From athletes to advocates

Maya Moore drives to the rim during a game against the Atlanta Dream. LORIE SHAULL/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

James Salazar

Staff Writer 

Since I was five years old, women’s basketball has consumed me. 

Throughout elementary school, I turned the television to ESPN, where the rise of the University of Connecticut Huskies’ great Maya Moore was at hand. In 2011, I read the morning paper to find that she had been drafted as the first overall pick by the WNBA’s Minnesota Lynx. For the next eight years, I tuned in to watch Moore become one of the Lynx’s franchise players. 

Then, it all came to an abrupt stop. 

In 2019, Moore announced that she would be sitting out the 2019 WNBA season. As a Moore fan, I was perplexed. What prompted one of the WNBA’s greatest players to step away from chasing a record-breaking fifth championship? The answer was bigger than basketball, and it gave me more reason to remain a fervent supporter. 

The first year of Moore’s self-imposed hiatus focused on connecting with family and ministry. Then, this January, Moore announced that she would not participate in either the 2020 WNBA season nor the 2020 Summer Olympic Games (now moved to summer 2021), as her attention shifted to criminal justice reform.

During her time away from the hardwood, Moore found herself in a different court as she spent her time advocating for Jonathan Irons, a family friend who she believed was serving time for a wrongful conviction. 

Moore’s advocacy worked to tremendous avail — in March of this year, Irons’ conviction was overturned. 

As Moore walked away victorious, another WNBA player was set to enter the legal world. 

On March 30, the WNBA’s Dallas Wings announced that center Imani McGee-Stafford would be stepping away for the next two seasons to pursue a law degree from the Southwestern Law School in Los Angeles. 

Much like Moore, I watched McGee-Stafford’s collegiate career take off on television while she played for the University of Texas at Austin Longhorns. I also saw McGee-Stafford get drafted by the Chicago Sky and traded among multiple WNBA teams. 

No matter her team, McGee-Stafford has used her platform to discuss topics such as mental health, sexual abuse, and sexual violence. She founded Hoops and Hope, a nonprofit dedicated to having family-friendly discussions about mental health and sexual violence. Commenting on her outspokenness about such topics in a 2019 profile by the WNBA’s Atlanta Dream, McGee-Stafford said, “I’m very aware of the privilege I have of being a professional athlete.” 

Given McGee-Stafford’s selfless track record, which dates back to college, her pursuit of a law degree was not a shock, but rather an extension of her dream.

Make no mistake, WNBA players do not have to put their careers on the shelf to advocate for what they believe is right. Players like Las Vegas Aces center Liz Cambage and Phoenix Mercury guard Skylar Diggins-Smith have spoken publicly about matters ranging from mental health to maternity leave, all while never missing a beat on the court. 

Though it hurt to see Moore take a leave of absence, she mentioned after Irons’ conviction was overturned that she missed playing in front of a Minnesota crowd. And while I wanted to see the Dallas Wings mold a relatively young team into future title contenders, I am growing to accept that McGee-Stafford is no longer a part of the blueprint. 

Despite these departures, my 15 years of WNBA fandom have taught me some very important lessons. 

First and foremost, basketball will always be there. 

Most of these women have been bouncing a ball before they could walk. However, it’s not every day that you get to fix a flawed justice system or further your education.

These women are seizing their moments of opportunity. If they can live knowing that the WNBA will be waiting for them with open arms, so can I.

Secondly, the WNBA is full of strong and courageous women. These athletes are doing what they love on their terms and simultaneously using their platforms to unabashedly speak their minds. 

Whether they’re taking it to the hardwood or the classroom, I will back WNBA players in all that they do, because these women are role models for having success in and beyond sports. 

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