Renee Montgomery didn’t ask for this, but now she doesn’t want it to stop. The sudden tidal wave of attention she is facing—interviews, talks with students, TV appearances, being part of LeBron James’s More Than a Vote campaign—is new to her, but she realizes its importance. Last week, Montgomery, an 11-year WNBA veteran who plays for the Atlanta Dream, announced that she would opt out of the 2020 season, which will be played at IMG Academy in Florida.
“There’s work to be done off the court in so many areas in our community,” Montgomery wrote on Twitter. “Social justice reform isn’t going to happen overnight, but I do feel that now is the time.”
Montgomery is one of a handful of WNBA players who are sitting out. Some, like the Washington Mystics’ Natasha Cloud, also cited a desire to work toward social justice reform, while others, like the L.A. Sparks’ Chiney Ogwumike and Kristi Tolliver, cited health concerns amid the COVID-19 pandemic. I caught up with Montgomery last week to talk about the moment she realized she needed to focus on something other than basketball, what it was like to be on the NBA/WNBA players-only call, how she plans to use her time away from basketball to affect change, and more.
It seems like you’ve been pretty busy lately.
[Laughs.] Woo, yeah. I had MSNBC just now. Things have definitely been busy, to say the least.
Did you expect it to get like this?
No. Usually WNBA news just doesn’t get traction. You know what I mean? That’s just the ugly truth. I figured [my announcement] was going to be on SportsCenter, ESPN, maybe a little ticker for a day. I thought that’s where it would end.
When you made your decision, how much of it came from your desire to work toward social justice, and how much was related to the risks associated with the coronavirus?
My decision not to go was 100 percent based on the social justice aspects. If there wasn’t a social component, I would probably be going to the bubble, even if it’s not the same [level] as the NBA, as they’re saying. That wouldn’t have been enough to not make me go.
I have spoken to a few people who said the WNBA’s process to return felt rushed, including the deadline to decide whether to opt out. How do you feel the WNBA communicated the potential risks involved in playing this season?
This was definitely rushed. … A CBA usually is a year-long negotiation, or an offseason-long negotiation. They basically had to renegotiate the CBA, but in like two months. So just to put it in perspective, yeah, it happened fast. It was hard. I’m not going to lie. The communication was hard because there just wasn’t any information yet. This is an unknown, this pandemic going on. We don’t know a lot about COVID. It was difficult because as players, we’re like, “Hey, what’s the return protocol? What’s this? What’s that?” Then they were asking the league and I’m sure the league was asking the doctors. I think it was just this telephone game where they were trying to give as much information as possible, as quick as possible, but without giving too much information.
Was there a moment when you realized you needed to sit out this season?
Yeah, I would say that moment was when I was so busy planning everything I wanted to do for social reform that I realized I wasn’t working out or I wasn’t making time for the sport. I think that was the moment where I was like, “You know what? It’s probably better that I don’t go. Just my heart isn’t in it.” That’s how I came to the conclusion. … Let me not go and be a disservice to my team.
What were some of the things you were working on at the time?
Some of the things that I was trying to think about doing were, one, Georgia is a repeat offender when [it comes to] voter suppression. A lot of people are turned away, a lot of people are waiting a long time. I was trying to figure out, are there certain protocols that can be changed? Is this a fixable problem? Is this a one-area problem? I was more so doing research, trying to figure out what’s going on here. Why are people waiting so long?
Breonna Taylor got killed in March. There was a string of killings that pretty much led me to this point, just to frame your mind. George Floyd was the trigger. That was it. But it was already on my mind, heavy. I was already planning a Juneteenth event. I wanted to do something to throw a party, a celebration for the community. Then I thought, “Of course, Juneteenth.” I was already thinking of ways to connect to the community and also listen to them.
What are you hoping to accomplish with this time away from basketball?
My mom has been in the education system basically all of her life. She was a professor. I’m going to try to focus on HBCUs and more specifically, a lot of HBCUs don’t have funding, don’t have creative spaces for minorities. They don’t have money for programming. Everybody knows that programming costs good money, a lot of money. Starting there, and also again, in the education process ... when is the last time the history books have been revised? We need to revise them again. They need to be in chronological order. They need to tell Black history in American history.
I’m going to try to push different things like that, because I think a lot of the problem is perspective. A lot of people, a lot of white people, don’t necessarily understand what could a Black person in 2020 be so mad about. Now they get it because of George Floyd. But I know stories that happened with my own mom. It’s not a 400-years-ago problem. If history was taught in chronological order, people would understand that this is a problem that’s happened generationally. It hasn’t changed. Then they will understand why this generation is fed up.
Over the last few years, the WNBA has gathered some momentum and entered more into the mainstream. Not having a full season this year is obviously a setback. How do you feel the league has balanced the potential risk with the potential exposure the season could get?
Oh, it’s definitely tough. I know it had to be tough on the league because again, we’re finding out new things. It’s a very unnerving situation because no one knows everything that COVID does to you. We don’t know the lasting effects of COVID, even if you’re asymptomatic. I would have to believe that the league understands that was a serious decision. I think that’s why we haven’t gotten a lot of information right away. I think that’s the reason why the information has been slow, because they’re trying to figure it out. I honestly think the leagues are trying to figure it out as we go.
What are your thoughts on the differences between the amenities the NBA will have at its campus in Disney and what the WNBA will have at IMG Academy?
Yeah. That was discussed between the players and the league. The league has basically said, “What do you want?” It’s difficult because IMG is not a Disney World. It’s just not a built-in mini city that you can just have a blast at and your family can have a blast. It’s not that. It’s basically a college campus, so under that, yeah, the players were trying to think of creative things, lounges, rooms … different things where players could just unwind. I’m not sure what has been decided, because since I opted out, I haven’t paid close attention to that. But I do think that they’re trying to build out some things.
Have you had conversations with some of the other players that have opted out about programs you could support together?
Oh yeah. Oh definitely. We’ve had multiple conversations. I’ve had multiple conversations with people that are opting in—I think I got as much going on with the people inside the bubble that I will have with the people outside. I’m just outside on the ground floor. I think that’s what’s being missed a lot. Yeah, they’re opting in, but I still have programming things I’m going to be doing with them. I’ve been talking to the people outside the bubble and in, but definitely the people outside of the bubble, we do have more plans, I would say, because we’ll have more time.
The people you’re talking to that are going to be inside the bubble—how do you think they’ll use their platform?
I see a lot of powerful statements. When I say powerful statements, it could be through an action. It could be a whole team taking a knee. It could be everyone wearing a shirt that says different things. I know I saw Angel McCoughtry campaigning for the jerseys that have a fallen person’s name on it, like Breonna Taylor. I expect people to see a lot of statements being made, honestly.
I saw that you were also part of the NBA players’ call where they discussed some of these issues. What was that like, and what did you take away from it?
Yeah, I thought it was the dopest thing ever. It was a large group of NBA players discussing what’s the best way to create change. That was literally, I think the title of the Zoom chat was called “Unity and Change.” It was beautiful because everyone knew that now’s the time to make change. They were trying to figure out what’s the best way to do it. There’s always going to be 2,000 questions: “Do we go and play? Make the money, pour the money back into our community? Or do we not play, being all hands on deck outside of the bubble? Do we still pour into our community, but help out our brothers that are maybe living paycheck to paycheck?” To me, I was like, “Wow, this is amazing.” I think the narrative got lost in the beginning. The narrative was, “Oh, certain players don’t want this. Certain players don’t want that. Yeah.” But all these players are trying to figure out how to fix America.
And since then, LeBron has now created a whole campaign, More Than a Vote, that I’m a part of now. Like, “Are y’all kidding me? I knew something amazing was going to come of that.”
How did you come to be a part of LeBron’s campaign?
LeBron James and his team actually reached out to me. I was like, “Uh, what? Excuse me? Yes.”
What is going to be your involvement?
Every campaign has ambassadors that lead the charge. One of the main things they’re focusing on is voter suppression. Well, I live in Atlanta. It’s almost a no-brainer. … I have a big resource in More Than a Vote Campaign. That’s a big backing.
Did that players call inform your decision about the season at all?
No, but it definitely made me feel empowered to know that so many other athletes feel the same way I do. That’s why when people were asking me, “How do you feel about LeBron? Or are you like LeBron or Kyrie?” And I’m like, “Yeah, I’m both. I’m Team LeBron, Team Kyrie.” Everybody’s trying to figure out how to do something. So yeah, we’re all a team. But oh yeah. I felt very empowered.
It seems like over the past few years NBA players and WNBA players have worked more closely together. Have you felt that as somebody who’s in the middle of it?
Absolutely. I think that’s going to be something amazing that comes from this situation. We’ve never had so close of a connection with so many NBA players or NFL players, and a lot of soccer players even reached out to me recently. I think that’s a beautiful thing in itself and something to be noted—that all these athletes were all reaching out to each other and connecting.
How do you balance assuming responsibility for these issues with the platform that you have?
Yeah, that’s one of the main reasons that I had to sit and think, because Caron Butler was talking to me and telling me how there’s a big difference between a current player tag and a former player tag. People just look at you different. If you say, “I used to play,” they’re like, “Oh, OK.” But if you say, “I currently play,” they’re like, “Oh, who you play for? Oh, wow. I’m coming to a game.” It’s just a different energy. When you decide to do something like that, you basically are deciding to give up your status, in a sense. … People are like, “Well, what if you don’t make change?” I’m like, “Well, first of all, there’s already been change, because just the platforms I’m on, the people that are listening, there’s change happening as we speak.” But even if nothing happened, let’s say hypothetically I made no change, if all I lost was my status. To me, that’s something I can deal with.
One of the minority owners of the Dream, U.S. Senator Kelly Loeffler, has been in the news recently for comments she made on Fox News about “mob rule” in Atlanta and her commitment to preserving the police. How do you feel about that?
OK. I felt like I needed to ask you about it.
Well you’re a journalist, so you better ask me that. [Laughs.] I need to actually go see it. I don’t want to speak on something that I haven’t seen myself.
[Later that day, Montgomery tweeted this:]
Right now a significant amount of your time seems to be spent explaining why you opted out of the season. Once the media storm calms a bit, how do you plan to keep this movement going?
Yeah. I want to keep actually doing what I’m doing, having these conversations. I want to continue conversations. For instance, I’m speaking to some college students today. A lot of talking that I’m doing, conversations get the ball rolling. I am going to have to continue having these conversations. But also, as I say that, there’s also a program that we’re working on in the midst of it. There are things that I’m doing while I’m talking, hopefully some things will be more solidified so I can announce them. But right now I’m just going to say we are working.
You’ve done a ton of interviews, but what’s something you think people aren’t asking you, or something you wish you were asked more about?
I would say one thing that I want people to understand is that … the media tour is a part of the conversation. Being on these huge platforms [brings awareness]. A lot of people don’t even know anything about the WNBA, if we’re being honest. When they say, “WNBA player opts out,” people don’t even know about the WNBA in general, like details. They couldn’t name a starting five on any team. Me bringing awareness to this cause is also bringing awareness to the WNBA, which needs awareness, which is bringing awareness to women leading the charge, which needs awareness as well. What I’m doing right now is what I hope to continue doing, because this awareness needs to be brought to the forefront.