Level Playing Field (2021) s01e04 Episode Script

The Assist

The following is a presentation
of HBO Sports.
As a defensive player,
I like getting stopped.
I love blocking shots.
It's the gritty stuff
that people don't necessarily
go to games to watch.
Everybody likes the offense,
but the defense is
what wins you games.
I just don't consider myself
an activist
or super politically involved,
but felt like
the world was kind of falling apart.
Hands up! Don't Shoot!
Black Lives Matter!
There's no state
more consequential than Georgia.
We win Georgia,
we win everything.
That's what's at stake
right now.
The future of the country is
on the ballot right here in Georgia.
Reverend Warnock's campaign
got a boost
from some people
close to his opponents,
Kelly Loeffler,
namely the WNBA.
Politics, race, gender,
all these messy issues
that we have to deal with
in our society,
have always been very present
in sports.
They were a part of a long tradition
of athletes
who have had the courage
to use their platform.
When the point guard
of a national basketball team
starts talking about politics,
we start to listen.
The entire world is looking at us
right now. But you take that risk.
In 2020, there was a lot of tension
politically and personally
for pretty much everybody
across the country.
There's too many efforts here
to take away our rights.
Take away your rights
and destroy our way of life.
Then we will shut the country down.
For the first time in decades,
Georgia is a battleground state.
And in the Georgia elections,
you had two Senate seats up for grabs.
One of those was
Senator Kelly Loeffler,
co-owner of the WNBA team
in Atlanta.
She was Republican.
She was openly supporting Trump.
And Warnock was
one of the opponents.
He was a Reverend
at the church
that Martin Luther king grew up
preaching at.
Reverend Raphael Warnock
had all the makings of somebody
who could be a great representative,
but he didn't have the platform.
Why might 2020 be different?
The first place we will look is
African-American turnout,
Fulton county, home of Atlanta.
Atlanta is the cradle
of the civil rights movement.
Martin Luther King Jr.
is Georgia's greatest son.
And it is the place where
the dreamer and the dream was born.
I remember the pride
that many of us felt
that we were getting
a WNBA team.
The spirit of all of that is embodied
in the team's name, The Dream.
In the course of the campaign,
I got word about the ways in which
they were making good use
of their platform
to get into some good trouble.
Kelsey going up.
And rejected by Elizabeth Williams!
My name's Elizabeth Williams.
I play in the WNBA
for the Atlanta Dream.
Having more of a veteran role
is interesting
because you understand what
your leadership style looks like.
Elizabeth Williams is quiet,
but she's brilliant.
She's the type of leader
that every single organization
that's successful must have in order
to really push things forward.
When we've had
the killings of Breonna Taylor,
George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery,
kind of back to back to back,
it felt like it was important
to go to a protest.
It was my first ever protest.
It was important to be in that space
because so much of the language
and the news around protests
was the violence
and how dangerous it was
when in reality,
it was just raw emotion
and people that were upset.
It's like, okay, this is about
people's lives, people's families.
Seeing how many people
were coming out to physically chant
and yell and share
and express their emotions
behind the whole movement
was really powerful and important.
And so the chance to come out and
to be part of that, I think was huge.
If this were my friend or my sister
or my parent,
I would be so enraged.
You're just reminded of how close
to home all of this really hits.
I'm always grateful that
I was actually at the protest
and could feel and experience
all those feelings.
And then heading
into the bubble.
You kind of put all of that together.
The bubble season.
It's a pretty artificial environment
for a sport to take place in.
But there was no way to completely
shut out the rest of the world.
In preparation of kicking off
their 2020 season,
the WNBA players decided to dedicate
their season to Black Lives Matter
and, specifically, Say Her Name
to raise awareness of black women
who are also victims
of state-sanctioned violence
and police brutality.
From its inception,
women in the WNBA were already
pushing back at the tiny box
that people wanted
to put women athletes in.
It was a lead
that was threatening to change
the face of how
we understood women's sports
and push the boundaries
of what people understood it to be.
Standing up for social justice
has been so much more
than a talking point
for WNBA players.
It's really been a call to action.
This year, the league
developed a council and platform
dedicated to advancing social justice
and societal and racial issues.
And we want to make sure that
in addition to having the passion
and the voices out there
we're strategic,
and we're intentional
about how we move forward.
Being one of the longest standing
Dream players,
I felt like I had to kind of step up
and take the lead.
The consensus is to not play
in tonight's slate of games
and to kneel, lock arms and raise
fists during the national anthem.
You can't control
how people perceive you,
but we want to speak up for people
that don't always have a voice.
The Atlanta Dream co-owner,
Kelly Loeffler,
is not in favor of the WNBA
social justice plans.
She asked the commissioner
to scrap plans for players
to wear warm-up jerseys reading
Black Lives Matter and Say Her Name.
In a letter to the league
commissioner, Loeffler wrote,
we should be united in our goal
to remove politics from sports.
For our team owner to say that
to a league of majority black woman
was tough.
That really hit home
for a lot of people.
Because we're in this election year,
that she was obviously trying
to stir something up.
As a Republican candidate that needed
to lean into the right
she's drumming up support
by demonstrating to her base
The WNBA has embraced the Black
Lives Matter political organization
and I had to draw the line.
I had to speak out for those
that disagree with this movement.
The black women who played
in the WNBA became objects to her.
They became something
to use as political pawns.
She had no idea the type of fight
she was about to pick.
And for that matter,
who she was picking this fight with.
The one thing about WNBA players
is that the majority of them
have been fighting for respect their
entire career. They are used to this.
And that's when the Dream
and the larger WNBA community
decided they needed
to change the narrative
and they needed
to do something different.
In the United States, sports plays
a very dominant role.
That central location of sports
in our society
infuses it
with a lot of cultural power.
Athletes have taken
that cultural power
to build a platform
on which to speak out.
But there has been
messages everywhere
about the consequences and
repercussions athletes might face
for using their voice.
We can see historically,
there's been athletes
who've been blackballed,
athletes who protest
experienced threats, job precarity,
just not being able
to find employment.
Players don't have nearly as much
power as we often think they do.
Contracts are short. There is so
much competition to get these jobs.
So when you are using your voice
and saying things
that some people
view controversial,
it puts you
in a much more tenuous position.
More often than that, it's usually
black athletes that are told,
"don't you dare remind us
of the fact
that many of the ideals
we have espoused in this country,
we have not exactly lived up to."
Before the 1968 Olympics,
there was this effort
to mobilize black athletes
to speak out
against racial injustice.
After a series of talks,
the athletes decide
that they're all going to protest
racial injustice in their own way.
Tommy Smith
and John Carlos said,
"we're going to have
the eyes of the world on us
for this one moment on the medal
stand, what can we do with it?"
The Black Power disciples
Tommy Smith and John Carlos
had been suspended by
the United States Olympic committee
and given 48 hours
to leave Mexico.
We see multiple periods of time where
black athletes attempted to mobilize,
but perhaps did not have the power
or the leverage to do so.
It's also disheartening
because they left women
completely out of the conversation.
There was some really
tremendous politically-aware women
who were supportive of the protests
at the 1968 Olympic games.
Wyomia Tyus won
the 100 meter Olympic event in 1964
and she repeated in 1968, which was
unprecedented for women at the time.
Like Tommy Smith
and John Carlos,
she also raised her fist,
but that never gets talked about.
She's left out of most narratives
concerning protests
at the 1968 Olympic games.
Women's participation has always
been devalued and so it's no surprise
that we see a lot of their activist
efforts being widely ignored.
Women are still vastly
underrepresented in sport media.
If you look at SportsCenter
and what's on television,
women get only about 5%
of all coverage in sport media.
There's so much coverage
devoted to men.
It makes it seem as though this
athlete activism is a man's thing.
That constant invisibility typifies
the experience of women athletes,
particularly women athletes of color,
throughout the 20th century.
The story of the WNBA's involvement
in this current civil rights movement,
it actually doesn't start last
summer, it started right around 2016,
the summer where Alton Sterling
was killed and Philando Castile.
The WNBA players started
discussing police brutality
and bringing that issue
before the media base
that doesn't even cover them
that often,
but they felt like it was worth it.
What is happening now is not new.
We have decided is important
to take a stand and raise our voices.
We're highlighting a long time
problem of racial profiling
and unjust violence against blacks
in our country.
This is when it was
the most unpopular to do it.
It's not as if corporations
are lining up
making all the pretty little
Black Lives Matter statements
that they're making now.
The league really tried
to hush them.
The league fined them for dress code
violation for wearing these shirts.
It's unfortunate
that the WNBA has fined us
and not supported its players.
They did not back down when
they stood against those actions.
Teams across the league
held media blackouts,
and they wouldn't talk
about anything
other than police brutality
and systemic racism.
Once they realized
that teams across the league
were going to continue this,
the league got scared.
the WNBA has rescinded that fine.
And those communication strategies,
the solidarity that they formed,
it carried on.
And that directly led to
the collective action we saw in 2020.
When we think
about the WNBA today,
we think about it
as a gritty, tenacious league
that doesn't take no
for an answer
and continues to push boundaries.
And we think about it
as a league
that's always been
about collective action.
Anytime the W does something,
we do it together.
But there's a lot of risk
when you think about the fact
that this is against
our team owner.
We can't necessarily do
anything about our ownership,
but we're eligible to vote
and so why don't we think
about something we can control,
which is being voters.
And we can control like
let's look at her Senate seat.
As the tension
in the country escalated,
that tension between Kelly Loeffler
and the league intensified.
Black Lives Matters!
Get the hell out!
Get the hell out!
But there was no clear front runner
for a democratic candidate
who could possibly take her out.
Stacey Abrams on our board
of advocates was like,
"oh yeah, this guy, his name's
Raphael Warnock, he's great."
I'm voting for Reverend
Raphael Warnock for US Senate
because he's spent his entire life
fighting for healthcare,
voting rights, and an economy
that works for everyone.
We must raise the standard.
We must try to embody
in our speech the kind of world
we want to see
for our children.
I think my first impression was how
stoic, but also confident he was.
He was very adamant
that social justice was a priority
and fight for people
who are marginalized.
And that spoke to all of the players
because, as a group of black women,
we're not typically the people
that the world seeks first.
I think a lot of them think about
the fact that this is something
they've been working for their whole
lives as professional athletes,
that they have spent
countless hours
trying to be
the very best at this job.
And they have to have honest
conversations with themselves.
Is me speaking out worth risking
all of this that I have built?
They knew what was at stake.
We wanted to make sure
that we were organized
and we were strategic
in the conversations
that we had as players about,
okay, how are we going to
support Reverend Warnock?
And what does this mean?
We've all made it known voting
is that actual item.
We've got to take
that energy to the polls.
The WNBA took the brand-new step
of not just telling people to vote,
but telling people who to vote for.
They wore Vote Warnock shirts.
That kind of collective endorsement
was new territory.
Every time they are
photographed coming off the bus,
warming up before a game,
after a game,
they're drawing attention
to the race.
Nobody knew who he was before
they start wearing the T-shirts
and speaking his name
on a regular basis.
It was a concrete thing that
they could do in an election year
to help get people engaged,
to help fuel progress
that could really impact change.
It moves things from a symbol
into something very substantive.
We wanted to come in
and wear Vote Warnock shirts.
He's currently running
for US Senate right now
and he supports everything that
all the players in the WNBA support.
It was a proud moment
when I looked up one evening
and they were getting off a bus
with a black T-shirt
with the simplest and most sublime
message: Vote Warnock.
It had my name on it, but I think
they were saying much more than that.
I think they were saying vote
for truth-telling, vote for justice,
stand up for what's right
no matter what it costs.
And it rang with a kind of power
in spaces
that don't often pay
that much attention to politics.
But in reality, do athletes
have an effect on the ballot box?
There's so much partisan animosity
in the country right now.
When you speak in favor
of one of the major political parties,
you're alienating
maybe half of the country.
When the point guard
of a national basketball team
starts talking about politics,
that's not very typical
so we start to listen.
When you start endorsing
particular people,
there's a tremendous
amount of power in that.
A lot of responsibility,
but a tremendous amount of power.
Today's fan is learning
so much more
about their favorite
players' sensibilities
than was the case
in previous generations.
The way that fans think
about athletes,
they're looking for
a little bit more substance.
They want to know that the person
whose shoes they're buying,
whose games they're going to see,
who they're watching on TV,
they need to know that they're real
and they're authentic,
and that they get them.
Athletes, they can just get
on social media and say,
"you know what?
I feel this about this issue."
It's a huge opportunity
to not just say "vote",
but say like, "here's why we vote.
And here's how we vote."
After years of erasure
of the league,
a window opened up
where all of a sudden the WNBA
seemed to be everywhere.
There was new attention on
what this league was doing.
What we fought for
in the last month using our voices,
we just want to continue to do that
with voting.
And so this was just
a natural segue for us.
So while it's really hard
to figure out
what exactly influenced
the rise of Raphael Warnock,
what we do know is
the campaign itself says
that after the WNBA got involved,
they saw their polls jump
from 9% to 17%.
But also, on August 4th,
the day the WNBA came out
with their Vote Warnock shirts
for the first time,
there was a boost in the Warnock
campaign in terms of donations.
50% of that boost
was from individual donors.
The Warnock campaign said
that the WNBA was instrumental
in turning the tide
of their campaign.
The Dream, in particular,
did a few things really differently.
Having a really specific message
and call to action
was one of those things.
So typically what you'll see
is celebrities saying,
"you should go vote"
or "support democracy."
The dream comes out and says,
"vote for this particular candidate."
They didn't make it
about Kelly Loeffler.
They made it
about Reverend Raphael Warnock,
and they made it
about his agenda,
what he was bringing to the table,
his ideals, his politics.
And then as players
were leaving the bubble,
people volunteered as poll workers,
did robocalls to make sure
that people don't lose sight
of the end goal of what we're doing.
We didn't have a lot of time so
we started focusing on pop culture.
We were also still
in the middle of a pandemic.
And so recruiting athletes
to shout us out,
shout out work out,
tell people to follow us.
They care about Georgia.
They care about moving young people.
They care about moving
black people to vote.
And so the WNBA linking up
with these grassroots activists
and taking their own platform
and saying,
"how can we use our platform
to work alongside the efforts
that are happening?"
is one of the most striking features
about the WNBA action
and what makes it really stand apart.
Because it's their collective
matching up with other collectives,
and the force of that together
really moving the needle.
In Georgia today,
as final frenzy of campaigning,
just five days before next week's
crucial Senate runoff elections.
We saw long lines of voters
in the weeks before election day.
Some waited 11 hours in Georgia,
but they still broke
the voting record for turnout.
We had to stay vigilant
and we had to stay really hopeful
that all of the work that we'd done
and the conversations that we had,
weren't going to go in vain.
By the time the runoff came around,
it was like,
if Warnock and Ossoff win
these seats, the Senate flips.
We are coming on the air
with breaking news out of Georgia.
NBC News now projects
that Democrat Raphael Warnock
has won the Senate runoff.
Raphael Warnock has defeated
incumbent Senator Kelly Loeffler.
Warnock will become
the first black Senator from Georgia.
We were told
that we couldn't win this election,
but tonight we've proved
that with hope, hard work
and the people by our side,
anything is possible.
A bunch of women
who play basketball
just helped get
a black man elected to the Senate
in the most important election
maybe for the Senate in my lifetime.
The reality is that this was
an incredibly close election.
These are razor thin margins.
So obviously
you're not going to be able to say,
"it's just one thing", right?
The WNBA's impact in that election
is not singular, but it's undeniable.
The level of visibility
and attention
that they were able to bring to him
wound up changing history.
After Reverend Warnock won the
election and the Senate was flipped,
Kelly Loeffler said that she was
going to sell her stake in the team.
And we got
new ownership as well.
The Atlanta Dream is waking up
to new ownership this morning.
Former Dream player,
Renee Montgomery
is the first former player
to become
both an owner and an executive
of a WNBA franchise.
It was also a fresh start: new
President, new Senate, new control.
And then for Atlanta,
it was like just a new change.
Like we can move forward now.
The dream has shown
it's not necessarily the case
that you'll be penalized
for doing this sort of activism work.
Viewership went up and they were able
to take control of their team
from a co-owner that they didn't want
to be affiliated with them anymore.
It was one of the great checkmates
I've ever seen
from a sports
and political standpoint.
The WNBA really gave a blueprint
about what it means to organize.
And now it feels like a great time
for athletes to really understand
how their voices have legitimate
and true power.
I think that the rest of us
can learn a lot from WNBA players
versus the power of collective
action and solidarity.
The second is to take
that breath, to be patient,
to react in a purposeful way
that will push the conversation
beyond emotion
and into something productive.
The W will continue to stay
at the forefront of this.
And I think people started to
appreciate the effort that we put in
and see like, wow,
when these players are saying
that they're fighting for social
justice, they really mean it.
This has been a presentation
of HBO Sports.
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