The Deciding Decade: Renee Montgomery on opting out of this WNBA season for social justice work

Pete Buttigieg: Hi, I’m Pete Buttigieg, and this is The Deciding Decade.

I’ve thought a lot about shared purpose in the Trump era, and how we’ve seen so many people come together, in electoral and political coalitions of course, but also people across industries and sectors across this country and the world. One group that has had an enormous impact on the election and on national conversations around equal pay, social and racial justice, and more is athletes. From the U.S. women’s soccer team fighting for equal pay to LeBron James’ More Than a Vote organization registering and turning people out to vote, there are so many inspiring athletes out there who are standing up, stepping up, and using their platforms for good. Today, we’re going to hear from one of them.

Renee Montgomery is a member of the Atlanta Dream basketball team, winner of multiple WNBA championships and an NCAA championship, and founder of the Renee Montgomery Foundation. You may have heard about her as the leader of the UConn Huskies’ perfect 39–0 national championship winning season in 2009, or as one of the key players on the Minnesota Lynx, the Connecticut Sun and the Atlanta Dream WNBA teams. Or you may have heard about her as a player who opted out of the 2020 WNBA season, which would have been her 12th in the league, in the wake of the murder of George Floyd and the ensuing protests to focus on social justice initiatives. She has inspired so many for the stand that she has taken in the service of racial and social equity, and she’s educating all of us on the importance of activism across industries and communities, as well as the power that boldness, courage and sacrifice can have. Renee, welcome to the podcast.

Renee Montgomery: Thank you for having me, Mayor Pete!

Pete Buttigieg: I’m so excited to be able to have this conversation. South Bend, Indiana is very proud of the tradition of women’s athletics here, including one of our native sports heroes Skylar Diggins-Smith, who I know you’ve faced off with many times. It’s also been always very important in this community that athletes be outspoken, but I also know that that’s not always what folks are expecting. So one of the first things I want to ask you is how it’s felt since you’ve decided to take this stand, decided to use this time and make this sacrifice? What are you finding in terms of people’s readiness for your voice, talking about these issues of racial justice and equity that are so important?

Renee Montgomery: I think when the pandemic hit, I don’t think people were ready to hear athletes’ voices. I think that people were ready for athletes to be athletes. I think people wanted athletes to almost save us from our current situation in a sense of, we want to take athletics and we want to watch you guys play and we don’t want to hear about anything else. And so I think that it was twofold. When I opted out, the fans were confused about, well, why can’t she do both? And then there were other people that were like, good. If you’re going to opt out, I don’t want to hear about it so I’m glad you’re up opting out anyway. Having done it now and being in this space, I feel very comfortable in it. I feel very comfortable because I feel like I’m doing the right thing. I feel like I’m taking a stand for the right thing on the right side of history. So for me, it’s been very fulfilling.

Pete Buttigieg: I’m very excited to talk to you about Georgia in a moment. But first I want to rewind and go to West Virginia where you grew up. You’ve mentioned in interviews that you grew up surrounded by people who didn’t like you, even being the only Black student in an all-white school. I’m curious how you navigated that environment, and how you think that might’ve shaped your activism and your understanding of where you fit in the world today.

Renee Montgomery: Yeah, I navigated that space by humor. I started making jokes about Black History Month before it came and not about the things that happened. I started to be like, “Okay guys, I know Black History Month’s coming up but you guys are still allowed to talk to me during it.” I had to try to kind of take the edge off of it because all of my classmates, they were my friends and they all would be like on Black History Month we used to joke all the time in class. And then they would be really serious because of the topics of Black History Month, slavery and different things of that nature. They wanted to make sure that they didn’t offend me and they wanted to make sure that they weren’t rude. But in turn as a kid it was awkward because I was the only one that they were that way with so I think that’s where I started to realize using humor as a way to lighten the mood, and also just navigating a space where I’m the only one that’s different, and understanding a different perspective than my own. So I would say West Virginia, that really taught me how to look at things from a different light and even having been submerged in HBCU culture because of my parents and my sisters, I still in the class setting, was different.

Pete Buttigieg: So Connecticut is a very different place from West Virginia, but another place where I’m sure very often you felt this the sense of difference. How did things change when you got to UConn?

Renee Montgomery: UConn, I had more of an inner circle of, the athletes were typically minority. That’s just kind of how it went. The football players, the basketball players, my teammates. We had white people on our team as well as Black people, but there was more of a mixture and that’s who I hung out with. It was more comfortable for me but it was different too, because here I come from the country and I’m going to Connecticut, which if anybody doesn’t know, UConn women’s basketball is like rockstar, their the epitome of women’s college sports. They are the Mecca and I went from country roads to that. So I think it was, I got really used to being uncomfortable. I would just say that. Just throughout my whole upbringing, I got used to being uncomfortable because at UConn, I didn’t know if I was going to be good enough because I’m coming from West Virginia so that was a whole different thing. But yeah, I just got very comfortable in uncomfortable spaces.

Pete Buttigieg: Not only were you good enough, you wound up leading the team to a 39–0 season. What was that season like? And how did you know when you really did not only determine that you can measure up but really could be a leader for your teammates?

Renee Montgomery: That season was terrifying. Let me just tell you why. When you go to UConn, when I tell people oh yeah, I played at UConn, they’re like, “Oh, how many championships did you win?” That’s the first question they ask. It’s not, “Did you win,” it’s “How many?” So the fact that I only won one at UConn, that’s about the bare minimum you could do.

Pete Buttigieg: Only one! [laughing].

Renee Montgomery: Yeah. This was my senior year, so this was my last chance to win a championship or be one of the only teams in UConn history to never all four years not win one. So I was scared the whole season, wanted it to go perfect, and even when the buzzer went off we were up by a lot and I had to wait until the buzzer went off to celebrate. So yeah, I would say that season, it was very rewarding at the end, but I was a nervous wreck the whole time.

Pete Buttigieg: So then you’re recruited into the WNBA. You had this incredible career on the professional side. What was that adjustment like, going from college ball at a place like UConn into the WNBA?

Renee Montgomery: As we just talked about, I went undefeated my senior year, got point guard of the year, the Nancy Lieberman Award, and we’re on top of the world. And then I started to hear that I’m going to drop really low in the draft because I’m too small. And because, yeah, I was playing at UConn, but it’s UConn so everybody playing at UConn is good and that started to be the chatter for my drafting and so they were saying I could go anywhere from first to 10th and maybe drop below that. So I was again, uncomfortable, nervous. I couldn’t control any of that so I was just kind of waiting to see. I didn’t want to be one of those people on draft night, just sitting in the chair, like, “Yeah, does anybody want me?” Ended up getting drafted number four and so I was comfortable with that. I would have loved to be in higher, but I guess I’m number four.

And then I went to a Minnesota team where again, this is a different type of area for me, Minnesota, never been there, don’t know anyone there. So I would just say my whole career, I just got really used to adjusting on the fly and just being comfortable wherever I’m placed.

Pete Buttigieg: Fast forward now to spring 2020. The murder of George Floyd is a shockwave throughout the country and throughout the world, and it affects you, and changes the course of your life and your story. Did that happen right away? Was it a process? And who did you talk to as you were discovering your own ability to respond to this, not just the murder of George Floyd, but everything that that unlocked in our country’s conversations about racial injustice?

Renee Montgomery: Yeah. That sparked a lot. Because I remember for a while there I didn’t even watch the video. It was on the news and every time it was on the news, I’m looking away because that’s just not something, I couldn’t believe it was playing on the news and that someone really was murdered that way. And so I think a lot had to do with it, the pandemic, I was at home. Normally I’m on a flight twice a week minimum, flying different places. I’m all over the place trying to keep up. And then during the pandemic, we’re all just still and we’re all settled and I’m just looking at it like, “what is going on?” And not that I didn’t know what was going on before, but this is blatant. This is bad. We have a murderer looking into the camera and not caring that he’s killing someone. We always knew it was there, but that level of boldness was scary to me.

And it was scary to a lot of people because here in Atlanta, protests broke out all over. Protests broke out all over the city, and I was nervous just because I had never seen that level of civil unrest. I was like, wow, I’m in one of the areas where the protests were actually happening, and so I called my parents and there was nervous energy in my voice. I know they heard it and my mom, my snook, she was so calm. And she was just like, “Oh, don’t worry, baby. That’s just what people do when they don’t feel heard. They have to make themselves felt.” She just said it so casually, and the way that she was calm and how casual she was made me interested. I was interested and like, “Wait, do you see?” I’m like, “Turn on the news,” and I’m trying to tell them to turn on the news. They’re right here. They’re literally in my city. Turn on the news. It’s crazy what’s going on down here.

They’re still living in West Virginia, and she just was just so chill. And then she started to tell me about being in Detroit during the Detroit riots. And then she told me about how she was in a walkout at her own high school, and I’m sitting here mind-blown because I just didn’t even know that about my own mom. So yeah, it was a wake-up call that everything that I thought was important and all the things that I was rushing to do all the time, it made me just take a second and look at things.

Pete Buttigieg: Why do you think you and your mom hadn’t talked as much about her activism before this moment came?

Renee Montgomery: That is a good question. I think my parents tried to shield us in a way. I’m one of those people, especially me and my sisters probably knew it, but I’m the baby of the family just to put it in perspective. So I have two older sisters and I’ve always been this bubbly and this optimistic, and I feel like they just kind of wanted to keep me there. I wasn’t ignorant to it, so they gave me talks and I already knew racism existed. I knew all about it, but no, we didn’t go as in-depth as we did on that conversation.

Pete Buttigieg: Do you think you can be optimistic and retain that, and be awake to all of the horrors that are going on at the same time? How do you balance those two things?

Renee Montgomery: That’s a struggle. For me personally, the way I balance it is because I’ve been in some not great situations before. I think the way you get through situations better is you stay optimistic. I’m optimistic about where we’re going. I think we’re not there yet. I think that I’m super-excited that we’re talking about it now. I’m excited that companies are actually acknowledging the word representation. Like what? That used to be a myth. People used to be like, “Oh, what are you talking about? The qualified person needs to get the job.” Now you see large corporations using words like representation and having… Women are at the highest points, and I’m not even talking about Madame Vice President, I’m talking about all over, women are getting their highest positions at their job at a time like this. So yeah, I’m excited. I’m optimistic. I don’t think that things are fixed, but I think being optimistic helps you approach things better.

Pete Buttigieg: And your mother’s words about the difference between being heard and being felt, can you explain that a little bit? What does that mean to you and how do you put that into action?

Renee Montgomery: She was saying that there’s lip service and then there’s action. And a lot of people associate action with negativity. And I was like, again, me being optimistic Oprah, I’m just not thinking that. I’m thinking, okay, action means don’t just talk about it, be about it. So that kind of prompted my mind, like what is my making it feel like? That’s when I started to think about, okay, I have a platform. I know being in the WNBA I have a platform. I have people that follow me, not just because of who I am, but they like the sport that I play and they like maybe me as a whole. So I’m like, how can I use that and make it felt?

And so opting out wasn’t what I was thinking about at the time and she didn’t even… Sidenote: My parents, right when I told them I wanted to opt out, they were like, “Think about it, pray on it, take some time.” So they weren’t encouraging me to opt out, but they told me they would support me if I did. But for me it just felt right. I felt like there was a moment going on, a different moment than, my snook told me it was different than her civil rights movement. This is a different time, like none before. And I was like, I want to be feet on the ground, boots on the ground. I want to be here for it. And so that’s kind of what prompted me to opt out. That was my making it felt. I could say that I’m interested in this and I want things to change, but when I opt out and say I’m that interested in this, and I’m that serious about it, people feel it.

Pete Buttigieg: A lot of the biggest, most important decisions in my life, I feel like by the time I arrived at the decision, by the time I was ready to tell anybody about it or knew that it was there, it almost felt like I’d made that decision a while ago, like I’d already settled into it without even fully knowing yet. Is that how this felt? Or was there a moment when you thought, I’m going to do this?

Renee Montgomery: Oh, absolutely. People think I just woke up, typed the tweet and sent it. I think people think that’s how it happened. It’s not how it happened. I knew for probably a week and a half, two weeks before I actually told everyone I knew that I was going to opt out. Because I had told my parents and my parents were the ones that was like, “Okay, well, you still have…” I think at that time I still had a month before I had to opt out. You had to make a decision at a certain point. The WNBA set a deadline. I still had a month. And so my parents were like, “All right, well, you still have a month. Take some time.” Like I said, they told me to pray on it, think on it, and then if you still feel that same way, opt out.

And so I took about a week and a half and just was thinking about it. I called my head coach, talked to my family, just talked to the people close to me just to bend their ear, like, “Am I crazy? What do y’all feel? Am I crazy? What do y’all think about this?” And everyone told me I wasn’t crazy, even my head coach. And so that kind of solidified it for me. She was the last call that I made. And I called my agent, I called everyone and just letting them know because I knew that that would affect them. And my coach was like, “It’s not the best situation for me, being your coach and you’re going to opt out,” but she was like, “I get it. Just as a citizen living here in America, I get it.” And even just hearing her say that, that made me so much more comfortable. When a coach gives you a contract and takes a… I call it betting on you. I don’t want to like let anyone down. So just hearing her being okay with it, that made me feel very comfortable. So then I sent the tweet out and I had already been thinking about for a week and a half so I was already sound in my decision. There wasn’t any going back after that.

Pete Buttigieg: All of these issues are close to home in another way, which is professionally. Because as we see this Georgia Senate race, one of them is between Democrat Raphael Warnock and Republican Kelly Loeffler, who just happens to co-own the Atlanta Dream WNBA team that you play on. And after the WNBA announced that the upcoming season would be dedicated to social justice, and that the opening weekend’s games would be centered on the Black Lives Matter movement, she actually wrote a letter to the commissioner saying that she opposes the Black Lives Matter movement, and says that it in her words was “totally misaligned.” This is a quote, “with the values and goals of the WNBA and the Atlanta Dream.” So with all of the pain and the struggle involved in what had happened over the course of the summer, knowing that you’ve got this wonderfully supportive coach and teammates, and at the same time, the co-owner of the team that you’re playing for is saying this, how do you even think about that and how do you respond?

Renee Montgomery: I did respond. I responded. I wrote a letter too. And I thought since we’re writing letters, I can write too. And so I wrote a letter and I just was confused. I obviously knew the owner before she started running for Senate, so I didn’t understand what was the point in the letter anyway. And I just didn’t understand, why create that division in a sense of you’re a woman. We are women. We know what it’s like to be discriminated against. Most women, whether color or not, it doesn’t matter the color, you probably felt a little bit discriminated against at your workplace or somewhere.

So in my thought process, I’m like, all right, so if we’re women and this is a women’s league and we should be empowering women, we need a lot of women empowering women, write the letter to the NBA commissioner. You know what I mean? They’re doing the same thing. I don’t know. To me, if I see a woman doing well, I’m like, “Yes! You better!” I’m excited. When I saw Madame Vice President walk on the stage, it wasn’t just she was a woman of color even though I love to see Black excellence, this was a woman on the biggest stage. That to me, we should all, as women and no matter what, partisan, non-partisan, we should all as women be excited for the growth of women. And so to me, I tried to make parallels to that. I talked about women’s suffrage. We would have been arm-in-arm trying to be able to vote. I just tried to understand because again, I’m used to seeing things differently, but I like to try to understand what people are saying.

Pete Buttigieg: How do you think your teammates are thinking through the different ways to be involved? Some have probably been politically active their whole lives, others are just arriving at this. What kind of conversations are you having about how each person can find their best way to be active and to make a difference?

Renee Montgomery: Every athlete is different. And I think people have to understand that there’s some athletes that, whether this is going on right now or not, they’re like, “Look, I’m not really into the politics.” And there’s some athletes that, they don’t even want to do interviews. So to put it in perspective, it’s not just politics. Some athletes don’t even like to do interviews. They just want to play basketball. So when you ask them to do an interview, they might not want to do that. And when you ask them to talk about politics or take a stand, they definitely don’t want to do that. And it’s not because they don’t care. It’s because some athletes like to just stay in their own lane and they don’t want to have to be outspoken about their beliefs.

Then you have some athletes that are very passionate about it. They’re very outspoken about it and they want you to know what they think. I think that people have to let athletes be whatever they want to be. Because if somebody went to your job and was like, “Hey, do you see what’s going on in America? Talk about it. Here’s a camera. Tell everybody how you feel,” I think a lot of people would feel very uncomfortable with doing that. They would be like, “Whoa, whoa, whoa. I’m at work. Chill!” They would probably tell them, “Wait a minute.” But for athletes, we don’t really have that choice. People think that we’re obligated to talk, and people think that we’re obligated to tell our beliefs. People think that we’re obligated to just outright take a stand and there’s athletes that say they didn’t sign up for that. So I always just try to meet people where they are.

Pete Buttigieg: So is it fair to say you don’t think the players who didn’t opt out are making a mistake?

Renee Montgomery: No, I don’t. I don’t think anybody’s obligated to do anything. And I say that in a sense of there’s NBA players that opted out for family reasons, there’s WNBA players that opted out for health reasons. Whatever reason you opted out, that’s your reason. That’s literally the person saying I’ll take a pay cut because I don’t feel comfortable with that situation. Well, what can you be mad about? That’s their own choice.

And I made that known because there was that infamous Kyrie [Irving] call that everybody heard about where all the NBA players were on the call. They wanted to figure out, do they want to play? There was a lot of discussion, debates. The media leaked it and said there was a lot of arguing, but I was on the call and I was excited leaving the call. I was like, “Wow, these NBA players are serious!” I took it in a good way that, wow, there’s this many men on the call from all walks of life, trying to figure out what they want to do about the climate that we’re in, the civil unrest. Obviously, as we know, Kyrie thought that sitting out was the best way to make it felt. But I wasn’t mad at the people that took a knee because it was on MSNBC. I was talking on MSNBC about LeBron taking a knee. And I was talking on CNN about the Milwaukee Bucks. So that made an impact. And so I think that there’s different ways to go about it. There’s no one right way.

Pete Buttigieg: Are there any other athletes in particular that you think are a model for how to navigate these things, and how to balance what you do on the court or on the field with what needs to happen out in the world?

Renee Montgomery: Yeah. I would say a good example and obviously we all can’t be this, but LeBron James. And we all know the More Than a Vote now, but he’s had I Promise. He has a whole school already built, already has kids in it, already doing stuff. He already had that before this happened so that lets you know his mindset was already there. So when this situation occurred and the pandemic hit, and now everyone, all eyes on the election, he already had More Than An Athlete so here comes More Than a Vote. And for me it makes sense and I think it’s the right way because we know that he’s already that guy. You don’t want people to have to do something that they’re not. And so I always say like, for me, I’m going to do what I’m comfortable with. So if I’m comfortable with doing it, I’m going to do it, but if I’m not, I’m not. And you can just tell that LeBron does things that he’s passionate about and I think that that’s what people should do. You don’t have to follow a certain template. Everyone thinks that you have to be a certain way to be a leader. You have to be a certain way to make an impact. No. Do your thing your way and do it in a positive way, I would say.

Pete Buttigieg: Why do you think athletes get the kind of influence or attention that comes with making that decision to step out and be active about social or political issues? Is there something about the relationship that athletes have with fans? Is it the power of just the visibility alone? What do you think makes it such a statement when an athlete like you comes out and says, here’s where I stand?

Renee Montgomery: That’s interesting because a lot of people were asking that as opposed to entertainers that were speaking out. I really think people understand what it takes to be a professional athlete. I think they understand the sacrifice, the discipline, the leadership, the teamwork. You know the attributes that it takes, people hold your word at a certain heavy weight because they know, well, this is a disciplined person that has made sacrifices in their life and we can trust this. These are disciplined people. These are people that… We carry ourselves. And not to say that we carry ourselves in a professional manner in a sense that people don’t party and stuff, I mean that for your body to be a certain percent body fat, for you to wake up at 5:00 AM every day, for you to be that disciplined for that long of a period, I think people trust it.

I think people, especially basketball, they fall in love with the person as well as the player. So that’s why if you see a player that was first playing for Miami, and then they go to LA, well, that fan is traveling to LA with them because they’re not just a fan of Miami, they’re a fan of that person, so I think that all that plays into it.

Pete Buttigieg: What gives you hope? As you mentioned, your optimism even in the face of the challenges that we face, what do you look to as a source of encouragement and hope that helps you believe that the future is going to be better?

Renee Montgomery: Yeah. I look for wins. And again, it’s probably the athlete in me, but in sports I never was like… I would obviously think let’s win the game, but I don’t think that in the first quarter. In the first quarter, I’m like less the first four minutes, and then after the first four minutes in the first quarter, I’m like, let’s win the next four minutes. That’s how I always broke things down. I broke it down into sections. And so I get excited about every single win. Georgia, I get excited about it. I’d get excited that we had a record number of turnout voters when I’m doing things and I want people to vote. So to me, no, I’m not the reason that Georgia turned blue and I know I’m not, but I’m really excited that we had unreal numbers here. And I’m really excited that people were fighting for democracy. And I’m really excited that it went into a runoff because some people said it was going to be a blowout, so I’m excited. And that’s what keeps me optimistic. It’s not like we’re working and nothing’s happening. We were working and things are happening.

Pete Buttigieg: And as we put points on the board, I think it’s a great point that we’ve got to take that at both as propulsion to do more and as a reassurance that we can find victory. Part of the theme of this podcast is the decade ahead and trying to envision what the 2020s are going to be like. So I wonder, if you were looking back on today from 2030, what would you want to believe would have happened in those 10 years?

Renee Montgomery: Oh man. I’m just going to go with the intersectionality of it. So when it comes to racial and gender inequalities, I want us to look back and just, I think that it’s going to be dramatically different. We have a woman in office. So I think that that’s going to be dramatically different. We have a woman of color in office. But not only that, we have the NBA, the WNBA, we have leagues that are trying to say they want to buy Black businesses. They want to support local businesses. They want to support Black. We have people having the right conversations, so if I look back in 2030, I would hope to be excited that this wasn’t all lip service, that the people right now that are talking about representation, that we look back and we’re like, “Wow, they really meant it.”

And for the NBA, talking about using Black vendors and we look back and be like, wow. And for the NFL, they’re trying to get management. They’re trying to get their management and their upper management together and having minorities, and they have the Rooney Rule and different things of that nature. I hope we look back and are like, “Wow, remember when they had to do that?” And I hope we look back and there’s all these women CEOs and we’re like, “Remember a time where that was just not a thing across the board?” So yeah, I hope to look back at all the lip service that we’re doing right now and know that they made it felt.

Pete Buttigieg: If there’s a young woman starting at UConn or maybe Notre Dame, going into the fall next year, she’s at the top of her game in high school but she’s wondering how she’s going to measure up, what’s the one thing you want her to know?

Renee Montgomery: Work it out. Work it out. You’ll never know. You’ll never know. I was there and you’ll never know. But one thing that people know is that if you put in the work you’ll get results. So I always say, when you’re nervous, hit the gym, work it out. When you don’t know what’s going on, study the film, work it out. But at the end of the day, athletes, we are in a position where we can control our destiny in a sense of how well you do, how well you play, how well you’re prepared, so you better control all your controllables and just work it out.

[music]

Pete Buttigieg: I really admire how Renee spoke about the different types of leadership and how to respond when people have opinions on how to be this way or that way in order to lead. As she’s shown, really, leadership comes down to taking a stand about what you believe in, and moving the needle on issues you care about the most. Sometimes that requires sacrifice. In Renee’s case, sacrificing the very opportunity to play professionally, that she had done so much to earn. But we saw in this conversation that she has no regrets because she made these decisions based on her values, and there is no question in my mind that she will continue to be a leader of great consequence, on and off the court.

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Husband, veteran, writer, Democrat, South Bend’s former Mayor Pete. Boot-Edge-Edge. (he/him)

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