In many ways, the WNBA is a trailblazer when it comes to political activism. Some players are even sitting out the entire season in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. The Atlanta Dream has been particularly vocal, which has set it in direct opposition with one of the franchise’s owners, U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler (R-Georgia). Washington Post sports reporter Candace Buckner discusses how Loeffler is looking to score political points by speaking out against her very own players.

Related: 'How politics transformed Kelly Loeffler from hoops junkie to WNBA villain'

 

TRANSCRIPT:

Steve Fennessy: This is Georgia Today, a production of Georgia Public Broadcasting. I'm Steve Fennessy. It's Friday, Sept. 4, 2020.

Newscast: There will be no WNBA games tonight. We expect to see some more symbolism as the evening goes along with all the teams locking arms.

Steve Fennessy: In many ways, the WNBA is a trailblazer when it comes to political activism. Some players are even sitting out the entire season in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. Here in Atlanta, the squad at the Atlanta Dream has been particularly vocal, which has set them in direct opposition to one of their owners, Kelly Loeffler. Loeffler, of course, is now a United States senator appointed last December by Gov. Brian Kemp. As she campaigns to keep her seat, she is speaking out against the activism of her own players. This week, my guest is Washington Post sports reporter Candace Buckner, who wrote about Loeffler.

Candace Buckner: Hi Steve.

Steve Fennessy: How are you?

Candace Buckner: I'm doing good.

Steve Fennessy: Okay. Are you set to go Candace? This is gonna be pretty casual, but, um….

Candace Buckner: I’m ready.

Steve Fennessy: Candace, as you pointed out in your story, Kelly Loeffler is now the wealthiest member of the United States Senate since she joined that institution last December. What was her upbringing like?

Candace Buckner: Yes, she's from this place called Stanford, Illinois. It's a small rural farming community in central Illinois. From what I understand from the people that I talked to back in Stanford, Don Loeffler, her father, ran Loeffler Farms. Although it's a very rural community, they seemed to have been well-to-do.

Steve Fennessy: So they were affluent, relatively speaking.

Candace Buckner: Relatively speaking. Yes. Here's how Kelly Loeffler described herself in 2011 during a WNBA news conference where she was introduced as a co-owner of the Atlanta Dream.

Kelly Loeffler: I played basketball in high school and, if you knew me back then, I was shy. Braces, glasses, scrawny. You know, I just lived on a farm and athletics were a way for me to have a view into a bigger world, to set a goal, to accomplish something and to have a vision outside of a relatively small world.

Candace Buckner: She really took to the sport. She liked the team camaraderie. She liked the athleticism, the beauty of the game. And it took her a while to get stabilized because, you know, this was a girl who had a bit of a rough physical background in that she wore leg braces to correct a hip injury. But by the time that she's a freshman, she's 5’10”. She's — she's trying to be, you know, as graceful as the sport dictates.

Steve Fennessy: When she went on to college, did she play collegiate ball?

Candace Buckner: She did not, she went to undergrad at the University of Illinois. She described herself, quote, as “a great defensive player, but not talented enough to play D1 basketball.”

Steve Fennessy: Gotcha. And what brought her to Atlanta?

Candace Buckner: Intercontinental Exchange. So after getting her MBA, she bounced around some cities (Dallas, notably) but the startup Intercontinental Exchange, known as ICE, had very few employees. I think nine at the time, and she moved to Atlanta to become a spokesperson and eventually rise up the ranks.

Steve Fennessy:  And in 2004, Candace, Kelly Loeffler married ICE founder Jeffrey Sprecher. In an interview with Bloomberg News, he said that being in Atlanta made sense.

Jeffrey Sprecher: There's an ethos down here. There's a southern charm that really does exist in the business community as well as with your neighbors and people that are here love it. And I've found that I've been able to, you know, take this little company and build it into a Fortune 500 company by attracting people to come live and work in Atlanta.

Candace Buckner: The company is rising. It eventually acquires the New York Stock Exchange for $8.2 billion.

Newscast: A 220-year-old financial institution is being bought by an upstart kid of a company from Atlanta. The Intercontinental Exchange, or ICE, a derivatives trading firm founded only a dozen years ago.

Candace Buckner: And that's the origin story of Kelly Loeffler.

Steve Fennessy: In the last few years, as Jeff Sprecher and Kelly Loeffler became more and more prominent in Georgia circles, because neither of them are Georgia natives, it became apparent that they were starting to get more active politically. They gave a lot of money to Mitt Romney's campaign back in — leading up to the 2012 election.

Candace Buckner: That's correct. This is a man that participated in a Black Lives Matter March.

Reporter: Hey Senator, why is it important for you to be out here today?

Mitt Romney: We need a voice against racism. We need many voices against racism and against brutality. We need to stand up and say that Black lives matter.

Candace Buckner: He got flak from Republicans and while that crowd may see — especially the more intense far-right crowd may see — the Black Lives Matter movement as a political organization — extreme leftist, extreme Marxist — Mitt Romney just saw the statement that Black lives should matter and he participated in supporting that. And this is — you rewind eight years ago — and this — this is the person that Kelly Loeffler was supporting. But also, if you trace her donations, she's leaving little breadcrumbs of evidence of where she wants to be. There are donations to Pat Toomey. There are donations to Jerry Moran. These are all senators. And it seemed like even back in 2014 when she was, when she explored maybe entering the race as a candidate for the Georgia open seat in 2014.

Steve Fennessy: Right.

Candace Buckner: That she's— she's — that's what she wants to be. She wants to be in the Senate and she's giving money, sprinkling that out to Republicans in the Senate.

Play-by-Play Announcer: You know what they were playing in the arena? I ain’t never scared by Bone Crusher. And that's the attitude that Atlanta has taken into this ball game. And that's what they’ll need to finish out this remaining 55.1 seconds.

Steve Fennessy: Talk a little bit about how her interest developed in owning a stake in the Atlanta Dream, which is the WNBA franchise here in Atlanta. How did that come about?

Candace Buckner: Well, it seems like sometime in 2010, she is at an Atlanta Falcons game. She's in the suite with Arthur Blank and Arthur told her that there should be more women in sports ownership. Around that time, the Dream, it's having some — it's a young, fledgling franchise.

Steve Fennessy: Right.

Candace Buckner: — having some success on the court, but losing money off of it because they can't draw fans. You know, Atlanta fans.

Steve Fennessy: Oh, yeah. A very fickle.

Candace Buckner: So, yes. And so she goes to a game in 2010 and they're thinking, OK, maybe we can get her company to invest in us. Maybe she can be a season ticket holder. We don't know. We just need her money. But she goes a step further and she joins the ownership team with Mary Brock.

Steve Fennessy: Mary Brock is a philanthropist, who is married to John Brock. He was chairman and CEO of Coca-Cola enterprises. Candace, what were Mary Brock and Kelly Loeffler’s contributions to the Atlanta Dream?

Kelly Loeffler: If you go to a Dream game, you see what it's all about.

Steve Fennessy: Here's Kelly Loeffler in 2011 during a WNBA news conference.

Kelly Loeffler: ….and to be a part of that is just very exciting, particularly for a basketball fan. And to be able to give back to the city of Atlanta, where I'm obviously not from Atlanta, but I’m very proud to call it home and wanted to find a way to get more involved.

Candace Buckner: Their $1 million, Brock and Loeffler, their combined $1 million was supposed to go straight into marketing and really hype up the Dream. Problem is, it's very hard — outside of Seattle maybe, and Minnesota — it's very hard to have a W franchise and really build a strong fan base. They needed like 8,000 — and when they were in the Philips Arena, they needed like 8,000 people average to basically break even, to make a profit. And just to give you an example, here in D.C., when the Mystics won the WNBA championship, they had a strong— they had a strong following. However, they were packing out a 4,200-seat capacity arena. You’re talking about years ago, the Atlanta Dream needed 8,000. That's hard.

Steve Fennessy: You notice more of the empty seats than the full ones at these things.

Candace Buckner: The Mystics couldn't pack out Capital One Arena. They had to go to a smaller venue. And once they got into a smaller— smaller venue, the atmosphere's amazing because there are actually people in the stands. But you can't expect a WNBA team to really fill an arena that usually hosts NBA teams.

Steve Fennessy: And in the case of Kelly Leoffler, she was involved not just in the marketing of the team but, as you pointed out in your story, she was very much involved. And I mean, she loved to discuss the minutiae of strategy on the court.

Candace Buckner: She's like a — she's a fan. She looks like a fan of her team. She would try to make the East Coast games. She would — she would fly to Washington, or fly to New York, fly to Chicago on a private plane either owned by herself or Brock, and catch those games from courtside. And even if she couldn't catch those games, she was too busy with work, there was an anecdote of her streaming the games online and watching it to one at one o'clock in the morning. Like this was a true hoophead.

Steve Fennessy: So let's go back to last year when Sen. Johnny Isakson announces that he's going to retire early from his Senate seat for health reasons, which creates this opening that has to be filled by Gov. Brian Kemp. And one of the people who is one of the most prominent is Doug Collins, the congressman from Georgia. And he's sort of the odds-on favorite. But Brian Kemp doesn't go with Doug Collins. Brian Kemp goes with —

Gov. Brian Kemp: Conservative businesswoman and political outsider Kelly Loeffler will be Georgia's next U.S. senator.

Steve Fennessy: Gov. Kemp said Loeffler matched the qualities he was looking for.

Gov. Brian Kemp: Like Senator Perdue, Kelly is an outsider. Like Ivanka Trump, Kelly (is) a smart, accomplished and a savvy businesswoman. And like our president, Kelly is ready to take on the status quo, the politically correct, and the special interests.

Steve Fennessy: What was the strategy behind naming this kind of political unknown to this very important position?

Candace Buckner: I think it's no secret that in 2016, college-educated suburban women have fled the Republican Party. There's still a lot in there. However, the ascension of President Donald Trump made those of that ilk, college-educated women, go elsewhere. So here is Kelly Loeffler. She is successful. She's a millionaire. She has that backstory of working her way off the farm and getting an MBA that should appeal to those women. And, of course, a code word for college-educated suburban women is white women.

Steve Fennessy: Yeah.

Candace Buckner: And here's a young, successful white woman that looks a lot like them.

Steve Fennessy: I mean, as soon as she was appointed, she was campaigning, right?

Candace Buckner: Right. Right. In her introductory speech, she goes immediately into—

Kelly Loeffler: I'm a lifelong conservative, pro-Second Amendment, pro-Trump, pro-military and pro-wall.

[Applause]

Candace Buckner: She was a fiscal conservative, mostly in 2012. She was a Romney Republican. I think if this was in a different time, if this president wasn't — didn’t have his ascension, she would have been this fiscal conservative who would be pro-business. That’s it. That probably would have been the crux of her speech. Judging by her actions of the past.

Newscast: Well, let's start off with calls for U.S. Senator Kelly Loeffler to step away from the Atlanta Dream, the WNBA team that she co-owns. She recently wrote a letter to the WNBA Commissioner and according to NBC News, Loeffler was explaining her opposition to players wearing Black Lives Matter and “Say Her Name” slogans on warm jerseys,

Steve Fennessy: Social activism within the WNBA: What does it mean for Kelly Lesser's future with the League? That's ahead. This is Georgia Today.

[INTERLUDE]

Steve Fennessy: This is Georgia Today. We're talking about Kelly Loeffler and how her campaign to keep her United States Senate seat has angered and alienated players on the Atlanta Dream, the WNBA franchise of which she's a co-owner. And I'm talking with Washington Post reporter Candace Buckner. She reports on the intersection of race, gender, and diversity in the world of sports. How did Sen. Loeffler react to this sort of growing political activity among the players on her team?

Candace Buckner: She wrote a letter to the commissioner stating that she disagreed with the league's acceptance of what she deemed a political movement, Black Lives Matter.

Kelly Loeffler: You know, sports have tremendous power to unite us, I think that's one of the things that Americans we love about our sports.

Candace Buckner: Here's Sen. Loeffler on FOX News.

Kelly Loeffler: But, you know, the WNBA has embraced the Black Lives Matter political organization. This is a very divisive organization based on Marxist principles. This week, they threatened to burn the system down, literally and figuratively, if they don't get what they want.

Candace Buckner: She's very much politicizing this moment, this whole entire moment is a gift to her. Black Lives Matter on a — on a basketball court gives her the opportunity to say to her base, speak to her base: “I stand against this.”

Steve Fennessy: Specifically, so I understand this, what she's objecting to in her letter to the WNBA commissioner is the adoption by players or the endorsement by players of the three words “Black Lives Matter.”

Candace Buckner: Yeah, which she says is a political movement. Her base views that as a very leftist Marxist movement in which they want to take Jesus out of the church, disrupt the nuclear family, and defund the police. So she is really zero-ing in on what some in the movement have advocated for. But not just the three words. And I think her player, Renee Montgomery, who is actually taking off the year anyway to fight for social justice, she wrote an open letter back to Senator Loeffler to say our lives matter.

Renee Montgomery: She is making it a lot about the group, the Black Lives Matter group. And that's why I continually talk about the movement. And I understand that this is where, you know, that they're going to lay their stake in Black Lives Matter, the group. They don't want that to be associated with the League. But the point is the leagues are taking a stand.

Steve Fennessy: That's Renee Montgomery speaking with TMZ Sports.

Renee Montgomery: I just don't understand why you want to be a part of something that just has such different beliefs than you.

Candace Buckner: For the people who knew her as simply the owner, the very, very rich owner of the Atlanta Dream, this is not the person that they remember.

Newscast: WNBA players are taking a strong stance against Atlanta Dream co-owner and Georgia Sen. Kelly Leoffler by wearing shirts that say “Vote Warnock.” Raphael Warnock is running against Loeffler in the Georgia Senate race and Loeffler …

Steve Fennessy: Some of the Atlanta Dream players are actively campaigning for Raphael Warnock.

Candace Buckner: On FOX News, Sen. Leoffler was asked about WNBA players campaigning against her.

Kelly Loeffler: This isn't about playing basketball. It's about playing politics. And it's — it truly is about politics. Look, everyone has a right to choose who they want to vote for. But because I stood up for our American flag, suggested that we replace that with, you know, the divisive idea of this political organization, Black Lives Matter, not the statement. We all agree with the statement. But this political organization that wants to defund the police.

Candace Buckner: It was the biggest chess move that I could think of because, of course, Raphael Warnock is the Democratic contender in this race. The WNBA does not have the — it has a very niche, fervent fan base, but it doesn't have the mass appeal that the NBA has. Well, maybe it does in this sense because, since the players wore those “Vote Warnock” shirts, the next day the Warnock campaign raised more than $150,000 online and added more than 3,500 new grassroots donors and grew his Twitter followers by nearly 3,500. So not only does the Atlanta Dream, WNBA, its players have a platform, I think it's getting amplified and it's getting stronger day by day.

Steve Fennessy: Did you report that they are not even uttering her name in public?

Candace Buckner: Right. So I noticed when I was interviewing WNBA players, they were not saying Sen. Loeffler’s name. And recently I asked Chicago Sky’s Cheyenne Parker about that. And this was a Zoom call after the Aug. 4 game when they wore the “Vote Warnock” shirts.

Cheyenne Parker: The whole point in us wearing this is to try to get the partial owner of Atlanta out of office. That was the whole point. So obviously, I support that because she doesn't stand for what this league stands for. So whatever it takes to get her, you know, just displaced and removed, I'm willing to participate in it. I wore the shirt for my team.

Candace Buckner: As a follow-up, is there a coordinated effort not to say her name?

Cheyenne Parker: No, it’s just not worth saying.

Steve Fennessy: On CNN in July, WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert was asked if Kelly Loeffler should maintain her co-ownership of the Atlanta Dream. And she had this to say.

Cathy Engelbert: She's no longer involved in the day-to-day business of the team. And, again, we believe the WNBA platform. I mean, what the players want to focus on — and I know some of them have spoken out — but they want to focus on getting owners in who otherwise are supporting what they stand for. And that's what we're working on.

Steve Fennessy: And Candace, last week we saw WNBA teams, including the Atlanta Dream, walk off the court in the wake of the shooting by police of Jacob Blake in Wisconsin. They just didn't play. This issue clearly isn't going away anytime soon so is there a possibility Kelly Leoffler might sell her stake in the Atlanta Dream?

Candace Buckner: She — to look like a fighter and to look like she will not fall down to cancel culture, I think that's politically smart for her to say. However, I think it makes sense if they are so misaligned at this point. The senator and the league and her players, the players are on her payroll. It would make sense to get out and allow somebody else to foot the bill, because at this point, that's all she's doing. She hasn't communicated with the players since they've been in their bubble in Bradenton, Florida. She did not reach out to Renee Montgomery when she asked to have a conversation about, you know, this disagreement. And she's not she's not active in any — this was a hands-on owner and she is no longer active in the day-to-day dealings of the team. So she says she's not going to sell, but at this point, it would just make one make sense, right?

Steve Fennessy: My thanks to Washington Post sports reporter Candace Buckner. A special election that will determine who serves out the remaining two years of Johnny Isakson's term will be held on Nov. 3, the same day we choose our next president. If no candidate gets more than 50 percent of the vote that day, the top two finishers will square off against each other in a runoff on Jan. 5, 2021. I'm Steve Fennessy. This is Georgia Today, a production of Georgia Public Broadcasting. Our show is available at GPB.org/GeorgiaToday or anywhere you get podcasts. Sean Powers is our producer. We're taking next week off, but we'll be back with a new episode in two weeks. Thanks for listening.