Amid '2 pandemics,' Minnesota Lynx lead WNBA players' fight for social justice

Perhaps no league has seen more dropouts than the WNBA, whether due to concerns over coronavirus or the desire to promote social justice, or both. Canadian Kayla Alexander, a Minnesota Lynx forward, is not among those dropouts. But she says the decision wasn't easy.

Canada's Kayla Alexander set for 1st season with team made famous by Maya Moore

Minnesota Lynx forward Maya Moore, seen above during the 2017 WNBA Finals, has not played in the league since 2018 as she fought to free Jonathan Irons, a wrongfully convicted Missouri man, from prison. (Andy King/Getty Images)

With "two pandemics" ongoing, many professional athletes have chosen to sit out their respective sports' return.

Perhaps no league has seen more dropouts than the WNBA, whether due to concerns over coronavirus or the desire to promote social justice, or both.

Canadian Kayla Alexander, a Minnesota Lynx forward, is not among those dropouts. But she says the decision wasn't easy.

"I would be lying if I said I wasn't torn," Alexander said. "There's a lot going on that is pushing me to consider really everything, but the league is trying to create a way that we can have a season that is safe and that we can use our platform for social justice."

Players are set to receive 100 per cent of their salaries despite an abbreviated 22-game schedule, and those that sit out over health concerns are also entitled to that money.

Meanwhile, the league's return-to-play agreement includes a commitment to working with players to promote their social reform initiatives. The WNBA is the only league that's seen players cite social justice as the reason for their dropout thus far, including Minnesota's Maya Moore and Washington's Natasha Cloud.

Alexander, the 29-year-old Milton, Ont., native, says she's using her platform as a WNBA player and Canadian national team member to promote social justice through education and donation, while also using her voice to share her experiences.

"The issues that are taking place in the world affect us. Whether we're athletes or not, at the end of the day we're all human. And when I'm going out into the world, people don't see 'Kayla, the athlete,' they just see 'Kayla, a Black woman,'" Alexander said.

She's set to spend her first season with the Lynx, a team she says has always been outspoken and involved in the community.

Moore helps free Missouri man

Moore won four championships with Minnesota over her 2011-2018 WNBA career. But the 2013 Finals MVP and 2014 league MVP has since stepped away in order to work toward freeing a wrongfully convicted prisoner in Missouri.

Moore was there to greet that man, Jonathan Irons, when he walked out of jail on Wednesday.

Irons had been serving a 50-year prison sentence stemming from the non-fatal shooting of a homeowner in the St. Louis area when he was 16. But a judge threw out his convictions in March, citing a series of problems with the case, including a fingerprint report that had not been turned over to Irons' defence team, according to The New York Times.

Moore says she still plans on sitting out the upcoming season to spend time with her family.

Lynx head coach Cheryl Reeve said it was like Moore got to celebrate another championship.

"For the last few years we watched as [Moore] gracefully committed herself to Jonathan's case, and as she has done so often on the basketball court, put the Irons team on her back. I am overcome with joy that Maya and all involved were able to reach their goal of Jonathan's exoneration," Reeve said.

For Alexander, it's not surprising to see that type of activism come out of her league because of its mainly Black demographic.

"I think it's so great all these athletes are using their platforms because it affects us as well. There are a lot of things in the world that need to change so I'm just glad that we're bringing awareness and people are talking about it," Alexander said.

Nneka Ogwumike, president of the WNBA players' union, said this is a major opportunity for the league to use its platform for good.

"We have always been at the forefront of initiatives with strong support of #BlackLivesMatter, #SayHerName, the LGBTQ+ community, gun control, voting rights, #MeToo, mental health and the list goes on," Ogwumike said after the return-to-play agreement was signed.

Season on horizon

The season is set to start in July with a 22-game schedule as opposed to the usual 36 at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla. Players are to report to their teams in Florida by Monday, though the rising number of COVID-19 cases in the state has reportedly caused some alarm.

Alexander says she is doing her best to creatively use resources around her to stay fit until she rejoins her team and can start playing five-on-five again. Canada Basketball and the Lynx have both sent her workout programs.

The WNBA is hopeful for a July 24 start — the same day the Tokyo Olympics were supposed to begin. Alexander likely would have been competing on a Canadian team looking for the country's first basketball medal since 1936.

Alexander says she wasn't aware of the International Olympic Committee's ban on protests in the field of play, but adds it would be smart to look into amending the rule.

"We have the opportunity to go out there and compete in a sport we enjoy but at the end of the day when we go back, we're not playing our sports," Alexander said. "We're still living in the world that is dealing with these issues so it's nothing that we can just escape from. 

"Not all of us have that privilege, unfortunately."

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