOGETHER, among other titles. In 2012, she won an Emmy for her work with NBC Olympic Sports on the London Olympic Games.
The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors.They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.