As the new WNBA season begins, several players have chosen to sit the season out either due to COVID-19 or to pursue social justice reform. But, with the decision not to play comes the loss of a season's salary.
NBA superstar Kyrie Irving has decided to step up for these players by committing $1.5 million to ease their financial burdens. The Brooklyn Nets guard launched the KAI Empowerment Initiative on Monday to disburse the funds, Sports Illustrated reported.
According to a statement on the KAI Empowerment Initiative website, the program is designed to provide financial support for WNBA players "who are active but will not play in the 2020 WNBA season due to personal, professional, health, and/or safety-related reasons."
"The KAI Empowerment Initiative is fully funded by Kyrie Irving who has committed $1.5 million to these efforts. In addition, the program will give all WNBA players access to a comprehensive financial literacy program provided by UBS," the website states.
WNBA players Natasha Cloud and Renee Montgomery are among the athletes who have opted to focus on social justice reform instead of playing this season. According to NBC Sports, some other players who chose to skip the season for health or social justice reasons are Rebecca Allen and Asia Durr of the New York Liberty, Kristi Toliver and Chiney Ogwumike of the Los Angeles Sparks, Jessica Breland of the Phoenix Mercury, Tiffany Hayes of the Atlanta Dream and Liz Cambage of the Las Vegas Aces.
The players have to meet the requirements of Irving's program to receive funds. The initiative asks players to clearly explain their reason for sitting out. Athletes who opt to skip games for medical reasons must prove that their concern is related to the pandemic.
"Whether a person decided to fight for social justice, play basketball, focus on physical or mental health, or simply connect with their families, this initiative can hopefully support their priorities and decisions," Irving said in a statement.
The All-Star guard recently expressed his own concerns about playing basketball amid a pandemic. According to NBA insider Chris Haynes, Irving held a conference call with other NBA players and said he is against going to Orlando, where the league will host the rest of the season.
Yahoo Sources: The conference call led by Kyrie Irving lasted an hour and forty minutes. The Nets star let it be known he was against going to Orlando, but said he would ultimately stand with the group if they decided to play.
— Chris Haynes (@ChrisBHaynes) June 13, 2020
The NBA champion would prefer to focus on social justice reform at a time when Black people are especially concerned about ongoing cases of police brutality.
“I’m willing to give up everything I have (for social reform)," Irving said, according to NBA reporter Shams Charania.
Kyrie Irving on players call Friday, per sources: “I’m willing to give up everything I have (for social reform)."
— Shams Charania (@ShamsCharania) June 13, 2020
The Nets guard has been forced to sit out anyway because he is recovering from shoulder surgery, ESPN reported.
The WNBA players collectively came into the season with a focus on social justice reform.
A Saturday game between New York Liberty and Seattle Storm was demonstrative of the athletes' commitment. Players for both teams, who wore Breonna Taylor's name on the back of their jerseys, left the court before the singing of the national anthem and stayed in their locker rooms during the traditional American festivity.
Correction: Players left the court before the national anthem was played, not during. https://t.co/MdW7HtMO1P
— ESPN (@espn) July 26, 2020
“We are dedicating this season to Breonna Taylor, an outstanding EMT who was murdered over 130 days ago in her home. Breonna Taylor was dedicated and committed to uplifting everyone around her” Liberty point guard Layshia Clarendon said in a pregame statement, reports Sports Illustrated.
There was also a 26-second moment of silence before the game in honor of Taylor, who was shot and killed by police at the age of 26.
“We are also dedicating this season to ‘Say Her Name’ campaign, a campaign committed to saying the names and fighting for justice of Black women. Black women are so often forgotten in this fight for justice, who don’t have people marching in the streets for them," Clarendon said. "We will say her name."
"We will say her name."
— ESPN (@espn) July 25, 2020
Irving recently announced another initiative for Taylor. The basketball star said he is partnering with journalist Jemele Hill and musician Common to launch a special production on the PlayersTV, a network that features sports, lifestyle and entertainment content.
The production, #SAYHERNAME: BREONNA TAYLOR, is a one-hour special which will focus on the story of the 26-year-old EMS worker and other Black women who have been endured police brutality.
"I stand for Breonna Taylor, Sandra Bland, and the countless women whose names are never said but have shared the same unfortunate fate," Irving stated. "I will continue to champion those who are working to enact change for and to empower Black, Native, Indigenous, Hispanic, and women of color. I am equally committed to creating platforms like the #SAYHERNAME: Breonna Taylor special, that provides support, solutions, and sustainable impact.”
The All-Star said he committed to his outreach for WNBA players after speaking with players who explained the financial impact of sitting out. The top annual salary in the WNBA is about $200,000, Sports Illustrated reported. Players who want to be eligible for Irving's program must apply by August 11.
WNBA champion Maya Moore notably sat out two seasons to fight for criminal justice reform, and her sacrifice paid off. Moore and other advocates had been fighting to free Jonathan Irons, asserting he was wrongfully imprisoned when an all-white jury convicted him for a 1997 burglary and nonfatal shooting.
With the basketball star leading the charge, Cole County Judge Dan Green overturned the conviction of Irons on March 9, as Blavity previously reported.