Numerous athletes in recent times have changed our understanding of what is possible. People like Simone Biles create entirely new narratives around what it means to be a dominant athlete. Maya Moore was no different. Recruited out of Collins Hill High, in the suburbs of Atlanta, Moore was a basketball powerhouse.
The number 1 recruit in the nation, Moore went to the University of Connecticut to play for the legendary Geno Auriemma. While in Storrs, Moore amassed an outlandish 150-4 collegiate record. That’s nearly 38 wins for every loss. She left UConn in 2011 with the most wins of any college basketball player ever, along with 2 national titles. Moore was no stranger to the classroom either, twice receiving the Big East Scholar-Athlete of the Year Award, as well as national awards for academic excellence.
Once Moore left the Huskies behind, success followed her to the professional ranks. Moore was drafted to the Minnesota Lynx in 2011, and the first two years of her professional career would follow a familiar rhythm. She won the 2011 WNBA Rookie of the Year Award while leading the Lynx to their first WNBA title in franchise history. She then traveled overseas, as many WNBA players are forced to do in their offseason, and won championships in Spain and the Euroleague.
Finally, just to cap it all off, she won an Olympic gold medal with Team USA in London during the 2012 Olympics. By 2016, Maya became the first pro athlete to win 3 league titles, Rookie of the Year, All-Star MVP and Finals MVP within the first 5 years of their career. And, at that point, why not add another Olympic gold in Rio? Moore was completely unstoppable on the court, and was arguably the best athlete in basketball.
However, Moore was interested in taking action off the court as well. Along with yet another WNBA Finals appearance, the 2016 Minnesota Lynx also began protesting police violence in the United States. In July 2016, Philando Castile was murdered by police in Minnesota, in the Lynx’s back yard. The Lynx responded by wearing warm up shirts emblazoned with the names of Castile and other victims of police brutality, as well as a message asserting the necessity of accountability in cases of police violence.
As a captain on the team, Moore was a vocal supporter of this action, stating that, “[i]f we take this time to…speak out together, we can greatly decrease fear and create change.” Athletes like Colin Kaepernick would end up receiving much of the media attention for starting the athlete-activist movement of the late 2010’s, but Moore and her fellow WNBA players set the tone and have continued to lead on this front.
Three years after that initial stand, events in Moore’s personal life moved her to make a greater change. Moore speaks freely about her religious faith, noting that it has given her the ability to see and love people as they are, and understand the work that comes with loving people. Moore’s willingness to be open and loving combines perfectly with her intention to speak for those who have been silenced.
Back in 2007, Moore became aware of the case of a man named Jonathan Irons through her godparents, who were advocating for Irons’s innocence. Irons was convicted of burglary and assault at 18 years old in 1998 and sentenced to 50 years in prison, mostly on the testimony of a single key witness. Twelve years after first learning about Irons, Moore felt she needed to join the efforts of her godparents to free him.
In 2019, Moore published a personal note online, through the magazine The Players’ Tribune. In the letter, she made the shocking announcement that she would step away from basketball, and not return to the WNBA for the 2019 season.
The letter was light on details, but in the background, Moore was committed to helping Irons prove his innocence. Moore was able to help provide the necessary resources to find increasing evidence that Irons had been treated unfairly in his original 1998 trial. After months of effort, Moore and her team were able to uncover a set of fingerprints found at the crime scene – which don’t belong to Irons – that had been suppressed by state prosecutors during the first trial.
As a violation of Irons’ constitutional right to a fair trial, this became the basis of a successful appeal process which eventually led to Irons’ conviction being thrown out. After a failed counter-appeal by prosecutors, Irons was finally released in early 2020, after more than 20 years in prison. Irons and Moore, whose personal connection had grown over the course of their professional connection, wasted no time cementing a brighter future. A day after he was released, Irons proposed to Moore; they were wed only a few weeks later. Now, they aim to use their story and faith to advocate for wider change. And Moore’s decisions have inspired others to follow the same route.
When George Floyd was murdered by Minneapolis police officers in May, 2020, the same, barely-scabbed-over wounds were reopened. Protests erupted across the world, demanding justice and greater societal change. And the WNBA, with the Minnesota Lynx in front, led the charge. Members of the 2020 team have noted the positive example of the 2016 protest, which set a precedent for athletes using their voice. They understand that they can use their voice to advocate for the positive change they’d like to see.
The Lynx found this especially important, as the murder–and the subsequent protest–-took place in their back yard. They knew that there was no choice but to speak out and speak loudly. Current Lynx players like Sylvia Fowles and Rachel Banham have consistently taken part in the conversations that the city and country need to have to solve difficult issues.
Maya Moore understands that she is not capable of doing all of this on her own. She’s spoken about the power of her support network giving her the space to find her own lane in life. And she’s taken that as motivation to work to help others navigate their space. That conviction has allowed her to be a leader amongst leaders on and off the court, inspiring others to take up the challenge of demanding better.