Basketball star turned criminal justice reform activist Maya Moore and her husband, Jonathan Irons, announced the birth of their first child on Tuesday. Considering Moore is one of the greatest basketball players to ever grace the game—she won four WNBA championships with the Minnesota Lynx and was awarded league MVP in 2014—the birth of her first child would be enough to warrant a rave little blog post on its own. But the couple’s journey to parenthood is far more meandering and politically fraught than the average nuclear family’s progression towards a bundle of joy. The existence of this baby is a miracle—a triumph over a criminal justice system that slants toward the vengeance of white folks at the expense of innocent Black men, a rare happy ending, and a long-overdue, stolen sense of normalcy.
Moore and Irons revealed this week on Good Morning America that they had welcomed their first child, a son named Jonathan Hughston Irons Jr., in February. After marrying in 2020, the couple’s budding family is the sort of comfort every American family should have access to pursue if they so choose. But just two years ago, Irons was behind bars serving a 50-year-sentence for a crime that a misguided, all-white jury agreed he had committed when he was a teenager. If not for Moore, Irons might still be locked up in a maximum-security prison for a crime he did not commit, ineligible for parole until he turned 60 years old.
Moore first met Irons in 2007 while visiting her godparents back home in Missouri, according to the New York Times. Her great-uncle had met Irons prior to his 1998 conviction and later introduced Irons to Moore’s extended family as a case worth fighting for. At just 16 years old, Irons was tried and convicted as an adult—part of the larger adultification of Black kids predicated on racial biases—for the burglary and shooting at the home of a 38-year-old white man named Stanley Stotler. Stotler later identified Irons as the perpetrator, and the jury gobbled up the wobbly prosecution. Throughout his 23 years in prison, Irons maintained his innocence, even refusing to consider parole if it meant admitting to a crime he didn’t commit. Moore was 18 years old when she visited Irons in prison, one year before she’d begin her dominant reign at the University of Connecticut.
In February of 2019, Moore made an announcement that stunned the sporting world: She was leaving the WNBA at the height of her career to invest time in “some ministry dreams that have been stirring in my heart for many years.” Those ministry dreams, it turned out, included liberating Irons. Moore lent the weight of her stardom and the activism inherent in a women’s sporting league to absolving Irons, as she helped hire reputable, Missouri-based defense attorney Kent Gipson. In 2020, after dedicating her full-time efforts and energy to Irons’ case, a judge overturned the conviction citing “very weak and circumstantial at best” evidence, and a Brady violation in which the prosecution failed to turn over a fingerprint report that would have proved Irons was innocent.
It is no mistake that this sort of martyrdom erupted from the realm of the WNBA, where women athletes have been fighting for equal pay and equal rights since the league’s inception. While still playing for the Lynx in 2016, Moore began protesting for city governments to defund the police, according to the Times, and advocating for changes in the structures of both law enforcement and the legal system at large. After police shot Michael Brown in Ferguson, Moore spearheaded one of the first athlete-led Black Lives Matter protests.
“When I stepped away two springs ago, I just really wanted to shift my priorities to be able to be more available and present to show up for things that I felt were mattering more than being a professional athlete,” Moore told Good Morning America of her activism. She later urged voters to “elect justice” ahead of the 2020 election, explaining in a series of videos the significance of electing district attorneys motivated by racial justice, and cited studies demonstrating that the US imprisons more people than any other country on the planet, who, of course, are disproportionately Black and brown people.
According to the NAACP, a Black person is five times more likely to be stopped without just cause than a white person, and a Black man is twice as likely to be stopped without just cause than a Black woman. White people make up 60 percent of the U.S. population, but make up just 41 percent of fatal police shootings, while Black people, who make up 13.4 percent of the population, comprise 22 percent of fatal police shootings. More than one in four Black men compared to one in 23 white men will enter prison at least once, according to a Bureau of Justice report. And Black Americans are incarcerated in state prisons at nearly five times the rate of white Americans, according to a 2021 report by the Sentencing Project.
Moore is someone who’s been doing this work, fighting against the prison industrial complex, for decades. But that fight isn’t over. Together, Moore and Irons deserve a life unfettered by fear that their child could get locked up or shot simply for existing as a Black person in this country. And while this isn’t a story of justice—Irons may have been freed, but he will never get back the 23 years he spent in prison—for at least one couple, this is a story about Black joy and long-awaited rest.