Sports Illustrated and Empower Onyx are putting the spotlight on the diverse journeys of Black women across sports—from the veteran athletes, to up-and-coming stars, coaches, executives and more—in the series, Elle-evate: 100 Influential Black Women in Sports.
It seems like there’s nothing Los Angeles Sparks star Nneka Ogwumike can’t do.
The 29-year-old owns a long list of accolades that includes a WNBA championship and MVP award, Rookie of the Year honor, six All-Star appearances, three Kim Perrot Sportsmanship Awards and more, including a recent honor in this year’s W25, which celebrated the 25 most dominant, skilled and entertaining players in league history. In 2020, Ogwumike became the first Black woman to ever host a national ESPN radio show, adding to her titles of executive producer and Stanford University graduate.
Still, she’s made her biggest impact off the court, most notably as president of the Women’s National Basketball Players Association (WNBPA). In her second three-year term in the position, Ogwumike negotiated the game-changing new collective bargaining agreement with the WNBA in 2019, and most recently, she was the driving force behind a new arrangement that will give players free access to fertility testing services.
In addition to securing reimbursements for adoption, fertility treatments and surrogacy, the historic CBA included maternity leave with full salary and a dedicated space for breastfeeding in the arena. And Ogwumike’s recent partnership with Modern Fertility, a part of the digital health company, Ro, will provide at-home hormone tests, so that players can better plan for their reproductive health and futures.
“Everybody came from a woman. We’re not here without women,” Ogwumike told USA Today Sports’ Changing the Game podcast in June 2020. “Negotiating this last CBA, it occurred to me: there is so much these moms do not have. With the responsibilities that women have, to be mothers and to be working, we have to create resources to empower women in all of their roles. Because we serve so many different roles in this world.”
Ogwumike’s continued advocacy for mental health resources and maternal health equity for Black women, who make up 67% of the league, only doubles down on her influence.
The glaring maternal health disparities for Black women in the U.S., especially in childbirth, are nothing new. According to a recent review by the American Journal of Managed Care, overall pregnancy-related mortality in the U.S. occurs at an average rate of 17.2 deaths per 100,000 live births. For non-Hispanic Black women, that number jumps to 43.5 deaths per 100,000 births. But an intentional lens on the health equity and life expectancy of Black women in recent years has encouraged powerful figures—like Serena Williams, Gabrielle Union and Beyoncé—to speak up and share their own harrowing experiences with pregnancy, childbirth and related life-threatening complications.
“Racism affects so many things before the patient even gets to the clinical encounter,” Dr. Allison Bryant Mantha, vice chair of quality, equity and safety in the obstetrics and gynecology department of Massachusetts General Hospital, told Health.org in 2019. “Both implicit bias and structural racism affect how women are cared for in the health-care system. The cards are stacked against them once they enter that system.”
And now, Ogwumike is doing everything in her power to make sure the women in the league—including her younger sisters, Chiney, the WNBPA vice president, and Erica, who also plays on the Sparks—stand a fighting chance.
Throughout the tough CBA negotiations, which lasted almost four years, the former Stanford All-American learned a lot about herself, her peers and her hopes for the equitable future of Black women in sports.
“As we celebrate the Black women that are magical, we still hurt for the women who have been denied opportunities,” she says. “I think that this time highlights that throughout various circumstances, there is little room for error for Black women. That is what pushes us to be great.”
Naya Samuel is a contributor for Empower Onyx, a diverse multichannel platform celebrating the stories and transformative power of sports for Black women and girls.
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