Atlanta Dream guard Renee Montgomery plans to skip the upcoming W.N.B.A. season to focus on promoting social justice causes, becoming the league’s first player to publicly opt out of the league’s plans for a shortened season during the coronavirus pandemic.
“There’s work to be done off the court in so many areas in our community,” Montgomery said on Twitter on Thursday. She also wrote a piece for the Players’ Tribune explaining her decision. “Social justice reform isn’t going to happen overnight but I do feel that now is the time and moments equal momentum.”
Montgomery, 33, has actively demonstrated in person and online following the killing of George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis, speaking out on issues including racism, police brutality and voting rights. She said in an interview that she plans to spend the next few months determining how she can help.
“It would be unfair for my teammates and coaches to be half-in, half-out of the bubble mentally when I know I want to be on the ground, getting closer with these communities in need,” said Montgomery, a one-time All-Star. “And now more people are like, ‘Yeah, we get that, we need change.’ We didn’t have that before.”
Team officials supported her decision, saying it reflected the W.N.B.A.’s desire to encourage athletes to be active in social causes. The Dream donated to Montgomery’s foundation, which she founded last year to help children through sports, and planned to attend a rally with Montgomery on Friday to celebrate Juneteenth, a holiday that commemorates the end of slavery in the United States, said Chris Sienko, the team’s president and general manager.
“What Renee has decided to do should be applauded by everybody,” Sienko said.
Montgomery played for the Minnesota Lynx in 2016, when W.N.B.A. players became early supporters of the Black Lives Matter movement. In 2014, N.B.A. players denounced the death of Eric Garner by wearing shirts that said “I can’t breathe” and in the fall of 2016, N.F.L. quarterback Colin Kaepernick began kneeling at games to protest systemic racism and violence.
That year, in the wake of the police shooting of Philando Castile in Minnesota, players for the Lynx and other teams began wearing black T-shirts to support Black Lives Matter. The W.N.B.A. even fined three teams and several individual players for the shirts, though the penalties were rescinded.
Montgomery said she was inspired by several teammates that season, including Seimone Augustus, Rebekkah Brunson, Maya Moore and Lindsay Whalen, to take a stand for black lives. And with the six-time All-Star Moore declaring in January that she would sit out a second straight season to focus on criminal justice reform, Montgomery felt comfortable taking time away from the game, too.
“It definitely made me feel more comfortable taking a leap of faith,” Montgomery said. “I’m really taking a leap of faith because I know I want to make change, and I don’t have an exact blueprint for it, but there are things that need to be reformed.”
Montgomery is one of many players calling for change. A’ja Wilson of the Las Vegas Aces, who played for South Carolina in college, is calling for the university to rename its fitness center, which currently bears the name of Strom Thurmond, a segregationist senator.
Montgomery said the outpouring of support for her decision has been different from the response Moore received when she first decided to take a break from the game, during the prime of her career at age 29. Moore left basketball to support the appeal of Jonathan Irons, a man she believed to be wrongly convicted of burglary and assault.
Montgomery, one of the league’s top 3-point shooters, started all 34 regular-season games in which she played last season and won titles with Minnesota in 2015 and 2017. She was the No. 4 draft pick out of the University of Connecticut in 2009 after winning the N.C.A.A. championship that year.
The W.N.B.A. and its players’ union agreed on a framework for the season this week, including a 22-game regular season to start in late July and a full playoff schedule, with all games held at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla. Players have until June 25 to notify their teams if they plan to participate, and those who do will receive 100 percent of their salaries, even though the games will be played without fans. Montgomery opted out of her salary for the 2020 season, a team spokesperson said.
It is not clear whether other players will decide against playing during the pandemic. Dream guard Mikayla Pivec, selected in the third round of this year’s W.N.B.A. draft out of Oregon State, decided in May to take 2020 off for personal reasons.
League officials said when they announced the plan that they wanted the season itself to be a platform to support activism by players.
“Whatever we’re saying on the inside of this bubble, so to speak, can help amplify those voices that need to be heard — what Renee is advocating for and what other athletes are advocating for,” Sienko said. “This is a unique opportunity for us to help those voices, to appreciate the fear and the anguish that the community has been going through for years and years and years.”
And Montgomery said she is still encouraging her teammates to win, even though they will be without her mentorship on the floor.
“It’s corny, but pop all those other teams’ bubbles that think they’re going to win the championship,” she said.