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Column: Maya Moore left the WNBA to help free a man from prison. She might’ve saved his life

Since stepping away from basketball in the prime of her WNBA career, Maya Moore has been a tireless advocate for criminal justice reform.
Since stepping away from basketball in the prime of her WNBA career, Maya Moore has been a tireless advocate for criminal justice reform.
(Slaven Vlasic / Getty Images)

The name Jonathan Irons probably doesn’t mean anything to you.

He hasn’t been on a sports team, on tour or on a YouTube channel. In fact, for the past 23 years he hasn’t been much of anywhere. In 1998, Irons, a teenager at the time, was convicted of burglary and assault and sentenced to 50 years in prison despite the lack of fingerprints, DNA evidence or corroborating witnesses placing him at the scene.

This, a Missouri maximum security prison, is where Maya Moore found him.

Now hers is a name you should know: four Final Four appearances, two NCAA titles, two Olympic gold medals, four WNBA titles, five ESPYs. In 2011, Moore became the first women’s player to sign with Jordan Brand. In 2017, Sports Illustrated named her “the greatest winner in the history of women’s basketball.”

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In 2019 — at age 29 and still very much in her prime — Moore left it all behind, walking away from the Minnesota Lynx. “There are different ways to measure success,” she wrote in the Players’ Tribune.

On Monday, Judge Daniel Green vacated Irons’ sentence, 23 years in, citing evidence that was not disclosed by prosecutors in the initial trial. Only then did we fully understand how Moore measures success. She had committed the last several months working with lawyers who sought to overturn Irons’ sentence.

The attorney general’s office and prosecutors have roughly 45 days to appeal or retry the case. Still, it’s a positive development for a man who was facing another 27 years in prison.

There’s no question that Colin [Kaepernick] is a part of sparking a new wave of athletes using our voice and I definitely got courage from him.
Maya Moore, on Colin Kaepernick being an inspiration.

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Moore says her dedication to the Irons case began to build in 2016, three years before she began her WNBA hiatus.

“There was a lot of attention around police shootings and officers being shot,” Moore said. “My [Lynx] teammates and I wanted to use our voices to help those who didn’t feel like they had a voice. We all need to be better but we also need accountability and we need to acknowledge what is happening to one group of people in particular.

“There’s no question that Colin [Kaepernick] is a part of sparking a new wave of athletes using our voice and I definitely got courage from him. When he said ‘Change starts with us,’ it gave me courage to raise my voice.”

The story of Jonathan Irons may not mean anything to you, but consider that someone’s baby was placed in a maximum security prison while exculpatory evidence was concealed. It’s an all-too-familiar scenario for people of color like Irons, who is black.

From NBA veterans to its most exciting rookie, players around the league are using their wealth and profile to try to help arena workers affected by the coronavirus outbreak.

Nearly 50% of all youths in this country transferred from juvenile courts to adult courts are black, despite making up less than 15% of the youth population. A report by the National Association of Social Workers found that minority children as young as 14 are regularly tried, sentenced and incarcerated as adults.

Had Moore not left the WNBA and brought national attention to the case by getting involved, there is a good chance that Irons’ sentence does not get overturned.

“The dark reality is that there are so many people wrongfully imprisoned,” Moore said. “I decided that it was time for me to use my voice and the resources that I had to publicly help Jonathan’s cause and draw attention to criminal justice reform.

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“I got to know the facts of his case and over the years learned more and more. When I decided to step away from the game, I knew that would provide me with more time to work on the case.”

“Stick to sports,” especially on social media, has become the default trope of fans who prefer their games be uncomplicated by hard questions. But lives, like that of Irons, are sometimes saved when athletes don’t stick to sports.

“When I hear that phrase I think of the reality that people want to engage in sports as fans and spectators as a way of entertainment and escape from hard truths in life and I get it,” Moore said. “It’s one of the few places we can come together and not think of the hard things in life. But athletes are citizens too.

The Clippers, Lakers and Kings, along with Staples Center, have established a fund to provide financial assistance to the arena’s hourly employees.

“I can’t speak for everyone but I can’t help but think there are people saying, ‘I just want to be comfortable and I don’t want to hear about things that can challenge me.’ I understand that. At the same time there is an element to sports that goes so much deeper into social power dynamics and what that means to black and brown bodies.”

Moore, who first met Irons when she was 18 while visiting a prison ministry initiative a relative was running, said she didn’t walk away from a successful basketball career solely to address criminal justice reform. She left to get closer to God.

“I really just wanted to shift my priorities to family and ministry,” she said. “I tried to keep my time [away] from the game pretty private, but Jonathan’s cause is something I’m very passionate about. It was something I’d been doing for years and I knew once I walked away from basketball, I would be able to invest more deeply in. There is so much more to life and things I want to prioritize.

“His transition is going to be a priority with me as well as the ministry passions that I have. I got to speak at a women’s conference to dive deeper into the Word and some discipleship and Biblical training. I’m also concerned about modern day slavery and ending human trafficking.”

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Minnesota Lynx forward Maya Moore tries to rev up the crowd during Game 5 of the 2017 WNBA Finals against the Sparks.
Minnesota Lynx forward Maya Moore tries to rev up the crowd during Game 5 of the 2017 WNBA Finals against the Sparks.
(Hannah Foslien / Getty Images)

Does this mean she’s done with basketball?

Not necessarily. It’s just not what she’s pursuing right now. If she returns, she’s still under contract with the Lynx. I tried to get her to consider the Sparks, but no happs.

“We all have to make our own decisions with the choices that are in front of us,” she said. “I don’t think I’m creating a model to follow, I just made a decision that was best for me.

“There is something everyone from every walk of life can do to be a part of justice. If you feel the need to do some extreme things, then do it. But if you can find other ways to engage in this reconciliation process, by all means do that because there are so many ways to help.”

To learn more about the Jonathan Irons case, visit www.winwithjustice.org. You can also visit Moore’s social media accounts.


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