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

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(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIG TOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Hey there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Ayesha Rascoe. I cover the White House.

FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: And I'm Franco Ordoñez. I also cover the White House.

RASCOE: Today we're going to get outside of Washington for a bit and focus on activists who have made a big impact on politics in the past year or two. Specifically, I'm talking about the women of the WNBA. Franco, can you take us back to last summer 2020? There was a lot of unrest and, you know, there was an election going on. I don't know if everybody remember that there was an election going on.

(LAUGHTER)

RASCOE: And we didn't know what the outcome would be, but we knew that there were these two Senate seats up in Georgia that could be really, really important. And then you also had these athletes who started getting involved.

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah. It was really the height of the biggest civil rights movement in recent memory. There was so much global outrage over the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, and it drew attention, anger, frustration in ways unlike before.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: George.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Floyd.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: George.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Floyd.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: George.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Floyd.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: George.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Floyd.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: George.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Floyd.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Black lives matter.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Black lives matter.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Black lives matter.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Black lives matter.

ORDOÑEZ: The WNBA, the NBA - those players were boycotting games. Players had already started wearing Black Lives Matter shirts to games to honor Floyd.

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HOLLY ROWE: We are here with the Atlanta Dream's Elizabeth Williams. And we have had a development here. The players initially thought they would play tonight, but they have changed their mind. And Elizabeth Williams would like to read this statement.

ELIZABETH WILLIAMS: After speaking with representatives from teams playing tonight as well as our WNBPA leadership, the consensus is to not play in tonight's slate of games and to kneel, lock arms and raise fists during the national anthem.

ORDOÑEZ: And, you know, the WNBA was at the forefront of all this.

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LAYSHIA CLARENDON: We are dedicating this season to Breonna Taylor, an outstanding EMT who was murdered over 130 days ago in her home.

ORDOÑEZ: That was WNBA player Layshia Clarendon. The WNBA dedicated their entire season to social justice issues with special attention on the case of Breonna Taylor, who was also killed by police, but in Kentucky. You know, the league played their games on a court that had Black Lives Matter painted on it. And then in July, Kelly Loeffler, who at the time was a senator of Georgia - she was also co-owner of the WNBA's Atlanta Dream - she wrote a letter to the commissioner objecting to the league's promotion of the Black Lives Matter movement, and that really didn't sit well with players.

RASCOE: Loeffler was trying to claim that she was trying to take the politics out of the sport. But really, she was running for reelection at the time, and she was in the middle of this primary where she had an opponent who was trying to run to her right and come out against her because of Loeffler's association with the WNBA, which might have had something to do with why she wrote that letter.

ORDOÑEZ: (Laughter) Yeah, I think there's no doubt about that. And that's certainly how the players felt. They felt like they were being a political chip. They felt like they were being used basically as a political football, so they decided to make their own bold move.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: A political statement tonight from members of the Atlanta Dream against their owner.

ORDOÑEZ: The players threw their support behind Loeffler's Democratic opponent, Raphael Warnock, and they made sure everyone knew it.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: WNBA players have been wearing shirts to protest an Atlanta Dream co-owner.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: Yesterday, players started wearing Vote Warnock T-shirts, showing their support for one of the Democrats...

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #4: A hundred and forty four players sported Vote Warnock shirts, which leaded to national attention and raising more than $185,000 for his campaign.

ORDOÑEZ: And frankly, if you think about it, there really is a good case to be made that Warnock would not be in office and Democrats would not have taken control of the Senate had it not been for that push by the WNBA who really rallied behind him. I mean, yes, there were other reasons, but this generated momentum. His polling and donations started rising. And, you know, as we know on this podcast, that stuff is really important.

RASCOE: And today we're talking to one of the women who was a leader and is a leader in this activism that we've been talking about.

ORDOÑEZ: We spoke with Nneka Ogwumike. She's currently a star forward of the Los Angeles Sparks. She's got quite the resume - No. 1 pick of the 2012 WNBA draft, WNBA champion, six-time All-Star. She's one of the best pro basketball players ever. She still got the pro record for the highest true shooting percentage in a season, but she may have had as great an impact or greater off the court than on. And that's because as president of the WNBA Players Association, she's been able to help mobilize the WNBA to become arguably the most effective league in the fight for social justice.

So, Nneka, it's really great to have you. Welcome to the podcast. Thanks for joining us.

NNEKA OGWUMIKE: Well, I appreciate you all having me on here. Franco and Ayesha, I hate to be one of those people, but I'm a huge podcast nerd.

RASCOE: Oh, great.

OGWUMIKE: So I feel like I know you two.

ORDOÑEZ: Awesome, awesome.

OGWUMIKE: I listen to NPR POLITICS every day.

RASCOE: Oh, wow.

ORDOÑEZ: Oh, that's awesome.

RASCOE: That's - yeah.

ORDOÑEZ: That's awesome. And now, you know this is a politics podcast. Do you talk politics in practice at all?

OGWUMIKE: (Laughter) You know, I got to admit, Franco, with this generation, not so much.

RASCOE: (Laughter).

OGWUMIKE: But I definitely have these conversations, you know, with those that kind of share my same upbringing. But quite frankly, you know, you're surprised when you meet different women of this league and you're able to have a conversation about politics and, you know, just the nature of society.

RASCOE: When you saw that or read that Kelly Loeffler letter, like, what was your initial response? And why did you feel like, we are the WNBA; we can't just let this ride; we got to come out or take a stand on this?

OGWUMIKE: As one of the 144 in this league, we wanted to do something. We didn't want to just shut up and dribble. And we took it upon ourselves to mobilize in the best way we knew how because we have a platform. And in a pandemic in which making money and staying safe and healthy was disproportionately affecting women and people of color, we're a league of those such demographics. And so we wanted to represent ourselves as best as we could in an opportunity in which we didn't know we would have despite how challenging the situation was. And so we rose to the occasion and we were able to really put our stamp on history as we saw in the influence of the elections and ultimately the Senate.

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah. There's no question about that, about the influence that you had on the country, on the election, on the outcome. You know, I was curious. I mean, it's such a bold step to go against ownership. I mean, was there fear involved? Were you worried? I mean, how did you face those fears?

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

RASCOE: Who had the idea of, like, wearing the T-shirts? Who said, OK, look; Loeffler out here talking; let's get some - we're going to have our T-shirts for Warnock? Like, when did that happen?

OGWUMIKE: Yeah. So that happened as Atlanta was trying to figure out what they wanted to do. And 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? - you know, 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 with media availability. And with amping that media availability, 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 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.

RASCOE: You mentioned how women and people of color were most impacted by the pandemic, were having - disproportionately impacted. And, you know, obviously that is the demographics of the league. Was it something about being women - a lot of women of color - I felt like women were out there leading the charge.

OGWUMIKE: Right.

RASCOE: Right - not saying the men weren't. I'm not taking away from them. But you guys were out there leading the charge. What did that mean for you guys?

OGWUMIKE: I mean, I hope that - 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?

RASCOE: True.

OGWUMIKE: You know? In the worst-case scenario, we're leading by example, you know? And it's something that we hoped would ignite those who aren't in our same position necessarily as people with platforms playing sports and entertainment because a lot of what we fight for for ourselves is what we need to fight for for women everywhere, you know? And it's just - that's really what gets us going. 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.

RASCOE: All right, we're going to take a quick break. When we get back, more of our conversation with Nneka Ogwumike.

ORDOÑEZ: And we're back. I interviewed John Lewis, the former congressman and civil rights icon, a few years back. And one of the things that really stuck with me is when I asked him about, you know, taking the baton of social justice, you know, who were - who was next after his generation. And at that time - you know, obviously this was a few years ago before he died - you know, he pointed to folks like Colin Kaepernick and other athletes who were stepping up. And he told me that the athletes were the new civil rights warriors of this generation. I've been thinking about that before this interview a lot, and I was wondering if that's something that you relate to.

OGWUMIKE: I mean, it's amazing that he said that. I don't - I'm not sure if I've ever viewed myself or even, you know, the league as the next kind of civil rights warriors. But in a way, that's kind of what's happening. You know, you have individuals that are taking a stand. But I think what's most important in how it's happening with athletes is that, you know, we're not separating ourselves from the experience.

And it's important because we have so much following. And it starts with that following finding something of themselves in you - having that identification in who you support, who you follow, who you love to watch - 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, to what the sport and that opportunity has offered.

ORDOÑEZ: Obviously, there has been differences of kind of opinion in what role athletes should play in, you know, social discussions of the day. And obviously, folks like Muhammad Ali, you know, the Olympic sprinters - I mean, there have definitely been, you know, athletes, particularly African American athletes, who have stepped up and led the charge. But there have been others who have been like, hey; we want to stay neutral. Sports needs to stay above politics. I was wondering, like, what do you think of kind of the - I don't know if you would say - call it a changing of the guard. But what do you think of that shift?

OGWUMIKE: I mean, I think the shift is - it's almost shifting towards where it should have started, if you understand what I'm saying. You know, I understand that in history's past, you know, sports is this thing that brings people together. And it's so neutral but not to the point that it ignores what's happening in the world, you know? 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 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, really. 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.

RASCOE: Do you think that when it comes to women's sports - you look at, like, the women's soccer team. They're currently fighting for equal pay. There have been issues even in college sports where women's - in their competitions, they were not given the same equipment, the same facilities as other - as the men. Is it something more deeply personal? - because in some ways the political is a part of what is - what happens to women in sports and that there are inequities that happen in that that you have to fight against. Like, is some of this an outgrowth of that, you think?

OGWUMIKE: Yeah. You know, like I said, you know, as women, we're born into politics just through our existence. And so those inequities are certainly - you can't ignore them because we live it every day. And for us to continue to fight that, it just speaks to where we are in the world. You know, it's a barometer in a lot of ways.

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

OGWUMIKE: Oh, man. Oh, gosh.

(LAUGHTER)

OGWUMIKE: I don't quite know. But I can say that I will - that we will be ready. And I - as long as I am president, I'll do my best to lead these women forward. But, you know, we're not short of, you know, 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 hot point right now in Texas. And I can imagine that, you know, we will have more initiatives as we continue to fight for equity and equality when it comes to more political issues. And I like to call them political endeavors because we don't want them to continue to be issues, but I just hope that I'm able to be on the right side of history no matter what faces us.

ORDOÑEZ: Nneka, thank you so much for joining us. It was such a pleasure and really just so much fun.

OGWUMIKE: Thank you so much. I really appreciate the time. This is such an honor to be talking with both of you, and hopefully you guys will watch a little bit more WNBA.

ORDOÑEZ: Absolutely.

RASCOE: All right. That's a wrap for today. We'll be back tomorrow. I'm Ayesha Rascoe. I cover the White House.

ORDOÑEZ: And I'm Franco Ordoñez. I also cover the White House.

RASCOE: And thank you for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIG TOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")

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