Should Athletes Be Activists? WNBA Star Nneka Ogwumike Says They Have To Be : The NPR Politics Podcast The WBNA's political activism helped to reshape the political landscape in Washington. NPR's Franco Ordoñez and Ayesha Rascoe talked to Nneka Ogwumike, head of the league's players union, about its role in the racial justice movement and Georgia's 2020 Senate race.

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Should Athletes Be Activists? WNBA Star Nneka Ogwumike Says They Have To Be

Should Athletes Be Activists? WNBA Star Nneka Ogwumike Says They Have To Be

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Vice President Renee Montgomery and Elizabeth Williams #1 of the Atlanta Dream present Reverend Raphael Warnock with a Atlanta Dream jersey during the game against the Phoenix Mercury on August 21, 2021 at Gateway Center Arena in College Park, Georgia. Adam Hagy/NBAE via Getty Images hide caption

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Adam Hagy/NBAE via Getty Images

Vice President Renee Montgomery and Elizabeth Williams #1 of the Atlanta Dream present Reverend Raphael Warnock with a Atlanta Dream jersey during the game against the Phoenix Mercury on August 21, 2021 at Gateway Center Arena in College Park, Georgia.

Adam Hagy/NBAE via Getty Images

The WNBA has long been at the forefront of social justice issues, but it was last year when the league – and its players - demonstrated the power athletes have to force change and arguably alter elections.

Amid the nationwide outrage over the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, the WNBA joined other players of the NBA boycotting games and wearing Black Lives Matters t-shirts.

But the players took it to another level after an owner of the Atlanta Dream WNBA team, Kelly Loeffler, who was also running for reelection in the U.S. Senate, objected to the league's promotion of the Black Lives Matter movement in a letter to the league.

NPR White House correspondents Franco Ordoñez and Ayesha Rascoe talked with Los Angeles Sparks star forward and players association president Nneka Ogwumike about the WNBA's role in a new era of sports activism – and how its players helped flip the Senate.

The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

It was such a bold step to take action against an owner. Were you worried?

I think for us - because we always live in the action - as women in sport and women in the workplace, women in the world. We always live in the action.

I wouldn't necessarily say that the fear of repercussion for standing up was nearly as much as this as the fear of the world we were living in currently. And I think that that perspective allowed us to understand like, 'Hey, it's now or never. You know, this place, this place, this globe that we're on is seemingly falling apart, and we don't want to be a part of that.'

WNBA players had urged people to vote against Atlanta Dream co-owner Loeffler, a Republican U.S. senator running to keep her seat in Georgia. Loeffler, who spoke out publicly against the league's social justice plans and sent a letter to WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert objecting to the initiatives to honor the Black Lives Matter movement. Susan Walsh/AP hide caption

toggle caption
Susan Walsh/AP

WNBA players had urged people to vote against Atlanta Dream co-owner Loeffler, a Republican U.S. senator running to keep her seat in Georgia. Loeffler, who spoke out publicly against the league's social justice plans and sent a letter to WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert objecting to the initiatives to honor the Black Lives Matter movement.

Susan Walsh/AP

Who had the idea of wearing the t-shirts for [then-Senate candidate, and Loeffler opponent, Raphael] Warnock?

I would have to really attribute that to Elizabeth Williams of the Atlanta Dream and Sue Bird of Seattle Storm.

It was so interesting. You know, we didn't know how we wanted to do it, but we knew we wanted to make a statement. And so we had just gotten word that almost all of our games were going to be on TV.

So, OK, what better way to make a statement than for people to see what we're wearing when we walk in? Because we're in a bubble, it's not like we can go out to the communities. The pandemic is happening. We need to be safe. But we can make a statement. We were able to use our platform in a way that we would not have otherwise been able to if as many of our games weren't on TV.

And so I think that that was also a big reason to say, 'Hey, put women's sports on TV.' 'Hey, listen to what they're saying.' 'Hey, they're doing this together,' and it just really worked out so perfectly.

You mentioned how women and people of color were disproportionately impacted by the pandemic. And obviously, that is the demographics of the league. What did that mean for you guys?

I'm sure that you can attest to this, but if we don't do it for ourselves, who else is going to do it? The worst case scenario, we're leading by example.

It's something that we hoped would ignite those who aren't in our same position, necessarily as as people with platforms playing sports and entertainment, because a lot of what we fight for ourselves is what we need to fight for women everywhere. And it's just that's really what gets us going in. And recognizing that each woman is strong and we are stronger linked together is really the way. And I see that changing, and I'm happy to be a part of history right now.

John Lewis, the late congressman and civil rights icon, said a few years ago that athletes were the new civil rights warriors. Is that something you relate to?

It's amazing that he said that. I'm not sure if I've ever viewed myself or even the league as a next kind of civil rights warrior. But in a way that's kind of what's happening. You have individuals that are taking a stand.

But I think what's most important in how it's happening with athletes is that, we're not separating ourselves from the experience. And it's important because we have so much following. And us using that platform to level the playing field, so to speak. And I will gladly step into any role that has to do with pushing civil rights forward. I think as athletes, whether you view yourselves in that way or not, not using your platform is a disservice, in my opinion.

In this Aug. 30, 2020, file photo, members of the Connecticut Sun team kneel during the playing of the national anthem before a WNBA basketball game against the Washington Mystics, in Bradenton, Fla. Phelan M. Ebenhack/AP hide caption

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Phelan M. Ebenhack/AP

In this Aug. 30, 2020, file photo, members of the Connecticut Sun team kneel during the playing of the national anthem before a WNBA basketball game against the Washington Mystics, in Bradenton, Fla.

Phelan M. Ebenhack/AP

What do you make of more athletes becoming involved in social justice issues given that some people think sports should stay above the political fray?

It is a great escape for the athletes, for the fans, but it can't be so much so that we now ignore the glaring issues that we're experiencing as a society.

And I think that's kind of where the changing of the guards is happening. It's me as an athlete recognizing to myself and to others that I am also a citizen.

I mean, all it takes is an athlete to wear a certain shoe, and now you have thousands of people wearing the same shoe. So imagine what that same athlete would say when they're like, 'Hey, take this course and educate yourself about the census.' Granted, everyone may not do it, but because it's my favorite player saying it, I guarantee you [some] people will do it without question.

And so being able to influence people in that way, it doesn't come any easier than it does for athletes. And I'm happy to be a part of a group of women that understands that not just to move masses, but to educate ourselves so that we can educate others to organize and mobilize.

What political movement or political issues do you see yourself taking on next?

I don't quite know, but I can say that we will be ready. As long as I am president [of the WNBA players' association], I'll do my best to lead these women forward.

But you know, we are not we're not short of representing ourselves politically when it comes to... public health. Obviously, in a world in which we are still needing to mask up and educate and get vaccinated.

Public health is huge, especially for women. I'm from Texas, public health is a very big issue and a hot point right now in Texas.

I just hope that I'm able to be on the right side of history no matter what faces us next.

The audio for this story was produced by Barton Girdwood and Elena Moore. It was edited by Shirley Henry and Eric McDaniel.

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