WNBA players advocate for voting rights as U.S. Senate nears showdown on historic bill

·5-min read

WNBA players will arrive to arenas wearing "Protect My Freedom to Vote" shirts at the same time the U.S. Senate is expected to enter a showdown and potential filibuster over an expansive voting rights bill on Tuesday night. 

It is part of Rock the Vote's Freedom to Vote campaign and continues the players' focus on racial justice and voting rights coming out of their 2020 bubble season. 

"It’s not just a T-shirt for us. It is a really bold statement," WNBPA executive director Terri Jackson told Yahoo Sports. "And especially so when it’s a T-shirt with a call to action worn by a WNBA player who we all know is going to be very, very thoughtful; going to get herself educated and informed on the issues before she steps out there; and makes a statement and stands up for something."

The statement is part of the players' focus on racial justice and voting rights coming out of the 2020 bubble season. 

WNBA players take action night of Senate showdown

The front (left) and back of the shirts WNBA players will wear Tuesday night as the U.S. Senate considers a voting rights bill. (Screenshot/Rock the Vote)
The front (left) and back of the shirts WNBA players will wear Tuesday night as the U.S. Senate considers a voting rights bill. (Screenshot/Rock the Vote)

Previous work with Rock the Vote has focused on activating young people during midterm and presidential election years. But coming out of 2020, the players wanted to "connect the dots" between the ballot box and ongoing legislation, Jackson said.

"It’s not ideology, it’s not partisan," Jackson said. "It’s about protecting the fundamental right to vote. Period." 

Rock the Vote eyed a few different opportunities to maximize the impact of wearing the T-shirts and Tuesday night, when the For the People Act is called to a test vote by Democratic leaders in the U.S. Senate, was decided upon. The legislation would be the most expansive federal election overhaul in generations if passed and would prevent attempts to deliberately ban Black and brown people from voting. 

"Rock the Vote is proud to build on our partnership with the WNBPA to make the promise of democracy real for all. Having been at the forefront of the social justice movement in sports, the WNBPA understands the enormous power of their platform and isn’t afraid to use it. WNBA players are bold on and off the court," Carolyn DeWitt, president and executive director of Rock The Vote, said in a statement to Yahoo Sports. “As trusted messengers, WNBA players are uniquely positioned to inspire young fans to learn about voting rights legislation and drive them to take action by contacting their Senators to protect the freedom to vote."

Players will wear the T-shirts throughout the week, no matter what happens on the Senate floor, and it will have an "evergreen effect" because of the broadness and simplicity of the message and call to action. 

"The players love this country, they believe in this country and they believe that it’s the people that should hold the power," said Jackson, who took the role in 2016. "And so that’s why they are engaged yet again in a fight that has been waged by those who look to put party before country. 

"This is going to be a battle for sure and who else but WNBA players, professional athletes, who else but them understand that it’s a battle but it’s not the war."

What is 'Freedom to Vote'?  

The WNBPA is a part of Rock the Vote's "Freedom to Vote" campaign launched this month to organize young people around the For The People Act and John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. The legislation aims to enact national standards for voting as individual states such as Arizona, Georgia and Texas pass legislation viewed as curtailing voting rights. 

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The For The People Act, originally introduced in 2019, would prevent attempts to design deliberate barriers to voting for certain communities, including Black and brown Americans, and restrict lobbying and money in politics. It would also ensure Congressional districts are drawn to promote fair representation. If passed, it would be the most expansive federal election haul in generations, via the New York Times.

The Senate votes on Tuesday whether to advance the bill and Republicans are ready to use the filibuster to block it, per the Times and Washington Post. 

The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, named for the late Georgian representative and civil rights leader, would make sure any changes to local or state elections are federally reviewed in a process known as "preclearance." The process was originally part of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. 

The education outreach targets more than 5 million young people and informs them on civic education so they stay involved in politics. Young voters can advocate directly to members of Congress via call, email, tweet or share with one click of a button on the campaign's website.  

Campaign partners include players associations for the NWSL and MLS. 

WNBPA continues social activism, voting rights push 

The WNBPA and Rock the Vote first partnered in 2018 during the midterm elections to urge young people to vote and have their voices heard. The organization shares with players the "voting playbook" to go over key issues, steps to voting and who and what are on the ballot. They can then be proactive in leading others whether through fashion choices or social media.

The players' activism came to the national forefront in 2020 while supporting Black Lives Matter in the bubble season and forming the first social justice council, which has continued into this season. Carolyn DeWitt, president and executive director of Rock the Vote, was named as an adviser to the council last summer. 

Players donned "Vote Warnock" shirts for the Georgia Senate race. It was part of the league's pushback against former Atlanta Dream co-owner and appointed U.S. Senator Kelly Loeffler, but also key to the organization's focus on voting rights heading into the 2020 election. Raphael Warnock was elected in a runoff against Loeffler, and the Dream were sold to an ownership group that includes former player Renee Montgomery. 

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