Indiana Fever’s Natalie Achonwa, left, drives against the defence of Seattle Storm’s Alysha Clark during the first half of a WNBA basketball game on August 20, 2020, in Bradenton, Fla. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP, Mike Carlson

Indiana Fever’s Natalie Achonwa, left, drives against the defence of Seattle Storm’s Alysha Clark during the first half of a WNBA basketball game on August 20, 2020, in Bradenton, Fla. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP, Mike Carlson

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

Achonwa one of basketball’s most active and vocal athletes around social justice issues

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.


Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Asymptomatic testing will now be available for "priority groups" who are most likely to spread the COVID-19 virus to vulnerable or at-risk populations. File photo by THE CANADIAN PRESS
Marcus Golczyk, with Taco Monster, hands food to a customer during Food Truck Drive and Dash in the Westerner Park parking lot in Red Deer Friday afternoon. The drive-thru event will run every Thursday from 4-7 p.m. and Friday from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. through June. Photo by SEAN MCINTOSH/Advocate staff
Food Truck Fridays, Food Truck Drive and Dash return in Red Deer

Red Deerians are able to take in a drive-thru food truck experience… Continue reading

Don and Gloria Moore, of Red Deer, are set to celebrate their 70th anniversary later this month. (Contributed photo)
Red Deer couple to celebrate 70th anniversary

Red Deer couple Don and Gloria Moore are set to celebrate their… Continue reading

Chris Scott, owner of The Whistle Stop Cafe, was put in handcuffs after an anti-restriction protest Saturday in the parking lot of the business. (Screenshot via The Whistle Stop Facebook page)
UPDATE: Central Alberta cafe owner arrested after anti-restriction protest

The owner of a central Alberta cafe, which was the site of… Continue reading

Alberta has 1,910 active cases of COVID-19 as of Wednesday. Red Deer is reporting five active cases, with 108 recovered. (File photo)
Red Deer now has 911 active COVID-19 cases

Central zone has 2,917 active cases

FILE - A firefighter wears a mask as he drives his truck. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward, File
VIDEO: Flames rip through Edmonton-area seniors complex, but no fatalities

ST. ALBERT, Alta. — Fire has destroyed part of a retirement complex… Continue reading

Quebec Premier Francois Legault chairs a premiers virtual news conference as premiers John Horgan, B.C., Jason Kenney, Alberta, and Scott Moe, Saskatchewan, are seen onscreen, Thursday, March 4, 2021 in Montreal. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz
Several provinces bring in new restrictions as high COVID-19 case numbers persist

Several provinces are gearing up to tighten public health measures once again… Continue reading

Members of the RCAF take part in a Royal Canadian Air Force change of command ceremony in Ottawa on Friday, May 4, 2018. The Royal Canadian Air Force is hoping Canada will open its doors to military pilots from other countries as it seeks to address a longstanding shortage of experienced aviators. THE CANADIAN PRESS/ Patrick Doyle
RCAF turns to foreign pilots to help with shortage as commercial aviators stay away

OTTAWA — The Royal Canadian Air Force is hoping Canada will open… Continue reading

An arrivals and departures information screen is seen at the Halifax Stanfield International Airport in Halifax on Thursday, Jan. 4, 2018. The chief executive of Atlantic Canada's largest airport is hoping for COVID-19 testing for arriving passengers "sooner rather than later," as an added measure to combat the province's third wave of the virus. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan
Halifax airport CEO hopes for more on-site COVID testing ‘sooner rather than later’

HALIFAX — The chief executive of Atlantic Canada’s largest airport is hoping… Continue reading

Shoppers wear mask as they shop at a nursery & garden shop on Mother's Day weekend during COVID-19 pandemic in Wilmette, Ill., Saturday, May 8, 2021. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)
Tearful reunions mark second Mother’s Day under pandemic

Last Mother’s Day, they celebrated with bacon and eggs over FaceTime. This… Continue reading

Arizona Coyotes head coach Rick Tocchet, standing, watches the game during the second period of an NHL hockey game Wednesday, April 14, 2021, in St. Paul, Minn. The Wild won 5-2. (AP Photo/Craig Lassig)
Tocchet won’t return as coach of Coyotes after 4 seasons

GLENDALE, Ariz. — The Arizona Coyotes and coach Rick Tocchet have mutually… Continue reading

Columbus Blue Jackets head coach John Tortorella shouts at an official after a fight between Columbus Blue Jackets' s Gavin Bayreuther and Florida Panthers' Sam Bennett during the second period of an NHL hockey game, Monday, April 19, 2021, in Sunrise, Fla. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)
Tortorella out after 6 years as Columbus Blue Jackets coach

COLUMBUS, Ohio — John Tortorella is out as coach of the Columbus… Continue reading

A caribou grazes on Baffin Island in a 2008 file photo. A last-ditch attempt to save some of Canada's vanishing caribou herds is a step closer after a scientific review panel's approval of a plan to permanently pen some animals and breed them to repopulate other herds. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Kike Calvo via AP Images
Parks Canada captive caribou breeding proposal gets OK from scientific review panel

JASPER, Alta. — A last-ditch attempt to save some of Canada’s vanishing… Continue reading

The smouldering remains of houses in Slave Lake, Alta., are seen in a May 16, 2011, file photo. The wildfire that is devastating large swaths of the northern Alberta city of Fort McMurray comes just five years after another blaze destroyed 400 buildings and left 2,000 people homeless in Slave Lake, Alberta. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ian Jackson
Ten years later: Five things to know about the Slave Lake wildfire

A wildfire burned about one-third of Slave Lake in northern Alberta in… Continue reading

Most Read