The WNBA Star Turned Team Owner Who Found Her Voice
This is an excerpt from the book The Moment: Changemakers on Why and How They Joined the Fight for Social Justice, edited by Steve Fiffer and to be published by NewSouth Books this November. For The Moment, Fiffer interviewed more than 35 activists of all ages, backgrounds, and professions. Among those featured are Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative; Don Katz, founder of Audible.com; and award-winning writer Edwidge Danticat. Excerpts featuring Jackson, MS Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba and Professor Ebony Lumumba, Zev Shapiro, and Christian Picciolini appeared here previously.
Renee Montgomery, 35, is the co-owner/vice president of the Women’s National Basketball Association’s Atlanta Dream—one of the few Black women to be a major owner of a major sports franchise. A native of Charleston, West Virginia, she was a two-time All American and national champion at the University of Connecticut and an All Star and two-time WNBA champion. In June 2020, she opted out of the Dream’s WNBA season to be a “catalyst” for social justice reform, creating the non-partisan “Remember the 3rd” campaign, dedicated to political education and turning out voters in Georgia for the November 3, 2020, special election for the U.S. Senate. She retired from the game in 2021. In addition to her involvement with the Dream, she co-hosts the podcast Montgomery & Co. and has created the Renee Montgomery Foundation.
After George Floyd was murdered and the protests began, I was sitting on the couch with my wife, Sirena, and we were looking at the national news, which was talking about what was going on in Atlanta. I’m looking out my window, and I’m looking at the same images that are on TV. I’m in Atlanta! I can see firsthand what’s going on. And it was being portrayed in a way that I didn’t see or feel. People were trying to make it seem like there was negative energy here, that there was anger. But when I was at the protest, there was a community feel. It felt like people were banding together for a cause.
It was a diverse group banding together. It wasn’t only Black people. It was Black and brown people. There were white people in the protest. It was a whole melting pot. And I thought, Wow, this is beautiful. I wish people would band together for more causes more times. And to me, that was the shift. I wanted to add my moment to the momentum. That’s why when I opted out of playing for the Dream for the WNBA season in 2020, the tweet that I sent was, “Moments really do equal Momentum.” Because I could see all of these different people adding their moment. And I wanted to add mine, too, and join in.
For me, activism means taking the lead with your voice or with your actions and trying to make a change—whatever that change may be. I was raised by leaders, so I think that is where it starts. My dad played football at West Virginia State University, which is where he met my mom, who then became a professor at that same university for thirty years.
Since my parents met at an HBCU [Historically Black Colleges and Universities], I grew up understanding the value of HBCUs and the underfunding of them and how the system just sometimes cannot do things equally or fairly. But I also grew up seeing Black excellence at a very high rate and level.
My mom was in Detroit when the riots took place there in 1967 and ’68. She and my dad experienced things that I would think would be a part of our history, not a part of our present. So when they would tell me these are things that happened to them, you want those things to change at a certain point.
I never aspired to be an activist in the sense of, “Hey, I’m gonna be an activist one day.” I didn’t even know in 2020 that what I was doing was being an activist. People started giving me that label. And I was like, What? To me, it was just speaking up for what I believed in. Speaking about a problem I saw. Speaking up for people that may not even be able to say it themselves.
When people started giving me that title, it made me want to study and learn more. I started to watch different films like Ava DuVernay’s documentary 13th. I started reading more about the past and talking to different people. I just wanted to understand more.
It was disturbing that a lot of things today were so similar to how they were in the past. You think about how it’s 2021 or 2022, and you feel so advanced. Technology is growing at such a rapid rate. And then you look at certain spaces in our society and you’re like, Well, it’s too stagnant. We haven’t grown in some areas. You definitely see racism popping up more than it should.
Growing up in the world of athletics, I was outspoken in general. When you’re a point guard, you have to be outspoken because you’re the voice on the court. And then to take it a step further, when you get the title of captain, it’s not only the voice on the court, but the voice off the court. You’re the one that’s guiding the team, making sure that everybody stays on track. That’s why they give you that title. I’ve been blessed to be the captain of a majority of the teams that I’ve been on. I’ve always taken that role seriously and tried to speak up or tried to do what I considered was right.
I never had to temper what I was saying. I’m very thankful that I went to UConn, where we were able to express ourselves however we saw fit. I can remember when we knew President Obama won in 2008. We were at Coach Auriemma’s house, and we celebrated. We were able to take joy in the fact that we had our first Black president. It was exciting. So I never felt hindered about expressing how I felt. It was even more exciting in 2009, when we won the national championship and were able to go meet him at the White House.
I’ve always been able to live out loud. Even in broadcasting when I’m calling a basketball game, I call it in a certain style that is my own. The companies that I work for have allowed me to do it. I’m allowed to be my authentic self, even though you don’t see a lot of Black women in team ownership and sports ownership. You don’t see it in those groups, but I’m allowed to still live out loud and be my authentic self.
After opting out of the season, I created the “Remember the 3rd” campaign, which was dedicated to political education and turning out voters in Georgia for the November 3 special election for the U.S. Senate.
No matter what leadership role I take, I never want to feel like I’m telling people what to do. I want people to feel like they are doing what they want to do in their way. That’s true at our company, Renee Montgomery Entertainment. It’s a creative space. When you think about marketing and creating, you need people to be empowered to make their own choices.
When you think about team ownership and what that typically looks like, it’s not a Black woman.
I took that same approach with the Remember the 3rd campaign. I don’t want to tell people who to vote for. That’s your job to decide who to vote for. However, I do want to educate you on the voting process, educate you on who’s available to vote for, educate you on their causes, what they are standing for. I also want you to know that local elections are just as important, if not more important, than national elections. Your local community, that’s what builds up our whole national system.
Rev. Raphael Warnock eventually won the Senate race, beating the incumbent Kelly Loeffler, who had owned the last team I played on, the Atlanta Dream. Afterward he told ABC, “I think what you were hearing from Renee Montgomery, was that these are not usual times. She felt like she needed to focus on the moment and the rest of the women and the WNBA using that platform, in a way as athletes that recalls the names of Muhammad Ali and John Carlos and others who stood up at the Olympics putting forward a message of justice-making in the world.”
I couldn’t believe that we had that big of an impact. “To see the results, it was a surreal moment to have. The WNBA has a place in history,” I told ABC.
Some athletes are comfortable with talking to the media. Some athletes are comfortable with giving their personal views, and some aren’t. There’s a lot that comes with using your voice for a cause. Everybody’s not going to agree with how you feel. Everybody’s not going to want you to talk about politics or social justice. They might just want you to play basketball. “Shut up and dribble,” right? They might just want their favorite athlete to just be their favorite athlete. They don’t want to know what their favorite athlete feels off the court. They just want to know that that that’s my favorite athlete and they’re good at basketball.
Whenever you decide to tell your views or your opinions out loud, you’re putting yourself out there to be judged. You’re putting yourself out there to be disliked, because, as we know, everybody’s going to have a difference in opinions. So it is difficult because you have fans from every different culture. You know that when you make a statement, it’s going to offend some fans. But if you understand that what you’re saying is your moment and it’s needed at that time, then you’ll live with that.
In February 2021, Loeffler sold her stake in the team to a three-person investor group that included me. When you think about team ownership and what that typically looks like, it’s not a Black woman. That to me was one of my main motivations. Representation matters! We talk about that all the time on my podcast, Montgomery and Company, because it’s very important that people be able to see what they want to be.
A lot of people think creating their moment needs to be this big grand thing. Creating your own moment can start with just one tweet or with volunteering.
For the podcast, [journalist] Jemele Hill had the vision for us to pivot a little bit. She thought it would be unique if we had Black and brown women that were talking about business and culture in addition to sports. That combination is not so common. It wasn’t that we were just randomly talking about it. We had credentials. We were talking about the world that we’re in. We are in the basketball world, with team ownership; the venture capitalist world. I’m a general partner. We’re here, we’re immersed. We’re in the culture. And so what’s different is that we talk about the things that we live and the world we’re living in.
There’s not very many of us in there. That’s the thing that we talk about and that’s what we lean into. We try to help people build and grow. We talk to the top business people, we talk to founders, we talk to pro athletes. We’ve had some pretty amazing guests, including Stacey Abrams.
I always like to encourage people to follow their gut—what it’s telling you, what you feel. If you feel like what you’re doing is right, then you need to create your own moment. A lot of people think creating their moment needs to be this big grand thing. Creating your own moment can start with just one tweet or with volunteering. It could be anything. So if you’re creating your moment and you’re adding to the momentum, you’re doing something just as much as someone you might see all over TV. Everybody’s moment matters.