“[Jonathan Irons’s release] can’t happen until the attorney general’s office responds to Judge [Daniel] Green’s ruling,” basketball star Maya Moore cautioned to me recently from her hometown of Jefferson City, Mo., “so we’re a little discouraged after finding that out. But there’s a 15-day time frame that the state has to decide if they’re going to fight against the ruling of the judge. So after that, we’ll be able to work on the process of getting Jonathan released.”
And maybe Moore will retake her throne in the WNBA — bejeweled with an MVP award, six all-star appearances and four league championships — which she abdicated before the 2019 season tipped off to fight for Irons’s freedom. Imagine that.
Moore didn’t stop at remonstrating before a game.
She didn’t start and end her protest with the donning of a T-shirt emblazoned with a slogan.
She didn’t just use a few minutes of time onstage at the ESPYs to demand change.
No, she quit her sport, then devoted her money and all of her newfound time to the cause of criminal justice reform for cases involving black men.
“Sports has a big platform and a lot of eyeballs on it,” Moore said, at times sounding exhausted. “In the prosecutor’s office, there are not a lot of eyeballs — people aren’t paying attention — and so there’s very little accountability.
“So wanting to take a platform with a lot of eyeballs and pointing it to a platform that needs more eyeballs on a human level, I think, is really effective.”
Moore didn’t mention the work of scholars Patrick Cottrell and Travis Nelson, who 10 years ago in studying protest at the Olympics made the case for sports, in general, as a perfect Petri dish for dissent. They are high-profile events accessible to all of us. The curtain rarely can be pulled on them. And they can attract unforeseen allies, such as, for example, the #VeteransforKaepernick hashtag that sprung up after criticism of Colin Kaepernick’s protest as an affront to members of the military.
But a few months before Kaepernick dropped to a knee in protest of unchecked police lethality against unarmed black men in 2016, Moore stood upright to call attention to the same. She was starring for the Minnesota Lynx that summer when Philando Castile, a 32-year-old black man, was pulled over for a broken taillight while driving in suburban Minneapolis and wound up shot and killed by a St. Anthony, Minn., police officer. Afterward, Moore and several teammates wore black T-shirts with white lettering that read: “Change starts with us" and "Justice & Accountability.”
“We got together and decided we were going to raise our voice and be citizens,” Moore recalled. “That was the first time I’d really spoken, used my voice, toward the criminal justice lane, the racial reconciliation lane. That gave me courage to talk about Jonathan. As I looked back, I said: ‘I’m literally in the middle of one of these stories right now. It’s just been a private matter.’ It gave me courage to use my voice and [left me] feeling like I’d been educating myself and had something helpful to say.”
She said she had been reading “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness,” a much-celebrated book on imprisonment and race. And she followed the work of John Perkins, an evangelical civil rights worker who has married Christianity with social justice work in California and Mississippi.
“That was when it started,” Moore said of her transition to activist. “Just started educating myself through the help of my friends at Athletes for Impact out in L.A. They helped me … to learn.”
What Moore said she was learning was how Irons, someone she met when she was a teenage volunteer in her family’s church prison ministry, could be convicted of something he said he didn’t do and physical evidence didn’t tie him to.
“It jarred me to my core,” she said.
So she set out to set him free.
“Getting to where you are, in your convictions, why you do what you do, is a very long journey,” the 30-year-old Moore said. “The way I’ve interacted with trying to do and be a part of things that help humanity is a long road. I’ve done some things more privately than publicly. Over the last three years, I’ve tried to be more intentional about doing things more publicly because my motivations directly connected to a human being that I knew, that I know.”
So Moore made sojourns from Minnesota, her only WNBA home, to Jefferson City. During her hiatus from the league, she made trips from the Atlanta area, where she essentially grew up and now calls home again, to the Missouri town.
She started her own organization, Win with Justice, to bring attention to both Irons’s plight and what she believes landed him in prison: prosecutorial malfeasance.
“I was advised to pick a lane and run with it,” Moore said. “I’ve been trying to dive into prosecutorial reform, which I feel like is a really easy space for me to be in because [of the] connection with sports’ wins and losses, how unfortunately the culture of the prosecutor’s office is all too often consumed with superficial wins and losses instead of actually seeing people in communities and wanting to do right by them.
“I think we can relate to that as athletes,” Moore explained. “If you don’t do right by your process, you’re not going to win. By the time you get to the playoffs or the Final Four, you’re going to be exposed and you’re going to lose. Right now, we’re losing.”
But this month, Moore pushed into overtime her first contest in her new arena. If all goes as hoped, she will win it when the state of Missouri and a county prosecutor concur with the judge that her cause, Irons, was wrongly imprisoned.
“The challenge for us as a society,” Moore said, “is … what is keeping us from seeing our neighbor who is suffering.”
The basketball star just shed light on that.
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