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'We don't do it for the clout': Nneka Ogwumike is fighting for a better WNBA and a better world

WNBA player Nneka Ogwumike has embraced her role in the spotlight — not only as a player, but also as a leader.
Image: Illustrated portrait of Nneka Ogwumike.
Nneka Ogwumike.Richard Chance / for NBC News

Nneka Ogwumike is a vibe.

Her morning involves meditation and journaling. The sounds of Chloe x Halle fill her home as she cooks a veggie scramble with toast and fruit on the side. The calm energy moves through her body as she bends into downward dog during her daily yoga session.

The Los Angeles Sparks forward and WNBA champion said her morning routine has become a staple, especially after the year she had. She led negotiations for the WNBA’s newest collective bargaining agreement as president of the players association, stumped for the political campaigns that led to Georgia electing two Democratic members to the U.S. Senate, and, of course, averaged about 13 points and 5 rebounds per game this past season.

Ogwumike hasn’t always spearheaded issues. She initially stuck to more behind-the-scenes work because she “was worried about saying the wrong thing,” she said.

“I haven't always been this comfortable speaking about my personal thoughts and convictions,” she said. “But as time has gone on, I've realized that speaking up is way, way, way better than not saying anything.”

The eight-year agreement means pay increases for players, fully paid maternity leaves, more accommodating travel arrangements, such as comfort or economy plus airplane seating and individual hotel rooms, plus a potential 50-50 split of revenue between the league and the players.

Nneka Ogwumike #30 of the Los Angeles Sparks arrives prior to a game against the New York Liberty on Sept. 8, 2020 at Feld Entertainment Center in Palmetto, Fla.Ned Dishman / NBAE via Getty Images file

She was also at the forefront of the most recent season being dedicated to Breonna Taylor, and the Black Lives Matter movement. Throughout the season, players protested games, wore social justice themed shirts during pregame warmups, and worked with grassroots organizers on police accountability. She was also part of the effort among players to champion Raphael Warnock winning the U.S. Senate race against Kelly Loeffler, the incumbent Republican and co-owner of the Atlanta Dream WNBA team who had vocally opposed players’ activism.

Leading others can be taxing, but the six-time WNBA All-Star said she is consciously focusing on her mental health to keep herself balanced.

“After this past year, I have set some strict boundaries,” she said. She avoids scheduling anything work-related before 11 a.m. or after 5 p.m. because becoming more vocal and isolating at home during the pandemic have prompted her to clearly define time for work, family and friends and herself. She said she’s also approaching her work as an act of creative expression.

“I’m lowkey a creative,” the Stanford University alum said. “As an athlete, people don't look at us as creatives. But we are in our own way because we use our bodies to express ourselves.” She also loves to dive deep into art, particularly music (some favorites include Jazmine Sullivan, Ty Dolla $ign, Chloe x Halle and Burna Boy) and books (she reads several at a time).

Ogwumike, who’s made the All-Defensive team four times, said these outlets, plus her inner circle of family, friends and her Igbo Nigerian culture, keep her grounded.

WNBA players and women athletes more broadly have had to fight age-old stereotypes and gender expectations that tend to degrade their value and skills. Ogwumike, however, said she doesn’t have time for sexist arguments. WNBA players aren't playing to simply prove themselves to others: “We don’t do it for the clout," she said, but attitudes still need to change. That is what guides her activist work, and the work of several other players.

“What frustrates me is if the change doesn't happen for those who are coming after me,” she said. “A lot of what we've done in the past couple years as WNBA players has been directly related to changes that we may never experience. ... That's what legacy is. And that's what people talk about when you break up glass ceilings.”

Ogwumike said sitting in frustration is a trap because it prevents the work from getting done.

“It’ll keep us from making the change we want to see, which translates to us balling, us having platforms, us getting deals, us having partnerships and us having an influence in something as big as a Senate seat — and that was even before we knew what we were doing,” she said.

Nneka Ogwumike #30 of the Los Angeles Sparks plays defense against the Connecticut Sun on Aug. 28, 2020 at Feld Entertainment Center in Palmetto, Fla.Ned Dishman / NBAE via Getty Images file

Players were still learning about the issues, the candidates and the community’s needs when the challenge of figuring out how to respond to Loeffler opposing and limiting her team’s views surfaced, Ogwumike said.

Most of the tension between Loeffler and players on her team, the Atlanta Dream, is due to political differences. Loeffler disagreed with players’ absence on the court during the national anthem, and their support of the Black Lives Matter movement. And the players say her politics do not represent the league.

“We did it in the best way that we knew how,” Ogwumike said. “And that was by asking people who knew what they were doing and us just listening. That's what it takes, and us bringing our voice to the table where we felt it was needed.”

She ended up tweeting out a list of practical steps over the summer that teams, the league and supporters could make. The first action item was to buy out Loeffler’s 49 percent share of the Atlanta Dream, or the whole team, and buy “Vote Warnock” T-shirts. The Dream is currently in the process of securing a new owner.

All of this activism and its accomplishments have left many wondering what’s next. Ogwumike said it’s tone deaf to ask what the next big thing is because it’s been an ongoing fight for 400 years.

“That’s the issue,” she said. “What we’re experiencing now, especially as it pertains to Black, brown people and the lives of women, it always feels as though, ‘Oh, you know, there’s gonna be another movement. What’s gonna catch on?’ When in reality, this is the movement. This is what we do.”

“The thing that will be next is us being prepared, and us mobilizing and organizing,” she said. “And us asking people are you with us or not? Because we’ve been about this.”

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