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Behind the money — why pro sports can’t escape the grip of politics

Thanks to the work of those at ESPN and FiveThirtyEight, today we have a clear picture of one source of the millions of dollars flowing into political campaigns — owners of professional sports teams. 

Since 2015, nearly $47 million has been donated to political campaigns by owners from the NFL, NBA, WNBA, NHL, MLB and NASCAR, data from the Federal Election Commission shows. Where that money goes can tell us more things about our democracy than we have hours in the day.

Instead, it’s worth focusing on one race, in one state, and what it says about politics in pro sports.

Georgia is having a special Senate election this winter, first with a “jungle primary” on Nov. 3 where members of all parties compete, and then a second election in January between the top two vote-getters. 

Incumbent Senator Kelly Loeffler, a Republican, was appointed in December 2019 by Governor Brian Kemp to fill the vacant seat. She’s competing against U.S. Representative Doug Collins, another Republican, and Reverend Raphael Warnock, a Democrat.

Out of the $47 million spent on political campaigns, $34.2 million, or 73%, went to Republican campaigns or super PACs (Political Action Committees, one of the easiest ways to spend lots of money in politics) supporting only Republican causes. 

Considering the barrier to entry in sports ownership, with often millions of dollars required to purchase teams, it’s not a surprise that the demographics of this elite group don’t match those of the nation — being older, whiter and more male. As such, it’s not a tremendous surprise that this group, especially concerned about taxes on their wealth, mostly do what they can to support Republican candidates.

It’s not a monolith, however. The WNBA, while a smaller share of the pie than other professional leagues, was the only one of those studied where a bigger proportion of the money went to Democratic candidates than Republican. 

The biggest giver during this cycle, however, has been the owner of the Atlanta Dream, who has donated more than $875,000 to Republicans since 2016. This dwarfs any figure from fellow WNBA owners, with only the roughly $660,000 donated by Chicago Sky owner John Rogers even in the ballpark, and no other Republican contribution even coming within one-fifth of the sum.  

Who owns the Dream, you might ask? Why, none other than Senator Kelly Loeffler.

Professional sports this year have also seen widespread support for the Black Lives Matter movement, especially in the NBA and WNBA, where more than 70% of players are Black. As NBA players walked off the job in a wildcat strike after the shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin, the WNBA followed right behind.

And this is where our old friend, Senator Loeffler, comes in again.

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Writing to WNBA Commissioner Cathy Englebert, Loeffler stated her “adamant” opposition to “Black Lives Matter” being included as a prominent part of the restarted WNBA season, as the league displayed the slogan on courts and continued with a program to honor women killed through police or racial violence. 

Despite owning a team with an 80% Black roster, Loeffler wrote about her disappointment with “efforts to insert a political platform into the league” and how supporting the Black Lives Matter movement “undermines the potential of the sport and sends a message of exclusion.”

(In case it needs to be said, this is an idea that makes a mockery of the systemic challenges that Black and other minority athletes have faced throughout history. It signifies her inability to even attempt to understand the conditions that Black Americans face on a daily basis and minimizes the never-ending push for civil rights and equality to “a political platform.”)

Following this statement, WNBA players from all 12 teams wore shirts endorsing Loeffler’s rival in the upcoming Senate race, Rev. Warnock, during nationally televised games. Players also ran social media pushes and encouraged turnout among Georgia voters, as well as raising money for Rev. Warnock’s campaign.

The latest Monmouth University poll in Georgia shows a clear lead for Rev. Warnock in the “jungle primary,” with a 20% advantage over Sen. Loeffler, herself locked in a dead heat with Rep. Collins. While Loeffler does seem set to narrowly defeat her Republican rival, Warnock also holds an 8% lead over Loeffler in polls for a theoretical runoff election in January.

We are a nation where non-white citizens, a minority of the population, face systemic inequality. And yet, they form a majority of players in many of our professional sports leagues. 

It’s worth asking what kind of politics we do want in our sports. Is it the politics of those with millions or billions in the bank, supporting policies that keep money in their pockets and the rights of their players at a minimum? 

Or is it the politics of those who push for an end to racism, an end to violations of their civil liberties and for the simple ability to be treated the same as their fellow Americans?

It’s up for us to decide. With our wallets and our eyeballs during sports season, and at the ballot box in November, we have that power. And in my opinion? It’s time we get to using it.