Coaches and players support Renee Montgomery’s “leap of faith” to focus on social justice issues

Atlanta Dream guard Renee Montgomery’s decision to sit out the 2020 season to focus on social justice issues was a “leap of faith” she said to reporters Thursday afternoon in a video conference call. The 11-year WNBA veteran and UConn graduate admitted that she was nervous right before she posted on Twitter that she was taking a season-long hiatus.

“I didn’t have like a specific plan,” Montgomery said. “I just kind of knew that this is where my heart is, so let’s see where it goes.”

This spring, when much of the nation sheltered in place due to COVID-19 restrictions, racial inequality took center stage in the news alongside coronavirus updates. With three high-profile murders of Black Americans by police officers in the public eye, there was a surge of activity to put a spotlight on police brutality and systemic racism in law enforcement and other segments of society. Several WNBA players, including Montgomery, joined in the movement, writing essays, posting information on social media, conducting interviews to relay their experience, and marching in protests.

In addition to speaking out via videoconference calls with media, Montgomery also actively participated in peaceful protests in Atlanta, supporting fellow activists by handing out water and supplies during a march earlier this month. She started a foundation to help finance her efforts

Speaking out against injustice is nothing new for Montgomery. She was a member of the Minnesota Lynx in 2016 when the team supported the Black Lives Matter movement after the deaths of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling, two Black men killed by police officers that year. Castile was a resident of the Twin Cities and Sterling died in Louisiana. The Lynx faced backlash from the local police and the league fined them, a punishment that was later rescinded.

Maya Moore, who was one of the team captains at the time, is already on a break from WNBA play as she works on criminal justice reform. Like Moore, Montgomery spoke to their college coach, Geno Auriemma, about her sabbatical plans before they were announced publicly.

Auriemma asked Montgomery the same questions he asked Moore:

Will you be OK financially? Do you understand that it could affect your career, your basketball career, and people might not accept it well?

Lynx head coach and general manager Cheryl Reeve commented on Montgomery’s decision.

“To say I am surprised with Renee, or any player opting out for a variety of reasons, to say we would be surprised is no,” Reeve said. “This time right now is really heavy and people are handling it in different ways. Renee thought this was the best way for her to do what she feels she has to do. You are going to see very personal decisions.”

By late May, Montgomery knew it was time to act.

“I think that there was a lot going on and then when George Floyd got murdered, I think it woke America up, it woke the world up,” Montgomery said. “You see protests all over the world. So, I think for me, at that moment…you can’t ignore it anymore, like we need to do something.”

When it comes to the Dream’s coaching staff, including head coach Nicki Collen, Montgomery has received immense support, both emotionally and financially in the form of donations to her foundation.

“I called Coach Nicki three days ago. I called her I told her how I felt…I didn’t know how coaches would take it because that’s their job…her job is how well we do on the court.”

But Montgomery said Collen’s response was “the best-case scenario” and let her know that the coaching staff, as well as the team’s president and general manager Chris Sienko, fully supported her efforts.

“They had already donated to my foundation, so they really are about it. And for them to actually show it, not just say it…that’s not an easy thing for a team to do,” Montgomery said. “The team’s job is to perform in a season, but they went out on a limb and showed their support. So, I’m so thankful for that.”

The team’s equality initiatives also include designating Juneteenth as a company holiday and hosting a virtual pride panel on June 25 that “which will focus on LGBTQ+ and race issues in Atlanta.”

The only glitch in the Dream’s cohesive response is the political messages put forth by Dream co-owner, Senator Kelly Loeffler (R-Ga.), who is facing an election in November (she was appointed to fill a vacancy in December). Within hours of Montgomery’s announcement, the senator tweeted out several messages that attack and oppose activists who want police reform and more oversight of law enforcement.

Loeffler, a vocal proponent of many causes that oppose those the league supports as a whole, posted a quote from a new campaign backer who called social justice activists “unhinged progressives” that are “bringing chaos to our communities.” In addition, she often rails against “fake news media” and “the radical left.”

After discussing the difficult conversations that are happening around race and justice, Montgomery was asked if she has had a chance to talk with Loeffler about those issues given the Senator’s vehement viewpoints that are 180 degrees from WNBA player-activists.

“Sorry, I haven’t,” she replied. “I don’t have an answer to that because I have not.”

Nevertheless, Montgomery’s efforts are gaining notice in the media and garnering support from her colleagues around the league and from fans who are happy to see her provide leadership in these tense times.

“There’s actually quite a few WNBA players that feel the way I do,” she said. And while she admits she is in the fortunate position of being able to take the season off and skip playing in the bubble atmosphere the league is setting up in Brandenton, FL as a response to the coronavirus pandemic, she says a lot of players have reached out to her “just showing their support and telling me that if you need anything, let me know.”

“We don’t have to be in the bubble all together to be united.”

Charles Hallman contributed to this report.

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