The tactic WNBA players used with such success that it flipped the balance of power in the U.S. Senate was on display when the final chapter of the league's Kelly Loeffler saga closed Friday.
Loeffler, the embattled former Dream co-owner and ex-senator, was barely mentioned by league commissioner Cathy Engelbert nor the new ownership group that includes former Dream player Renee Montgomery. And when questions were posed about her, the participants re-directed.
Engelbert — who made arguably her most direct comment on the situation — as well as Montgomery, the league and its players are ready to move forward. That means more social justice work and a relationship in which values between the W, its players and its owners align.
Engelbert thanks Dream after new ownership approved
Engelbert, in her second full year as commissioner, has stayed mostly mum when it comes to Loeffler. But on Friday, in her opening statements on a conference call with reporters, she addressed the situation.
"I also want to take this time to thank the WNBA players, particularly the Dream players," Engelbert said. "They were put in a difficult position. I was proud of the way they handled the situation. They stood for their values with utmost professionalism. They served as role models for advocacy and continue to do that. But today is about the future."
Loeffler first wrote an open letter to Engelbert in July 2020 pushing back on the league's support of the Black Lives Matter movement. The WNBA distanced itself from Loeffler, stating she had not served as governor since before being appointed to the senate. Engelbert sidestepped questions throughout the season other than to say the league wouldn't force her to sell.
Players were vocal in their desire for Loeffler to be ousted. They turned their attentions to actively hurting her where it hurt most. They campaigned for her political opponent, Rev. Raphael Warnock, after making sure their values aligned with his on the trail. He was elected in a runoff against Loeffler in January.
Engelbert directly referenced Loeffler once later in the call, thanking her and former co-owner Mary Brock for their significant contributions as the first women-owned professional sports team in Atlanta.
"As I mentioned, that’s in the past," Engelbert said. "Now we’re looking for the future and a new beginning for the Dream players and quite frankly for the WNBA."
Montgomery: It's about supporting Dream now
Montgomery, who announced her retirement earlier this month in an emotional moment on her "Remotely Renee" podcast, is not the first former player to become both an owner and executive. She also didn't want to look back at the former ownership when asked if Loeffler's actions spurred her to act.
"It’s all about looking forward right now. I know that there’s a lot of people right now who have a lot of questions," said Montgomery, who was never taken up on her offer to speak with Loeffler last June. "All I can think about is how many people I want to call once we started getting going, like, supporting the Dream not just with their words, but investing in the Dream and how many business owners that I know that I want to be like, 'Hey, listen, you know that I’m working with the Dream now.'
"I'm just being honest; that’s my whole thought process. What can we do to bring the Dream to the next level and what can we do to get the Dream to where honestly I think we belong?"
Montgomery described how she first reached out to become a WNBA owner and that LeBron James was a guiding force in her move up.
Dream will continue pushing for social justice
The new leadership, which is completed by majority owner Larry Gottesdiener and Suzanne Abair of the Northland real estate company, showed interested in the team because of its social justice work last summer. Gottesdiener, who entered a bid for the NHL's Pittsburgh Penguins in 2006, said he's "particularly proud to be stewards of this team in this city at this time" and honored the Dream's "incredible character last June."
"The alignment here, specifically the alignment of the values as expressed by these great players in 2020, just elicited a very strong reaction in me,"Gottesdiener said. "If I had a chance to get involved in this team, that’s the team I’m going to get involved with.
"I think Renee put it best by saying — I don’t know if she said, 'women are the future' or 'the future is women,' but I couldn’t agree more. And that was just something that I really wanted to be involved in so I just feel very grateful."
Gottesdiener said the ownership group will be invested in the community and "create a culture with shared values that Atlanta will be proud of, that will support our players and that will amplify our message of women's empowerment and social justice."
"I was like, 'Oh, my gosh, that's my life!'" Montgomery said of first hearing about those two messages.
He grew up in a blue-collar community in Connecticut — a hotbed of women's basketball — and remembers buying in to the league at an early stage. He erased one major concern fans had about a sale by saying it will stay in Atlanta. And his vision for the future of the league is on par with that of Engelbert, Montgomery and fans.
"I think the next 25 years of the W are going to be explosive," he said.
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