Canada's Achonwa says regardless of election's outcome, the work is far from done

Lori Ewing
·6 min read

It's mornings like Wednesday that leave Natalie Achonwa exhausted.

The Canadian women's basketball player was just heading to bed in Schio, Italy, when polling reports of the U.S. presidential election started to roll in. She took a melatonin, went to bed and braced for whatever news the morning would bring.

No matter which way the election went, Achonwa knew there was more work to be done. The last 24 hours shed some light on just how much.

"I'm just thinking about my emotions in general today," Achonwa said Wednesday morning, the strain in her voice evident. "It's like a weird calming-moment-before-a-storm kind of vibe.

"I don't know how to explain it other than slight peace knowing that it's a breath for a second because the work for this election is done. The overall impact is never finished. But right now, the votes are in, you can't change it.

"So count them and that's the way it's going to go. So it's a pause, but a temporary 24-hour pause. Tomorrow, it goes back to: what's next?"

The 27-year-old from Guelph, Ont., wasn't eligible to vote, but she's been one of basketball's most active and vocal athletes around social justice issues in a sport full of strong voices. In July, Achonwa was presented with the WNBA's Dawn Staley Community Leadership Award.

The WNBA has been on the frontlines of athlete activism for years. Achonwa and the Fever knelt in protest during the pre-game playing of the U.S. anthem in 2016 in the wake of the shooting deaths of Black men by police.

Racial and social injustice messaging was a key theme of the NBA and WNBA seasons in their respective bubbles. "Vote" was one of the message choices NBA players were given to wear on their jerseys.

Depending on the results of a January run-off election, the WNBA could be largely responsible for taking down a U.S. senator - and one of its owners.

Atlanta Dream co-owner and Senator Kelly Loeffler of Georgia has criticized the Black Lives Matter movement and tabled legislation seen discriminatory against LGBTQ women, and so the players threw their support behind Democratic challenger Reverend Raphael Warnock.

Neither received the 50 per cent of the votes required for an outright win, forcing a run-off.

"I have slowly been educating myself more and more (about American politics), because I've lived my adult life in the U.S.," said Achonwa, who is playing for Schio in Italy's Serie A1 league during the WNBA's off-season. "But, yes, quite a crazy whirlwind."

Even President Donald Trump hinted at the strength of athletes' voices in this roller-coaster race when he fired verbal shots at the sport of basketball and Los Angeles Lakers star and activist LeBron James during a rally Monday in Pennsylvania.

"How about basketball? How about LeBron James?" Trump said. "When they don't respect our country, when they don't respect our flag, nobody wants to watch. Nobody."

The crowd erupted in chants of "LeBron James sucks!"

The Indiana Pacers and Fever were among teams in both leagues that opened up their arenas as polling stations. Fever GM Tamika Catchings volunteered during Tuesday's election.

The Raptors campaigned to urge Americans living north of the border to register for what head coach Nick Nurse called "the most consequential election of our lifetimes."

It's important to remember, Achonwa said, that the results stretch beyond who wins the presidential race.

"Something that the Players Association and I've been preaching from the beginning: the presidential election is only a piece of the puzzle," she said. "How the votes went down on the rest in the ballot are changes that you'll see more quickly. Because the mayors, the governors, the school district boards, those are the people that make in effect change that you'll see more quickly in your daily lives.

"Regardless of who wins the presidential race, it's not done. It's not like a "Hurrah, we've arrived!"

Achonwa said finding her voice evolved organically. The 6-3 centre credited her time playing at Notre Dame under Muffet McGraw in helping her be "strong in who I am."

"She is somebody who is passionate, somebody who is dedicated to helping others and somebody who is honest and blunt in who she is. And she never wavers," she said. "That gave me the confidence to use my platform, to use my voice, and to be bold in who I am.

"At the same time, growing up, something my dad always said to me is 'To whom much is given, much is required.' To know that because I put a ball in a hoop, I have some sort of influence and platform is crazy in a sense, but at the same time is a privilege and something that I do not take lightly. It would be a disservice to the blessings and opportunities that God has given me if I don't use them to help other people."

Being a role model for the next generation, she said, is a "big why" in what she does.

And while the WNBA has set a high bar with their level of activism, dedicating their season to Black Lives Matter, among other initiatives, the league still has a ways to go, Achonwa said.

"Keep demanding," she said. "Yes, the work is there. But then we look at front offices and head coaching positions, we don't have any people of colour, and yet we have a league made up of 80 per cent black women. It's not that the talent and the high level qualifications aren't there. It's just demanding that they're filled by people that look like me."

After the morning's unsettling election news, Achonwa looked forward to the rest of her day. She had a meeting scheduled to determine the four winners of her Madam Walker Legacy Center business grants. Achonwa received a US$10,000 grant via the Dawn Staley award to donate to a charity of her choice. She decided instead to award $2,500 to four start-up female entrepreneurs in Indiana.

"That's giving me some hope in a sense that . . . this can impact their lives, their family's lives and create a generational change. I wanted to make sure that it was helping women help themselves, give them an opportunity to build something of their own."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 4, 2020.

Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press