Maya Moore is one of the greatest basketball players to ever take the court. She is a WNBA MVP, a four-time WNBA champion with the Minnesota Lynx, and a two-time gold medalist. Her latest project is taking on the issues of prosecutorial reform and mass incarceration. Here is an edited excerpt of an interview we did with her on the Edge of Sports podcast. Listen to the entire interview here.
Dave Zirin: When did you become aware that we have a serious problem in this country around mass incarceration?
Maya Moore: I think being in the African-American community, I have a built-in connection to issues facing black Americans. But it’s also being in the sports world today and being connected to people that are taking an interest in the issues that face minorities and people of color. It was also seeing the documentary 13th. That was a really powerful piece that just woke me up in a greater way. Some of the things I knew, some of the things I wasn’t aware of politically: the flow from slavery to today and just how [oppressive] laws continue to morph and how much further we still have to go.
DZ: One of the cases that you have been speaking out about is the case of Jonathan Irons. Talk about that case and why you believe it is emblematic of the broader need for reform.
MM: It really started with my great-uncle who had been doing prison ministry for close to 30 years. He became a mentor to this young man, Jonathan Irons, about 18 years ago.
Jonathan was a part of the choir program that my great-uncle was volunteering at, and he got to know this young man because he saw potential in him as a young leader and as a person. He starting mentoring him and my godparents, who are my extended cousins, started looking at his case and just really dove into his life in a way that was above and beyond the call of just being polite, and really felt a connection and compassion to help Jonathan, who didn’t have a lot of resources, to stand up and give him a voice to speak out against his wrongful conviction. The more we got to know him, the more outrage our family started to feel, especially seeing what an awesome person he is despite his circumstances and how he’s grown and the things he’s trying to do to fight for himself and continue to be a light where he is.
Jonathan was 16 years old, living on his own. He has kind of a typical story of growing up, not having a lot of money, not having his parents—he was raised by his grandmother, and by the time he was a young teen, getting caught up in the wrong things. Tired of being poor and scared and you get connected to gang life so he was living on his own. So obviously he’s not going to be a favorite person of law enforcement in his area.
He gets picked up for attempted robbery, non-fatal. No physical evidence tying him to the scene, and he gets a massive sentence for a non-fatal robbery attempt. He was given a 65-year sentence and he had to serve 50 of that. So again, one of the many issues of over-sentencing, and how in the world did he get that much time as a 16-year-old? He’s been in there for 21 years.
[As a general resource, Maya Moore recommends Miriam Krinsky and her organization Fair and Just Prosecution.]
DZ: There’s so many issues connected to the criminal-justice system, and you seem to have honed in on this issue of prosecutorial reform. Why?
MM: There are so many components and different people and levels and practices involved in our criminal-justice system. But as an athlete, as a leader, and as someone who has excelled in my sport, I feel like I know a thing or two about leadership, and I see the prosecutors in our justice system as key leaders and people who have power and responsibility and a great level of control over how our justice system is executed.… I love celebrating good leaders, but I also have high standards for leaders because the impact that we can have can be really great or it can be devastating.… So I just thought it was a great place to connect, to encourage.… because we can vote in new DAs who can have control over and influence over many issues [such as sentencing, bail reform, mass incarceration, racial bias].
DZ: You were active in the summer of 2016, speaking out after the killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. How did that experience affect your path?
MM: Simply put, it was a crazy summer and it was in the heart of our season, and so we felt as players and our coaches too that we needed to try to help: speak up, speak out to help bring us together. So the heart of our message of in 2016 was, change starts with us because we’re just trying to model what we already do as champions, which is when things are going wrong, when craziness is happening, we can’t sit here and point the finger, we have to look inside of ourselves and take responsibility first for what we can do to help the situation. We were wanting to really speak out and stand up for so many people who are affected by this. One of the killings [Alton Sterling] happening in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, really touched [teammate] Seimone Augustus. She is proud of being from Baton Rouge, and that hit her hard. And Philando’s shooting happened in Minnesota, in our backyard, so we just felt a lot of close to home hits. And we also wanted to honor the police officers killed in Texas too.
We understand that everybody is being affected by this and it needs to stop. We said we’re going to step out and take a chance and speak up and try to do something positive in the wake of all this tragedy, so we took that risk and stepped into that moment, and yeah, we got some blowback from different people who obviously took whatever they wanted from what we said and made it offensive to them, without really truly feeling the heart of what we’re saying. But that’s what happens when you are in a world where everybody can speak out and have an opinion, but no question it gave me confidence to continue on this path of using my platform to speak up for the people.
DZ: When I’m looking at the athletes who have been outspoken recently in addition to your name, I see names like Breanna Stewart and Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi—is there any kind of UConn connection you can make for us?
MM: I think the UConn connection is because we’ve been around great leaders. Some of the most formative years of our lives happened under awesome leadership with Geno and our assistant coaches. So I think we get outraged a little more in a certain way because we know how it’s supposed to look. We were trained to be leaders, to take ownership of our people and our teammates and our team and our journey, so when we see things that are done in a way that isn’t about the group and the team and what’s best for all of us and doing it together, it think it just gets under our skin. Because we know how it’s supposed to look, I think we are able to see and know how to react as leaders when we see it’s not going well. I am proud though of the fact that, because we are UConn players, we do have a platform that some of us are really stepping into using.