By MARLENE LENTHANG, ABC News
(NEW YORK) — WNBA star Renee Montgomery made the life-changing decision last year to leave her 11-year basketball career behind to advocate for racial justice. Though leaving her stellar career with the Atlanta Dream was daunting, she’s made history in the process.
Montgomery announced last June she would not participate in the 2020 WNBA season in order to dedicate herself to the movement for racial equality and the end of police brutality in the wake of George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis. In February, she announced her official retirement from the league.
The decision came last summer in the wake of impassioned protests that unfolded in her adopted home of Atlanta.
“Atlanta was turnt up and Atlanta was protesting,” she said. “Atlanta was marching, Atlanta was upset.”
“We witnessed racial justice protests popping up all over the metro area. There was a sort of political awakening,” said Nsé Ufot, CEO of the New Georgia Project, a voter rights group in the state.
Montgomery said the racial reckoning unfolding in the country prodded her to leave her career behind and become a part of the action on the ground.
“I wanted to do more and more, and then I felt like, how could I do more if I was half in and half out? And so I made a decision to just be all in,” she said.
Montgomery’s statement to the press left no doubt about her decision to step away from the game that made her famous.
“After much thought I decided to opt out of the 2020 WNBA season,” she announced to the public on June 18. “There’s work to be done off the court in so many areas of our community. I do feel that now is the time and moments equal momentum.”
“Moments equal momentum” has become a catchphrase for Montgomery. Last year, she delivered a TED Talk about the powerful mantra.
“Everybody thinks you gotta do something amazing, and you really don’t,” she said. “You just need to add your moment. Everybody has a moment.”
That “moment” for Montgomery meant putting her 12th pro season on pause just weeks before the season began. The decision also meant losing out on her salary and leaving endorsements and future opportunities at risk.
Montgomery admitted it was challenging to step away from the sport to which she had devoted her whole life.
“You just don’t know what’s gonna happen when you step away. I love basketball, it’s my lifestyle, and, like, giving that up was tough. I didn’t know where that next check was coming from,” she said.
Female basketball players with the league get paid significantly less than their male counterparts in the NBA, much like female professional athletes across the board. The average base salary for the WNBA is about $101,000. Meanwhile, the NBA had an average salary of $7.8 million per player during its 2020-21 season.
Montgomery noted that leaving the financial security of the WNBA was a worry, but it was worth the risk.
“It was a scary situation in that aspect. But, honestly, I just took a leap of faith,” she said.
“The first people to respond [were] my teammates. They were like, ‘Alright, listen, you handle things in the A (Atlanta).’ And so for me that was, like, the biggest calming relief,” she added.
Montgomery was not alone. Fellow WNBA stars Maya Moore, of the Minnesota Lynx, and Tiffany Hayes, of the Atlanta Dream, also stepped away from the court. The three were teammates at the University of Connecticut.
The WNBA dedicated the 2020 season to Breonna Taylor’s “Say Her Name” movement and Black Lives Matter.
Montgomery and the Atlanta Dream’s cause gained national attention as she publicly sparred with then-co-owner Kelly Loeffler, a millionaire Republican senator who had a stake in the team since 2010 and opposed the WNBA’s support of Black Lives Matter.
“The lives of each and every African American matter, and there’s no debating the fact that there is no place for racism in our country. However, I adamantly oppose the Black Lives Matter political movement,” Loeffler wrote in a July letter to the WNBA commissioner. “I believe it is totally misaligned with the values and goals of the WNBA and the Atlanta Dream, where we support tolerance and inclusion.”
Her letter sparked public outrage and led to pressure from players to oust Loeffler.
“If you felt that way, why didn’t you just say something earlier? We know you’re running as a Republican senator,” Montgomery said of Loeffler. “For you to not be with Black Lives Matter, well, I mean, half our league, [the] majority of our league, is the Black and brown community. And so I’m thinking, why didn’t you just say this before? Why are you writing the letter now?”
Montgomery ended up responding with an open letter addressed to Loeffler.
“Your comments hurt deeply because it was a veiled ‘All Lives Matter’ response. It’s not that you’re tone deaf to the cry for justice, but you seemingly oppose it,” Montgomery’s letter read, in part. “You are speaking from a position of immense influence as a team co-owner in our league and as a US Senator.”
Montgomery said she also offered to have a conversation with Loeffler on the issue. She says Loeffler never responded. ABC News reached out to Loeffler through the Dream and her nonprofit organization Greater Georgia for comment, but received no response.
Montgomery focused her efforts on her foundation and created the “Remember the 3rd” campaign dedicated to political education and turning out voters for the Georgia Senate special election on Nov. 3.
“I think a lot of people try to put politics to the side and say, ‘I’m not into politics.’ I don’t get into it, but politics is all the way into us. Like, politics is scared of us,” she said. “We can protest and we can be mad, and then we can go vote, and we can do something about it. And I think that’s the scariest thing.”
“Like, you can hit them where it hurts by hitting them in the voting booths,” she added.
By early August, WNBA players across the league — led by Seattle Storm’s Sue Bird and the Dream’s Elizabeth Williams — threw their support behind one of Loeffler’s opponents, Rev. Raphael Warnock. Warnock was a political newcomer, the senior pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church, where Martin Luther King Jr. was preacher.
Montgomery said the players vetted Warnock and showed their support by wearing T-shirts that said “Vote Warnock.”
Warnock praised Montgomery for casting a spotlight on the movement denouncing racial injustice.
“I think what you were hearing from Renee Montgomery, was that these are not usual times,” Warnock said of Montgomery’s activism. “She felt like she needed to focus on the moment and the rest of the women and the WNBA using that platform, in a way as athletes that recalls the names of Muhammad Ali and John Carlos and others who stood up at the Olympics putting forward a message of justice making in the world.”
“In a real sense, while they were supporting me, it was much bigger than me. It was about them raising their voices as athletes,” Warnock added.
In the Nov. 3 special election, no candidate received a majority of the vote, launching Warnock and Loeffler, the top two candidates, to advance to a runoff election on Jan. 5. The runoff saw record voter turnout in Georgia, fueled by grassroots campaigns, and Warnock edged out Loeffler with 51% of the popular vote. The victory, along with fellow Democrat Jon Ossoff’s victory in the runoff, tipped the balance of the Senate in favor of Democrats.
“I couldn’t believe that we had that big of an impact,” Montgomery said. “I mean, this was national news. And here we are right in the thick of things. To see the results afterwards, I mean, it was a surreal moment to have. The WNBA has a place in history.”
“Oh, there’s no doubt in my mind that the WNBA’s players, in amplifying their voices, did a lot to make sure that we had the outcomes that we had in November and in January,” Ufot said.
Warnock said voter rights in Georgia are more important than ever in wake of the election.
“Elections have consequences,” Warnock said. “This is the new South. This is the emerging American electorate unfolding before our very eyes.”
“We saw record voter turnout in Georgia in November with 5 million Georgians turning out to vote. In January, 4.4 million Georgians showed up in the runoff twice,” Warnock, who became the first African American senator elected in the state, added.
Republican lawmakers in the state this month have put several bills on the table that some say restrict access to the polls.
“How did politicians respond? Some decided that they didn’t like the choice that the voters made,” Warnock said. “They’re trying to change the rules by getting rid of early voting or limiting it so much that that people aren’t able to access vote by mail.”
On Thursday, Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp signed a bill proposed by Republicans to make sweeping changes to election law that would expand early voting for primary and general elections, ban early voting on holidays, and ban out-of-precinct voting until 5 p.m. Republicans say the bill will increase accessibility and streamline elections, meanwhile Democrats have blasted it as a voter-suppression tactic.
“Our goal is to ensure that voters in Georgia have confidence in the elections process,” Republican state Sen. Max Burns said to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on the measure. “This is a solid step in the right direction to provide voter integrity in Georgia.”
Montgomery condemned the bill, telling Kemp to “Do better.”
Warnock is the lead sponsor of the For The People Act, a bill introduced by Senate Democrats that seeks to override many measures by state Republicans on voting rights. He said, “this bill seeks to push us beyond this kind of racial and partisan [divide].”
“I don’t think anything is more urgent than this because voting rights are preservative of all other rights,” he added.
Warnock said activism, like Montgomery’s efforts, make the biggest cultural shifts.
“It’s not lost on me that I sit now in the seat of Herman Eugene Talmudge, who was one of Georgia’s senators when I was born and an arch segregationist,” Warnock said. “And the fact that I now sit in his seat speaks to the arc of change in our country. … There’s a whole lot of work to do, and we need more voices, diverse forces.”
For Montgomery, the election was a personal victory.
“Honestly, it felt like we were taking a lot of [losses] all 2020 and it just felt good to get a win,” she said.
Montgomery’s biggest win came last month when Loeffler and then-co-owner Mary Brock, who had been under pressure to step away from the team, sold their shares of the Atlanta Dream.
The new owners couldn’t be more aligned with the team — the Dream was sold to a three-person investor group that includes Montgomery and real estate developers Larry Gottesdiener and Suzanne Abair.
Montgomery said she first started to consider an ownership stake in the team after Los Angeles Lakers star LeBron James tweeted a photo of Atlanta Dream players saying he wanted to put together an ownership group for the team.
“Throughout 2020 the Atlanta Dream stood firm and I am so excited to represent players who are that bold and proud,” Montgomery said.
Since leaving the WNBA, Montgomery has charted new territory in her career. In addition to her civil activism, she started working as a studio analyst for broadcasts of Atlanta Hawks games in 2020. She’s worked as a color commentator during the 2021 NCAA women’s tournament as well, and she was announced this month as the co-host of the “Takeline” podcast.
The athlete-turned-activist isn’t ready to sit back just yet. She said there’s so much more work to do in healing the country’s racial wounds.
“What’s next is not letting what happened in 2020 just be that little moment. It needs to be a movement now,” she said. “Let’s continue what we started. I’m very optimistic.”
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