September 18, 2020
‘I haven’t heard any negative feedback’: Collen reflects on ownership relations
Dream coach Nicki Collen stood firmly beside her players in the wake of controversial comments by team co-owner Kelly Loeffler earlier this summer
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PALMETTO, FL – AUGUST 6: Alysha Clark #32 of the Seattle Storm shoots the ball against the Atlanta Dream on August 6, 2020 at Feld Entertainment Center in Palmetto, Florida. Copyright 2020 NBAE (Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images)
For most of the 2020 WNBA season, the Atlanta Dream avoided saying co-owner Kelly Loeffler’s name.
The U.S. senator made headlines in early July when she sent a letter to WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert expressing her displeasure with the league’s plan to place the Black Lives Matter movement at the forefront throughout the season.
The Dream players released a strong statement in response to the letter that made their opinions clear, but they were careful not to name Loeffler and make things personal. When posting the statement on their social media, most players included the text, “We’ve read the letter. We reject the letter. Black lives matter. Vote in November.”
In response to questions about the letter or Loeffler’s relationship with the team, Dream coach Nicki Collen and her players rarely named Loeffler directly. They would answer the questions but in more vague terms that made it clear, they were walking a challenging line between personal beliefs and the beliefs of their team’s owner.
That changed on Thursday.
Collen mentioned Loeffler by name and specifically referred to ownership issues as something that made things more challenging for the Dream in the bubble. Elizabeth Williams mentioned, “the stuff that happened with our owner” as something that helped the team bond as they had to have hard conversations early on in the bubble.
“It was a unique situation for every team dealing with the pandemic,” Collen said. “We even got the bonus of having ownership issues that stung a little deeper.”
Know this about Collen: Her players come first. Every time she was asked about Loeffler’s comments, she re-centered the conversation around supporting her players and allowing them to use their voices as they saw fit.
“I think my job in that scenario was to really stand side-by-side with these guys and not necessarily be the leader in front but to be more of a servant leader,” Collen said. “I think it started with them having a voice and I think it was a season that was really about the players’ voices. Not just our team, but all teams and coaches figuring out how to help these guys elevate their voices if we have platforms to do so.”
Particularly while living alongside her players in Florida, Collen knew that above all else, she needed to support her players in the wake of Loeffler’s comments. It was undoubtedly a tricky line to walk between players and ownership, but Collen never wavered. She was firmly in support of her players the whole time.
“They knew I was put in a tough position,” Collen said. “[Regardless of if you] say politics are in or out of sports, the reality is, politics are in sports. You can’t say you want them out of sports and at the same time they’re gonna promote Trump helping the Big Ten play. You have politics involved in sports.
“I have to believe that my ownership understood that I was in a situation where I was working and living alongside our players, and this wasn’t a situation where it was about me sharing my political views. It was about me allowing them to share theirs. They have that right. I haven’t heard any negative feedback on it. I know they hired me to do a job and my goal is to do my job.
“I think what people don’t understand is an ownership group, it wasn’t like I was best friends with them before. I work for them. They support me. I ask for things that we need to be successful. That’s what they want to hear. They just want to hear the whys and the hows. I probably won’t be at any rallies. I wasn’t at any rallies before and I won’t be at any rallies now when it comes to a political thing. I understand that I have to walk the line in that scenario when it comes to my personal philosophies.”
It remains to be seen what will happen with Loeffler’s ownership of the Dream. Engelbert has been clear that the league won’t force Loeffler to sell her stake in the team, but it’s been reported that Mary Brock, Loeffler’s co-owner, and Chris Sienko, the team’s president and general manager, have had conversations with potential buyers.
But one thing is clear. Regardless of what happens with the ownership or any comments Loeffler might make, Collen will be on the side of her players through it all.