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Three antiracist moments from athletes that sparked real change

WNBA star Maya Moore (left) has sat out of basketball since 2019 to focus on prison reform, including helping to free wrongly-accused Jonathan Irons (right). Credit: The New York Times.

There are many women athletes out there doing so much for Black Lives Matter and other social justice movements. Every bit of it is inspiring and carries a role in making the world better. Three moments in particular, however, have initiated serious change.

Atlanta Dream & the WNBA helped flip the U.S. Senate

There was outrage when Atlanta Dream co-owner and U.S. Senator Kelly Loeffler, Republican of Georgia, criticized the WNBA’s involvement in the Black Lives Matter movement. She wrote her thoughts in the form of a letter to WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert this past summer. 

In response, Dream players met with Loeffler’s opponent in the U.S. Senate race, Rev. Raphael Warnock, who was polling at only 9% at the time. Loeffler was at 26%. Players across the league wore “Vote Warnock” shirts to games, and they spoke about him on social media.

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“When we realized what our owner was doing and how she was kind of using us and the Black Lives Matter movement for her political gain, we felt like we didn’t want to feel kind of lost as the pawns in this,” Williams told The New York Times.

Instantly after the Dream and other WNBA players started endorsing the campaign, Warnock raised $183,000 and gained 3,500 new donors. Loeffler’s double-digit lead disappeared.

With the players keeping up the pressure through the fall of 2020, Warnock and Loeffler advanced to the January run-off as the top two contenders. Warnock ended up winning by 46,000 votes. 

LeBron James expressed interest in putting together an ownership group to take the Atlanta Dream franchise away from Loeffler. 

Megan Rapinoe was one of the first athletes to kneel during the anthem

Megan Rapinoe was the first professional soccer player to kneel during the anthem before a game. In what she called “a little nod to Kaepernick,” days following Colin Kaepernick’s first kneel, she stayed down during Star Spangled Banner before kickoff between the Chicago Red Stars and her own Seattle Reign in 2016.

“Being a gay American, I know what it means to look at the flag and not have it protect all of your liberties,” Rapinoe told American Soccer News following the Reign’s 2-2 tie. “It was something small that I could do and something that I plan to keep doing in the future and hopefully spark some meaningful conversation around it. It’s important to have white people stand in support of people of color on this. We don’t need to be the leading voice, of course, but standing in support of them is something that’s really powerful.”

Her kneeling sparked outrage among people who didn’t even follow the NWSL. She faced criticism and consequences from the U.S. Soccer Federation, including not starting games and not being invited to national training camps. When Rapinoe refused to stop her silent protests, U.S. Soccer banned her from kneeling during the anthem. 

After the killing of George Floyd in June 2020, USSF apologized for their three-year-old ban and lifted it. Almost all of the NWSL and the USWNT have since joined Rapinoe in kneeling.

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Maya Moore gave up basketball to work on prison reform

Four-time WNBA champion. Two-time Olympic gold medalist. Two-time NCAA champion. Four-time WNBA titleist. Maya Moore left her promising basketball career behind in 2019 to dedicate her time to prison reform. 

In 1998 when he was 16, Jonathan Irons was wrongly accused of burglary and assaulting a homeowner with a gun, and was sentenced to 50 years in prison. Moore first visited him in prison when she was 16.  

At the age of 30, Moore dedicated 2019 to helping Irons out of prison. In March 2020, a judge overturned the conviction.

“…hats off to people that sacrifice, that pay a cost of a platform, of a job, of money to stand up for something greater than yourselves and at the end of the day, if we remember we’re human beings first, I think it’ll make it a little less controversial,” Moore said.

Moore went on to sit out of the 2020 WNBA season to continue working on prison reform. 

Oh, and she also ended up marrying Jonathan Irons. There will be a movie on this story. You heard it here first. 

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