| USA TODAY
WNBA player Renee Montgomery on athletes encouraging Americans to vote
Sports Pulse: Renee Montgomery on how opting out of playing this year made a big difference
Regret is an emotion Renee Montgomery rarely, if ever, acknowledges. And there’s not an ounce of it in her spirit following a 2020 election season, which is still ongoing for the Georgia resident.
Ahead of the abbreviated WNBA season, the Atlanta Dream guard announced she was opting out, not due to coronavirus concerns, but because she desired to focus her efforts on increasing voter turnout. Over the last six months, the Renee Montgomery Foundation has educated citizens on issues and candidates, while emphasizing the importance of local elections. But back in June, when Montgomery pressed “send tweet” to unveil her plan, the passion made up for the lack of concrete plans.
“When you look back at it, it feels like I’m exactly where I should be,” Montgomery told USA TODAY Sports on Thursday.
Montgomery is a prime example of the fearlessness of WNBA players, who are among the most visible leaders in the athlete social justice movement. The two-time WNBA champion paused her career and has since upped her footprint through grassroots activities — supplying protesters with water, for example — and through media exposure.
“My platform has grown by not playing, and that’s why I sent the tweet,” she said.
Named a co-host of TMZ Sports in August and appearing as a guest several times on MSNBC with Joy Reid (she also recently gave a TED talk), more people text her parents about being on TV now than when she was playing.
Montgomery’s decision came in the aftermath of Minneapolis police officers killing George Floyd, and she remembers the energy in the streets demanding change. In an effort to bottle that enthusiasm in the pursuit of results, her foundation started the “Remember the 3rd” initiative, reminding voters to hit the polls on Election Day.
“November felt like forever away at that time,” she said. “And so the whole goal of Remember the 3rd was to keep reminding people of what’s happening. These social causes actually cross with the politics. So if you’re mad about the city budget and you’re mad about how much money the police department gets, then you know that the mayor creates your city budget.”
As the results on election night and the following days poured in, what excited Montgomery the most was the record turnout in Georgia.
When it became clear both of Georgia’s Senate races — a special election between Sen. Kelly Loeffler (R) and Democratic challenger Rev. Raphael Warnock, and Jon Ossoff (D) challenging Sen. David Perdue (R) — were heading to a runoff on Jan. 5, 2021, Montgomery realized her work was not done. Over the next few weeks, she’ll concentrate on combating voter fatigue.
“We gotta get people voting again. It’s not that you just voted the last time. ‘I stood in line for 20 hours last time.’ Look, you got to get back there,” Montgomery said. “It’s probably not going to be the same lines I hope, but even if it is, you have to stay in it. This is our reality. We have a runoff. This is basically overtime, and we got to show up.”
The Warnock-Loeffler race is particularly intriguing for Montgomery. Loeffler is co-owner of the Dream, and while Montgomery wouldn’t consider Loeffler a close friend, a bond exists there. In July, she cautioned the senator to not end up on “the wrong side of history” in an open letter. She’s also friendly with Warnock, dating back to last year when she attended an event at his Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, where Martin Luther King Jr. was once pastor.
“It’s definitely interesting, knowing both parties,” she said. “It’s different because you have to understand the political space. There’s just different things that come along with it. I used to never see myself getting involved in the political space, per se, but this year was unique in the sense that it’s an election year, it’s the year I opted out, and understanding the magnitude of what this election meant was kind of what propelled me to create Remember the 3rd and be a part of the election.”
The WNBA at large has taken notice in the race, and most haven’t been shy about their support for Warnock, especially after Loeffler decried the “Black Lives Matter” movement the league championed. One day during the season, teams wore “Vote Warnock” shirts, and on Thursday Sue Bird of the Seattle Storm tweeted, “Here’s the thing y’all @ReverendWarnock is the pastor of MLK Jr.’s church. He’s spent his entire life standing up to hatred and bigotry. Sen. @KLoeffler only looks out for herself. The choice is clear.”
The league’s coordination impressed Montgomery from afar. Once again, she said, the WNBA emerged as a leader, even when teams across multiple sports and leagues executed a wildcat strike after the Jacob Blake shooting in Kensoha, Wisconsin. Watching organizations leagues fall in line was a never-before-seen level of support.
“I think it feels different because it is different,” Montgomery said. “I don’t think there’s ever been a time when athletes felt so empowered, so comfortable speaking out on social causes.”
In the past, Montgomery said athletes could be speaking against the views and contrary to the relationships of a team owner — and in the case of political donations from ownership, that still may certainly be the case — or a team sponsor.
“There was just this dynamic of you don’t want to ruffle any feathers with your boss or with your paychecks,” said Montgomery, who plans on returning to the court next season.
As the conversation in parts of society has shifted toward justice, so has the discourse from athletes. Multi-million dollar contracts and sponsorship deals used to present a barrier. That’s no longer the case for most, and the domino effect has increased activism.
“I just think with the climate and the civil unrest, a lot of athletes have just made that conscious decision that ‘I’m going to speak out, and whatever happens, happens,’” she said.
And that’s how Montgomery has approached the last six months.
“My biggest takeaway is when you take that leap of faith, good things can happen,” she said. “With opting out this season, so many opportunities presented themselves. So many different people that I was introduced (to) that I might not know had I not been in this space. I would just say trust the gut.”
Follow Chris Bumbaca on Twitter @BOOMbaca.