WNBA Star Renee Montgomery on Opting Out of Season to Focus on Social Justice: 'It's Bigger Than Sports'

PEOPLE’s Voices from the Fight Against Racism will amplify Black perspectives on the push for equality and justice

Renee Montgomery is a basketball star who plays for the Atlanta Dream — and on June 18, the two-time WNBA champion opted out of the 2020 season, choosing instead to focus her efforts on social justice reform.

The decision came one week after news broke of an NBA conference call that notably featured Brooklyn Nets star Kyrie Irving pleading with players to make their voices heard by sitting out the season's restart in Orlando. Though the season continued as planned, the shooting of Jacob Blake, a Black man who was shot by police officers and paralyzed from the waist down in August, prompted a boycott by the Milwaukee Bucks, which soon extended to other teams and leagues, including the MLB and tennis' Western & Southern Open.

Montgomery, 33, founded the Renee Montgomery Foundation in 2019, and wants to use her time off the court to push a variety of initiatives to help the Black and brown communities, including educating people on the importance of voting with Remember the 3rd of November, and The Last Yard, which will award grants to students to help finish off final college payments between $100 and $1,000. Montgomery also hopes to bring a tech center to Morris Brown College, an HBCU in Atlanta, to help young people learn how to code and explore careers in tech and e-sports.

Here, Montgomery explains to PEOPLE why she decided to opt out, and what she plans to do to make the world a better place.

I grew up in St. Albans, West Virginia. The whole state is 3 percent black — that's just the reality. When you're younger, you don't necessarily think about it as much as now, when all the differences are magnified. When I was younger, I knew I was different than other people, but I tried to just be their friend and be the athlete.

Renee Montgomery
Renee Montgomery. Courtesy Renee Montgomery

Basketball was my crutch, and the thing that made me fit in with everyone else. I was the good athlete, you know? "That little Renee, she could dribble!" That was part of my identity. I was no longer "The Black girl in our class." I was, "Oh, that's the basketball player in our class."

Basketball is what I do every day, it's what I think about in the morning. So fast forward to when I'm thinking about opting out, I'm almost thinking about giving up a piece of my identity.

Renee Montgomery
Renee Montgomery. Barry Gossage/NBAE via Getty

When I first opted out, I thought it was going to be understood why I did it: because I'm a Black woman in America, and that alone is enough reason for me to opt out. I was a part of that infamous Kyrie call that everybody knows about before the season. And when that call got leaked, I got a preview of how people felt about an athlete that might opt out for the reasons I opted out. People were not happy. People were not feeling it. But I knew if I didn't, it would have been a "What if?" or "What could I have done?"

A lot of people didn't get it at first. When the Kyrie call happened, they thought Kyrie was crazy. "What is he talking about? Just play sports, man." But it was that "It's-bigger-than-sports," aha moment that he had, that, when Jacob Blake was shot, I think a lot of people had.

I was scared, for sure, but it was still an easy decision to make because I felt in my heart it was what I wanted to do; it was part of my identity. It wasn't overnight, it was over a long process. And speaking of that long process, the cops that killed Breonna Taylor, they still haven't been charged with her death. She's one of the reasons I opted out, and the same goes for George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery.

Renee Montgomery
Renee Montgomery. Courtesy Renee Montgomery

I'm a Black woman living in America, and we have some problems. I want to be a part of the positive change to fix the problems. Whether you've been directly affected by racism or not, it doesn't matter. Anybody that's watching this should feel a type of way. Even if you aren't Black living in America, if you're living in America, and you see these problems, we should all feel affected and we should all want to make a change.

I joined LeBron James' More Than a Vote campaign, and I have a social media campaign called Remember the 3rd, which is about educating people on the way to the polls. Because a lot of people think that what's going on is not political, in a sense of, "Why would I vote? It's not going to change anything." It's not going to change everything, you're right. But it will change some things. Education really changes perspective.

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People have asked me, "Well, how do you feel about the players that are going to go ahead and play?" And my response is that I think there's so many different ways to make a change. I don't think there's one right way when we're doing this. Whether you're playing in the court and you're taking a knee, or you're talking about social causes in your post-game interview, or if you're opting out like me, I think that all of those still create positive change.

As an athlete and in the athletic world, I've never felt more connected, and I've never felt more proud. We have the world's attention. When I talked to the older generation, the wise elders, they said, "This is different." And they've been through a civil rights movement. But they're like, "This movement is not like anything we've seen before." It wasn't like people played telephone. The Milwaukee Bucks didn't call the Lakers, and the Lakers didn't call the Dodgers, and the Dodgers didn't call Naomi [Osaka] playing tennis. All the athletes saw what was going on, and all the athletes understood it was bigger than sports.

Renee Montgomery
Renee Montgomery. Courtesy Renee Montgomery

A lot of people are always waiting on a specific moment, and I think that's why people thought I had a plan when I opted out — because usually, people don't do something until they have a plan. But I think that you don't need a plan to want to create change. You don't need to have it all figured out to want to do better. If everybody just tried to do a little bit better than what they were doing before, that'll create a huge change. There's no right or wrong way to go about it, but if you want to go about it, you can.

  • As told to Rachel DeSantis

To help combat systemic racism, consider learning from or donating to these organizations:

* Campaign Zero works to end police brutality in America through research-proven strategies.

* ColorofChange.org tries to make the government more responsive to racial disparities.

* National Cares Mentoring Movement provides social and academic support to help Black youth succeed in college and beyond.

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