As the WNBA makes its return, Maya Moore is still notably missing from the court.
In February 2019, at the top of her game, Moore did the unthinkable: walking away from a league that had come to be defined by her name. WNBA fans and teammates alike were shocked by her announcement in the Players Tribune. At the age of just 30, Moore – the 2011 number 1 draft pick and Rookie of the year, a league MVP awardee, a two-time Olympic gold medalist, and a four-time WNBA champion – was in her prime. But the “greatest winner in the history of women’s basketball” had a different opponent in mind: the criminal justice system.
Moore’s interest in social justice was piqued even before the Black Lives Matter movement caught national attention.
Moore’s decision to hit pause on her basketball dominance did not happen overnight; she’s previously described how she began to feel radicalized to fight for social justice in the wake of the murder of Philando Castile, in the summer of 2016. Castile was a Black man who was murdered by a police officer in St. Paul, Minnesota. Shortly after his death, Moore and her fellow Minnesota Lynx captains spoke at a pre-game conference, where Moore talked about the importance of seeing racial justice as a “human issue.” The team donned black warmups that night, reading “Change starts with us – Justice & Accountability” on the front and “Black Lives Matter” on the back.
But Moore’s interest in social justice was piqued even before the Black Lives Matter movement caught national attention. Her senior year of high school, Moore was visiting her godparents when she noticed her godfather Reggie Williams studying case files of Jonathan Irons. Irons was serving 50 years in prison for a crime he allegedly committed when he was 16. Williams was convinced Irons had been wrongly convicted; soon after she started visiting him in prison, Moore was too.
If Moore’s sibling-like bond with Irons was the kindling, that 2016 pre-game presser was the spark that lit the match. Over the next two years, Moore began speaking out about criminal justice reform. Drawing on her experience with Irons, she primarily targeted the role of the prosecutor; Irons had been tried as an adult despite being 16, and convicted even without physical evidence linking him to the crime. After her hiatus announcement, Moore’s sole focus became freeing Irons. In addition to her regular catch-ups with Irons, Moore attended court hearings, brought attention to his case, and helped fund a proper defense team. After 23 years in prison, the team finally received the news that Irons’s conviction had been vacated.
When the criminal justice system is so fundamentally broken, she’s not quitting after just one win.
As of July 1, Irons is finally a free man. Moore has technically finished what she initially set out to do, and could pick her basketball career back up again with plenty of her peak performance era left. But if she did, she wouldn’t be Maya Moore. Moore has never been one to just settle, and when the criminal justice system is so fundamentally broken, she’s not quitting after just one win. She’s already announced her plans to take the 2020 season off to continue pushing for structural change.
As much as I love basketball, I’d be happy even if Maya Moore never returned to the WNBA. Just as her dominance on the court defined the game for so many years, her deliberate absence has inspired other players to also use their influence off it. 3 more players – the Atlanta Dream’s Tiffany Hayes and Renee Montgomery, as well as Natasha Cloud, who plays for the defending champions, the Washington Mystics – have also opted out of playing this season to dedicate their time and efforts to social justice work. NBA players including Blake Griffin, Russell Westbrook, and Trae Young remain active in the league, but have also begun mobilizing a campaign to free Julius Jones, a man they are adamant has been wrongfully convicted, from death row.
Moore’s victory is a bright spot in the summer of racial justice. As the US undergoes its painful racial reckoning and is forced to come to grips with the fact that racism is integral to who we are, that it has been ingrained in the formation of every single one of our systems – legal, educational, financial – Moore is a reminder of what we can aspire to on the other side.
We owe it to not Moore, but her cause, to uplift her story and support her fight.
Even so, it’s wild to me that even as we are living in the same timeline as her, people still don’t know who Maya Moore is. News about her pursuit of reform has gradually been making the rounds since Irons’s release, but, as she’s a woman in a league already massively under-appreciated on the basis of gender alone, it hasn’t picked up nearly the same amount of traction as Colin Kaepernick’s, despite being equally powerful.
We owe it to not Moore, but her cause, to uplift her story and support her fight. We owe it to her cause to channel our best Maya Moore in our everyday lives, to quietly continue standing for what we believe in even after the media has had its day and gone. We owe it to her cause to remember, that as terrifying as it is to take that first step, the ideals of fundamental human dignity and justice are worth giving up everything material that we hold dear, and more; that without justice, everything else is arbitrary.
Moore and Kaepernick will both go down in history, but are of course, inherently different: Maya Moore willingly sacrificed her career, while Colin Kaepernick became a sports martyr of sorts after his was taken from him. While we might be tempted to compare the two, we should instead view their stories as complementary halves of the same whole: the embodiment of the absolute best of sports.
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