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WNBA Star Puts Career On Hold To Win Prisoner's Freedom

Lorie Shaull via Flickr (Creative Commons BY-SA 2.0)

The United States marked the anniversary of its independence Saturday, but Jonathan Irons got a three-day jump on celebrating his own liberty, a celebration that was more than two decades in coming.

That was the day that Irons set foot outside the Jefferson City Correctional Center, a penitentiary near the Missouri state capital for the first time in 22 years. 


Irons was released from the maximum-security prison after his 1998 conviction on burglary and assault charges and a subsequent 50-year sentence were vacated by a judge, who found the case against Irons to be "very weak and circumstantial at best."

Irons has repeatedly and steadfastly maintained his innocence to the point that he refused parole because he would have to admit to committing the crime. 

That the 40-year-old Irons didn’t become one of the many who languish in jail for crimes they apparently didn’t commit is in no small measure because of the efforts of Maya Moore.  

You are to be forgiven if you don’t know who Maya Moore is. She is, after all, a woman who plays basketball in the United States. That sentence alone carries three strikes. Wrong gender. Wrong sport. Wrong nation. 

In this country, you generally have to be a male athlete, like LeBron James or Colin Kaepernick, and play a high-profile sport to effect societal change. I didn’t make these rules. I just note them and am angered by them.

At any rate, Moore actually has some commonalities with both James and Kaepernick. Like James, Moore has a resume that places her among basketball immortals, except hers is better.

She has two NCAA championships, three collegiate National Player of the Year awards, four WNBA titles, a league Most Valuable Player trophy and two Olympic gold medals in her display case, all by the age of 31. 

If her career ended right now, she would certainly be enshrined in the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts the second she is eligible.

It’s in that phrase “If her career ended right now” where Moore’s similarities to Kaepernick come into play. Kaepernick’s career has effectively ground to a halt because of his activism, but that came by accident. 

Meanwhile, Moore is in the middle of a two-season sabbatical from playing for the Minnesota Lynx of the WNBA, as well as a far more lucrative overseas career.

Indeed, had this year’s Olympics not been postponed because of the pandemic, Moore would have passed up playing for another gold medal to advocate for Irons.

The two of them met 13 years ago just before Moore began her college career at Connecticut when she took a tour of the prison as a part of a ministry. 

Moore began to speak up for Irons specifically and the Black Lives Matter movement generally four years ago around the time Kaepernick began his protest. Her Minnesota team was among the first to take on the Black Lives Matter mantle, running afoul of Minneapolis police at the time, so this is already familiar territory.

It’s possible that we may never see Maya Moore play competitive basketball again. If so, she’ll leave having helped a man gain his freedom. And that is the biggest win of all.   

And that’s how I see it for this week. Thanks for listening and enjoy the games…whenever they return.




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Milton Kent hosted the weekly commentary Sports at Large from its creation in 2002 to its finale in July 2013. He has written about sports locally and nationally since 1988, covering the Baltimore Orioles, University of Maryland men's basketball, women's basketball and football, the Washington Wizards, the NBA, men's and women's college basketball and sports media for the Baltimore Sun and AOL Fanhouse. He has covered the World Series, the American and National League Championship Series, the NFL playoffs, the NBA Finals and 17 NCAA men's and women's Final Fours. He currently teaches journalism at Morgan State University.