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Halftime Report | Honoring Renee Montgomery: Social justice activist turned co-owner of the Atlanta Dream

Like Martin Luther King, Jr. many years before her, Renee Montgomery now has a Dream – and her biggest platform yet. For Women’s History Month, we honor the former star athlete for refusing to “stick to sports.”

Renee Montgomery Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

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We’ve all heard the phrase, “Put your money where your mouth is.” Renee Montgomery did exactly that when she decided to forego the 2020 WNBA season to focus on social justice reform. It was a major detour from the sport that she had played her entire life.

The basketball court was her safe haven, her place of peace, and her source of income. So, the decision did not come easily. It was only after speaking with her parents, her fiancée, her college coach Geno Auriemma, and her Atlanta Dream coach Nicki Collen that Montgomery arrived at her decision. She described the move as a “leap of faith” – a deep dive into uncharted waters.

She wasn’t sure what she was going to do or how she was going to do it – she just knew that she had to do something. So, the NCAA champion and two-time WNBA champion walked away from the game that had shaped her identity. In doing so, Montgomery was the first WNBA player to publicly say that she would not play when the league decided to move forward with the 2020 season in what would become known as the “Wubble.”

While several professional athletes opted out of their respective seasons due to the coronavirus pandemic, it was the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the nationwide impact that spurred Montgomery’s decision. After all, it was the Minnesota Lynx that drafted the 5’7 guard from the perennial powerhouse UConn Huskies in 2011. After being traded to the Connecticut Sun in 2010, she made a stop in Seattle with the Storm before a second stint with the Lynx in 2015. It was there that she won two WNBA championships and was also heavily involved with the community – a community ravaged while the nation watched helplessly as Derek Chauvin kneeled on Floyd’s neck until he took his last breath. It was a comprehensive display of all that is wrong with the racial climate in the United States.

Living in Atlanta at the time, the Dream guard’s up close and personal perspective on the protests prompted a call to her mother back home in Virginia. Her mom, who had witnessed the Detroit riots of 1967, told her that the protesters are people who feel like they are not being listened to. A product of a church-going family, Montgomery’s parents told her to pray on it. With her family’s support squared away, the star guard’s next move was to talk to her coach. “When somebody bets on you, you can’t just leave them out to dry,” Montgomery told REVOLT. Collen voiced her support in the following statement:

“While I am saddened Renee will not be in a Dream uniform this summer, I am incredibly proud of her passion for her foundation, her outreach in the community and her chance to impact the Black Lives Matter movement with her platform as a WNBA athlete.”

Then there’s the financial component. After all, basketball had been Montgomery’s profession and source of income for 11 years. It was one of the things Coach Auriemma brought up in his conversation with his former star athlete. The other thing was the potentially negative blowback that she would be exposing herself to. These were the same questions Coach Auriemma posed to another former UConn great, Maya Moore, when she decided to sit out consecutive seasons while she advocated for prison reform and the freedom of now-husband Jonathan Irons.

Next, it was time to form a plan. Now there were several areas that needed focus in order to significantly change the course of systemic racism. There was no straight-line path to follow and consequently, she knew that she would have to take a multi-platform approach. Strategizing was made more difficult by the back-to-back crises hitting the Black community.

There was a string of tragedies with Coronavirus lurking in the background, and the nation wasn’t able to recover from one thing before another striking blow was delivered. Like everyone else, Montgomery was effected. “Once you see that type of hate, it just does something to you,” she said. No matter how jarring or polarizing these instances of police brutality are, the truth of the matter is that we had somehow become numb. One hashtag after another, one protest after another – with little to no change. It’s this grim reality that made time of the essence for the Atlanta Dream star. “There’s a moment right now that I want to capitalize on,” she told ESPN. With companies clamoring to update or implement anti-racism policies and inclusion and diversity units, the time is ripe for change – while the world is taking notice.

First up for Montgomery, who teamed up with a number of athletes including LeBron James to form “More Than a Vote,” was to combat voter suppression. It was an issue she became all too familiar with in Atlanta – a city she describes as a repeat offender. The campaign recruited more that 42,000 poll workers through their “We Got Next” campaign and raised more than $3.1 million with an NAACP legal fund. Additionally, 10 arenas were activated into polling sites resulting in more than 300,000 voters in the turnout. Not stopping there, Montgomery also launched her own separate initiative, “Remember the 3rd” in efforts to educate voters on local elections. It was this targeted focus that paved the way for her next step in her basketball career – and it would be her biggest one yet.

In addition to unifying the Black community and amplifying the fight against racial oppression, the events of the summer of 2020 also proved to be a time of revelation. Many closet racists started looking funny in the light. One such person was Georgia senator Kelly Loeffler. Co-owner of the Dream at the time, Loeffler clashed with WNBA players over her opposition to the league’s support of Black Lives Matter. Her insistence to ignore and demean the cry for racial equality included a letter to league commissioner Cathy Engelbert in which she tried to convince him to shelf plans for warmup jerseys emblazoned with “Black Lives Matter” and “Say Her Name” – an ode to Breonna Taylor.

This move resulted in players beginning to actively campaign for Leoffler’s opponent Raphael Warnock. They were successful as Warnock was elected as Georgia’s first Black senator in early January. Next, players turned their focus to getting Loeffler out of the league and on Feb. 26, they got their wish as the former senator as well as co-owner Mary Brock sold the team. The league announced that the new owner was a three-person investment group that comprised of none other than Montgomery, Larry Gottesdiener, chairman of real estate firm Northland; and Suzanne Abair, Northland’s chief operating officer. Montgomery became the league’s first former player to become both an owner and executive of a WNBA franchise.

Shortly after the announcement of her retirement and Loeffler’s loss in the Senate race, Montgomery reached out to LeBron James who tweeted his interest in forming an ownership group to purchase the Dream. “If you guys are serious, I’m interested as well. And if you can point me in the right direction or if you could help me get to the next step,” she said while recounting the conversation for The Washington Post. “And that next step was [WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert]. They helped me get there.”

This isn’t Montgomery’s first foray into sports ownership as she shares ownership of a fan-controlled football league with former NFL star Marshawn Lynch. The sale was approved unanimously and moves the needle tremendously in terms of the advancement of athlete empowerment. It’s almost full circle that Montgomery now has ownership of a team she was suiting up for a little over a year ago. Like Martin Luther King, Jr. many years before her, the former athlete now has a Dream – and her biggest platform yet.

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