Chiney Ogwumike talks WNBA activism, her ESPN broadcasting career and educating voters

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Chiney Ogwumike prepares to co-host the "Certified Buckets" podcast for Uninterrupted in Los Angeles on March 9, 2020. - Jason Armond/Los Angeles Times/TNS

Chiney Ogwumike had her opportunities. When the Los Angeles Sparks center and No. 1 pick in the 2014 WNBA draft decided to take a break, she knew exactly what she wanted to do.

Priority No. 1: Let her body recover. Ogwumike suffered two major injuries — one to her right knee in 2015, another to her Achilles in 2017 — and felt that she had never made a full recovery. That was why she decided to opt out of the WNBA’s 2020 season in the Bradenton, Fla., bubble.

Priority No. 2 was to continue to use her platform to fight for social justice, and in her mind, there was no platform greater than the one she has now as a broadcaster at ESPN.

Ogwumike did not play this season, but as players wore social justice messages on the backs of their jerseys, knelt during the national anthem and used their press conference time to bring awareness to the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others, the WNBA star stood in solidarity with her peers from afar.

The Daily News recently caught up with Ogwumike as she was promoting a voting education campaign sponsored by Crown Royal.

(This interview has been edited for length and clarity)

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— Daily News: You weren’t in the bubble, but you’ve spoken out on social issues before. What was it like for you on the outside watching how WNBA players took a stand?

— Chiney Ogwumike: Yeah, it is a privilege and it is a responsibility for us to use our platforms to help our communities. And so it was a decision that the WNBA in particular — we are not new to this, we are true to this, right? You are ready in the moment when called upon to come together and just show solidarity, to show that women especially are capable of mobilizing and activating, and also educating and empowering. So it was a tremendous moment, and I do think it’s been difficult to know that people do not expect athletes to speak up in this way, but when you look at the W in particular, I’m proud to say that most of us were elite, educated women. I would say over 90% of us most likely have our college degrees, because the way you enter the WNBA, you have to get to your junior year of college to enter the W so most people end up sticking around for their senior year getting the degree and then going pro.

And so we have a lot of women that are engaged not only with our communities. We understand the grassroots. We understand the importance of uplifting and amplifying women in particular, and diversity and inclusion. So when it came to doing something, you have probably one of the most passionate groups out there that have a platform through basketball to make some changes. And so there’s no surprise that this is what we’ve been doing, and this is what we have done. Even though it was probably one of the hardest things we had to do while doing this and internalizing all the emotions of last year.

— DN: What’s it like seeing the support for the WNBA rise over the past few years? There was a time where it felt like there was no support at all.

— CO: I think that we are at the point where we have to protect people that are doing things in a positive way, doing things to the best of our ability and not let society diminish the great work of others. We’re past the point of having to criticize things just because we should be on the other end of the spectrum: uplifting, empowering, educating. So I believe that people are starting to realize the true value of it. The coolest thing is that we got started at the beginning of the year when we ratified our bargaining agreement where there was a lot of momentum, people started seeing the WNBA finally for what it actually is: a league full of educated, awesome women that also are the best in the world. It’s one of the most competitive jobs, and so seeing that we are not just defined by our statistics in the box score, we are representations of our community. There are so many ways for us to show that passion or that love in different ways. So it’s been great. We’ve known all along that we are dope and cool, right? But now this leads to society fighting alongside us, to support us, to get that investment and also to get brands like Crown Royal to amplify our voices and to show that we are capable of leading the charge in ways that people don’t expect. It’s been really cool to be a part of that process.

— DN: Why broadcasting? Why not management or coaching?

— CO: Really great question. I’ve had opportunities to go into management actually. And I’ve had opportunities to continue playing overseas while playing in the WNBA. But I’ve started to fall in love with broadcasting because it was not necessarily a space that was built for me. But it’s a space that I found that presents tremendous opportunity to build with it. I’m female, Black, African, diverse — finding a place where my perspective can matter and also create other opportunities for other people that look like me? That has been it for me.

I would just say big picture, I had two major injuries that sort of changed the trajectory of how you play basketball. Women’s basketball players play overseas and in the WNBA constantly. I played in Italy, and I played in China. And so I got injured twice while playing overseas, major injuries, and I realized really we’re not built for playing 24/7. So I started feeling the idea that this platform can be taken away with injury. So I started saying yes to a lot of opportunities and just worked my tail off within those opportunities: working with Uninterrupted, calling women’s basketball games for ESPN, getting in studio with ESPN for a variety of college basketball games, NBA games, guest hosting for “His and Hers.”

And so saying yes, largely because I was based in Connecticut, because I was playing for the Connecticut Sun while I was rehabbing. But then now in my backyard is ESPN, which is anchored in Connecticut — pun intended. So understanding that being young and diverse is a perspective that is needed, and hopefully people will see my authentic self, be excited for my passion for the game and also see a different perspective. It’s been really cool. So my path is more so been about showing that young people are capable and more diverse. Our passion is there and that our voices matter in this next rising generation and trying to make sure that I can share the mic with so many people like me, that has been super rewarding.

— DN: Why partner with Crown Royal for its “DECODE IT” campaign to try and educate voters on what it is they are voting for in their communities?

— CO: Just be able to educate myself as to what some of the language is, and decode some of the language so that we can understand a part of the process and we can be better, more engaged citizens, and participate, because our voices matter. Now more than ever, this gave me an opportunity to do that. Do that for my community, do that for the representation that is needed right now.

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