August 30, 2020
Natalie Achonwa, new WNBPA treasurer, continues to advocate for social justice
The sixth-year veteran opens up about the WNBA's day of rest, decision to continue season
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Natalie Achonwa #11 of the Indiana Fever shoots theball against the Connecticut Sun on August 18, 2020 at Feld Entertainment Centerin Palmetto, Florida. Copyright 2020 NBAE (Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images)
On August 28, following the WNBA’s two-day hiatus from playing games — a respite the league established to focus on rest and reflection — Natalie Achonwa participated in a solemn yet emotional discussion with the media, answering questions about the league’s decision to continue playing the 2020 season after another instance of police brutality against black individuals.
“We talked about taking that break and taking that pause but the energy and the focus remained on why we came to the bubble,” Achonwa said. “That was to say her name, that was to demand justice and do the work on education and pushing the conversation that we wanted to. If we sat out the rest of the season, that would take away this platform. This would take away the microphone from us, take away the opportunity from us to do the work that we’ve been doing in our communities and across the country.”
As the newly-appointed treasurer of the WNBA Players’ Association, or the WNBPA, Achonwa has repeatedly used her personal platform to speak out against social injustice and other related issues.
On August 13, Achonwa dedicated her postgame availability to the topic of mental health, stressing that it deserves more attention in the context of professional sports. On August 25, Achonwa emotionally declined to answer basketball-related questions after learning that police officers shot Jacob Blake in the back seven times in Kenosha, Wisconsin.
Achonwa described the eventful 48-hour period proceeding her media availability, explaining how she left practice on Wednesday to numerous text messages about the NBA boycotts. The league and players’ committee then decided on a course of action for that night’s slate of games, a plan for the remainder of the season and how they could find time to express their position on SportsCenter.
For somebody that was serving in her first week on the WNBPA Executive Committee, Achonwa was immediately faced with making critical decisions for the future of the league.
“It’s like thrown in a fire. Sprinkle a little gasoline on, add a couple lighters to it, just the whole fire,” Achonwa said.
The players planned a vigil on Wednesday evening, during which numerous male coaches in the league described the positive impact that the players have had on their own families as strong, black, female role models. Layshia Clarendon of the New York Liberty subsequently read an excerpt from Maya Angelou’s poem, “Still I Rise.”
“It feels like sometimes you’re just running into a wall. Like you hit something, and it’s like ‘Ah “that door’s closed.’ And you’re like, ‘Is it closed because I’m a woman? Or is it closed because I’m black, or because I’m a black woman?’” Achonwa reflected. “Hearing every other line in ‘Still I Rise’ was a reminder that, keep going, that it’s worth it… that the work we’re doing is important.”
Though the sixth-year Fever center admitted that the uncertainty surrounding the timing of the past several days added an element of stress for the players, it’s nothing unlike other challenges they’ve endured as professional basketball players.
“A lot of my fight and courage comes from like, that moment of being that room and seeing everyone around me and really looking at people and remembering like, ‘she has her kid in this bubble, in the middle of a pandemic. She owns a business. Imani [McGee-Stafford]’s in Law School,’” said Achonwa. “We’re some dope-ass women. Yes, the schedule might be a little hectic but it’s like, ain’t nothing new. We just gotta do a little bit more, but it’s nothing new.”
Achonwa also took time on Friday to highlight her own as well as her team’s efforts to empower black women and inspire change. She recently launched a grant program in collaboration with the Madam Walker Legacy Center in Indianapolis, awarding four applicants with $2,500 apiece to start their own businesses and continue their entrepreneurial endeavors.
“As an issue of gaining capital for black women and women of color, I felt like by using this $10,000 award and giving it right back to the community and the women I represent, I think would be really powerful,” Achonwa said.
Achonwa also referenced two initiatives on behalf of her team. The Fever 4 Change program allows fans to bid on game-worn merchandise, such as Kennedy Burke’s sneakers, to raise money for a social justice cause to be collectively determined by the players. Indiana also launched the Rebound 4 Change campaign, for which fans can pledge a certain donation for every rebound the team pulls down during the 2020 season.
Before Saturday’s game against Dallas, Fever Coach Marianne Stanley applauded the franchise and players’ efforts to use their platforms to implement change.
“The world is seeing what a fantastic, not only athletically accomplished group exists here in the WNBA… but smart, passionate, engaged citizens who really care about not only their craft as professional basketball players but they care about their communities and their families,” said Stanley. “I think these players, in this moment, are demonstrating loudly and clearly and concretely just how much more they are beyond just being basketball players.”
Although Achonwa said that it’d be difficult to measure just how successful the league’s initiatives and statements of the past several days will prove, she’s already witnessed encouraging signs. She cited seeing her teammates smile and appear rested, as well as sharing their voter registration information, as small indicators of progress.
“You can never question that the WNBA is going to do the work,” Achonwa said. “Is it realistic to think that we’ll change in ten years or so? Not quite sure, but I know that I’ll do my part in any way that I can.”