If my name were different, my career might be different.
There’s a barrier to its pronunciation. Most people don’t even try to say it or ask me how. When people do try, I get anxious correcting their pronunciation. For me, as a professional basketball player in the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA), announcers, coaches, analysts, and fans have to say my name quite a bit—but I think they avoid it when they can. Sometimes it feels like announcers replace my highlights with those of another player, simply because their name is easier to pronounce.
It may seem like a small inconvenience, but it’s the little questions that don’t get asked that matter.
My name is Nnemkadi Ogwumike. This is how my name is pronounced:
There are stigmas about athletes—they practice, they play, and they don’t do much else. But my WNBA career has been quite a bit more than basketball.
What keeps me motivated every day is understanding I haven’t figured everything out yet and knowing there’s always more to learn. That’s why, when I was offered the opportunity to spend a few months working with Deloitte’s Black Action Council, I jumped at the opportunity. I wanted to do this internship so I could learn from leaders who are focusing on their Black colleagues. But I also have something to bring to the table. There are stigmas about athletes: They practice, they play, and they don’t do much else. But my WNBA career has been quite a bit more than basketball.
I’m president of the Women’s National Basketball Players Association (WNBPA) and have been since 2016, representing our entire organization of women, most of whom are minorities and most of whom have college degrees, which is something quite unique for a professional sports league.
As president of the WNBPA, I do a lot more than train. I’m constantly looking at the business side of things. I even played a large role in negotiating a collective bargaining agreement, which included increases to player compensation, benefits, and other quality-of-life elements.
People think there are big differences between sports organizations and a firm like Deloitte. But I think there are a lot of similarities that can help us all do our jobs better—and that starts with caring about every employee. Being part of an all-women organization means that we are constantly thinking about the importance of empowering women, especially Black women, and breaking down the racist and sexist stereotypes that can go along with being a woman in sports.
For example, throughout my life, coaches have differentiated between what White and Black players can offer. They say that White players are good shooters and Black players are more athletic. There are times I’ve wanted to say things in response to this, but haven’t, because you don’t want your position on the team jeopardized. In general, I try to be as diplomatic as I can. But when it comes to social justice, I was instrumental in making sure the WNBA didn’t stay quiet.
After COVID-19 hit, the WNBA, along with every other sports league, had to make many tough decisions. Are we going to play? Is it worth it? If we want to play, how can we do it safely? And on top of that, how are we going to take a stand with the Black Lives Matter and the Say Her Name movements?
It fell on me as the president to lead this campaign. In my opinion, leading doesn’t look like one thing, and it isn’t done by one person. Leadership is about creating followership. And this group of people must, first and foremost, be willing to listen and create a space for everyone to contribute and feel empowered to speak up—especially if that means having tough conversations.
I learned this firsthand in dealing with the impacts of COVID-19 in conjunction with Black Lives Matter. It was my biggest test and led to one of my proudest accomplishments.
Last spring, after much discussion, we decided to play the 2020 season in a bubble dedicated to social justice. And after hearing disparaging comments from a team owner that directly contradicted our goals, we wanted to respond tactfully and meaningfully. Ultimately, we aligned with voting initiatives we’d already begun toward the task of empowering our voices for ourselves, fans, and communities in ways that impacted us and many on a level much broader than we had expected.
The WNBPA created the opportunity for any players interested to contribute to supporting Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff on their own. And, as expected, many of our women stepped up. We had intimate conversations with the honorable Stacey Abrams, Professor Kimberlé Crenshaw, and the now Senator Warnock to educate ourselves on the Senate race and find out what we could do.
We were able to find a way to amplify the importance of voting and wore shirts in support of Warnock, in a sense giving us all a real-life course on government. Knowing we had a hand in that is remarkable. It was a reminder that we all have platforms to make a difference.
Our emphasis on social justice in the WNBA and the use of our platforms can undoubtedly be applied to other organizations. But for organizations to do that effectively, they can’t assume all of their employees believe the same things. Having tough conversations and giving people safe spaces to express their viewpoints can teach leaders what their people really want their company to take a stand on. Then the platforms can be used to support the firm’s true values so they can lead by example, like we did in the WNBA this past year. That’s how authentic, real change is made.
You can’t say a company is supporting Black Lives Matter when they’re not supporting the Black individuals who work for them. That’s why I love getting to be a part of the Black Action Council at Deloitte, where there’s a strong commitment toward better supporting and listening to our colleagues.
For me, remaining passive is not an option. Fighting for justice must be my way of life. As a Black individual, you can make a difference, and you can lead by example. That holds true for individuals of all races. But you have to come together and hold yourself and each other accountable to drive the change we want to see.
Photos by Deun Ivory
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