Maya Moore willingly gave up her WNBA career before the age of 30.
Yes, in the middle of her prime. The year was 2018.
To confront a criminal justice system that at any split second could ensnare her, or any other Black soul.
Her purpose was greater than basketball, so she walked away from the game to devote her time to a man behind bars. A man named Jonathan Irons.
Twenty-two years ago, Irons, then just 16, was tried as an adult for burglary and assault with a weapon.
The state had zero physical evidence: no witnesses, no fingerprints, no DNA. The murder weapon was never found. The state’s case hinged on information provided by a detective who interviewed Irons and claimed he’d admitted to the crimes. The detective was never even cross-examined at the trial because he was ill. He has since died.
Irons has firmly denied making any such admission, and has maintained his innocence all these years.
Despite the lack of physical evidence, an all-white jury sentenced Irons to 50 years in prison.
The year was 1998.
It was two decades later when Moore decided to leave the WNBA and the Minnesota Lynx to aid in the release of Irons, and this week, her efforts were rewarded.
On Wednesday, Jonathan Irons walked out of Jefferson City Correctional Center. Moore had pushed for Irons’ release with the same potency she brought to the court, and finished just as sublimely.
“In that moment, I really felt like I could rest,” Moore said Thursday on Good Morning America, discussing Irons’ release from prison. “I’d been standing, and we’d been standing, for so long, and it was an unplanned moment where I just felt relief. It was kind of a worshipful moment, just dropping to my knees and just being so thankful that we made it.”
Moore first became aware of Irons’ case back when she was a promising incoming freshman at the University of Connecticut.
According to The New York Times, Moore, of Jefferson City, Missouri, visited the Jefferson City Correctional Center just before her first year at UConn, observing her godfather, Reggie Williams, review legal documents pertaining to Irons’ case.
Now Irons, 40, is a free man.
“I want to rest, and get my legs up under me and be able to stand,” Irons said on Good Morning America. “There’s a lot to adjust to out here, and I’m gonna take it slow.
“And I’m surrounded by people I know who love me and have my best interests in mind, and so I’m gonna listen to them, study and learn all I can. And when I get the time and the opportunity and the resources and the provision, I want to be able to reach back and help other people. I want to advocate for people who are less fortunate. I want to help people with their cases. I want to speak to positive change and be a part of the rebuilding process from where we’re at right now, because there’s so much greater coming on the horizon, and I see it — even in the darkness, I was able to see it — and I know we’re going. We shouldn’t give up; we should keep going.”
Judge Daniel Green accepted Irons’ petition in March citing problems with the way the case was investigated and tried — pointing to a fingerprint report that would’ve shown Irons’ innocence. The burglary and assault conviction was vacated prompting his release from the Jefferson City maximum-security prison.
Sadly, Irons’ case is a mirror of how our criminal justice system operates. Not only does it penalize you for being Black but it victimizes you because you’re poor. And that’s not to mention that 47 percent of children tried as adults are Black, despite making up just 14 percent of the youth population.
And while Colin Kaepernick’s legacy and contributions to social justice are admirable, I see what Moore did as extending the baton over the finish line. Both have their own lane in this fight, but what Moore did was the single-most selfless decision by an athlete of her stature I’ve seen. Kaepernick had his career stripped from him while Moore laid hers down.
Like Kaepernick, it’s time Moore’s sacrifices get the acknowledgement they deserve.