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Tara Sullivan

How the WNBA’s Atlanta Dream helped swing the Georgia Senate runoff

Members of the Atlanta Dream wearing shirts backing Raphael Warnock.
Members of the Atlanta Dream wearing shirts backing Raphael Warnock.ELIZABETH WILLIAMS/NYT

The video was posted before the Georgia Senate runoff election, before the certification of Electoral College votes, before the rioting at the Capitol, before the country was roiled by a series of unprecedented events.

In it, the WNBA’s Atlanta Dream shared one last public voice to the work they’d been doing for voter turnout since the opening of this ongoing chapter of athletes’ activism. The message, narrated by various players, urged people to get to the polls.

One of the closing lines has stuck with me, especially in the aftermath of all that occurred during the week: “We’re a force to be reckoned with. We can create the change we want to see.”

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The Dream did effect change. With their open, public, and persistent support of candidate Raphael Warnock, there’s no doubt they tilted that Georgia Senate election away from incumbent Kelly Loeffler, who just happens to be a co-owner of their franchise. When Loeffler put herself at public odds with the team she has a 49 percent stake in, when she came out against the Black Lives Matter movement and wrote an explicit letter to the WNBA office decrying the alliance with BLM during the WNBA’s COVID-19 bubble, an irreversible chasm formed between the players and their co-owner.

The players chose to support Warnock as their response, and when his single-digit polling quickly surged and his donation coffers bulged, he was on his way to the runoff that was decided last Tuesday. The outcome of the election is one of the most tangible examples of a specific act of activism working to achieve its goal, and as such, in coming from such a nontraditional sector as professional athletes, is sure to encourage other sports stars to continue using their voices in such public ways.

The New York Liberty huddled wearing 'Say Her Name' shirts in honor of Breonna Taylor during a July game against the Dream.
The New York Liberty huddled wearing 'Say Her Name' shirts in honor of Breonna Taylor during a July game against the Dream.Eve Edelheit/NYT

“It’s a special moment for us because we’re constantly at the forefront of every issue, but we don’t get the respect we deserve,” Washington Mystics guard Natasha Cloud told the Washington Post in a story posted Thursday, after the election. “Whether it’s on the court or off the court in our influence. You have a moment like this where you can’t say we didn’t help determine the outcome.”

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The obvious question is how, or if, the WNBA will move forward with Loeffler as a Dream co-owner. Their league partners in the NBA set a precedent of ousting an owner when they forced Donald Sterling to sell the Clippers, but Loeffler’s political beliefs, and her right to have them, don’t rise to the level of Sterling’s recorded racist rants. But still, you have to wonder why she would want to continue owning a team that operates in a league with which she disagrees so strongly.

And then you have LeBron James, who gained plenty of traction for his tweet musing about putting a new ownership group together, garnering immediate interest from fellow sports heavyweights Mookie Betts and Carmelo Anthony. In August, ESPN reported that former NBA star Baron Davis was part of an investment group interested in purchasing the 51 percent stake in the Dream currently owned by Mary Brock.

League commissioner Cathy Engelbert said over the summer that Loeffler would not be pushed to sell, though a statement from her this past week said, “The league is aware that discussions with potential buyers are ongoing. Once those negotiations are concluded, additional information will be provided.” So the wheels could be in motion, whether for Brock or Loeffler’s part of the team, which again would be quite a statement in support of the athletes’ activism. It’s tough to imagine someone buying Brock’s stake without knowing Loeffler’s fate or future role.

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The players, though reportedly open to meeting with Loeffler, seem more intent on having a new owner. As Dream player Angel McCoughtry told the Post: “If we have to take more measures to get her out … that’s what we’ll do. It’s kind of like we were forced to show our power and we didn’t know how much power we had, but there’s so much power in these women’s voices. They are powerful. Everybody’s listening.”

There is an unmistakable divide among the sports fans who are listening though, between those eager to have their favorite athletes weigh in on non-sports issues and those who believe athletes should stick to sports. The “shut up and dribble” faction remains, no matter how much reality continues to show us the former will win out. There is just no way to prevent athletes from speaking up and speaking out on any issue they choose. With outlets on social media, with platforms such as the player-written website The Players’ Tribune, with personal profiles bolstered by regular visits to our living rooms through the magic of television, the opportunity is always there.

And why shouldn’t it be?

More and more, there are athletes such as Cloud, who opted out of the 2020 season so she could focus on social justice issues, answering one of the most common criticisms against outspoken athletes, that they should put action where their words are. Going forward, there’s no doubt they will be doing it more and more. The tide is changing. The WNBA continues to lead the way.

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Tara Sullivan is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at tara.sullivan@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @Globe_Tara.