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Michael Jordan Just Spoke Out on Race. These WNBA Players Did Way More.

San Antonio Stars v New York LibertySan Antonio Stars v New York Liberty
Tina Charles #31 and Carolyn Swords #8 of the New York Liberty are seen before the game against the San Antonio Stars on July 10, 2016 at Madison Square Garden in New York, New York. Nathaniel S. Butler — NBAE/Getty Images

As we wake up to a horrifying story of yet another mass shooting, powerful people are weighing in on gun violence, the police and communities they serve.

This morning, Michael Jordan, the great NBA star and only black majority owner of a franchise, decided to speak out. In a statement shared with The Undefeated, Jordan decried the recent violence and made a contribution of $1 million each to two organizations dedicated to building relationships between the police and the communities they serve. It’s a very public moment for Jordan, who has been criticized over the years for a lack of involvement in social issues. The news immediately trended on Twitter.

But Michael Jordan is not the only power player to watch. For a quieter form of inspiration, let’s consider the Women’s National Basketball Association.

WNBA players had been risking fines, since reversed, for wearing black t-shirts that supported the Black Lives Matter movement and victims of recent shootings during their warm-ups. Two teams also coordinated a “media-blackout,” refusing to answer any post-game questions about basketball, and fielding questions about civil rights instead.

 

 

But the players of the WNBA don’t have a fraction of the income or star power that a long-retired Jordan has. In fact, a lot of ink has already been spilled on how risky these protests were for them and the future of their growing league, particularly since they rankled the off-duty police who provided security at the games. But there’s another way to look at this story, one with lessons for all of us. While the men of the NBA are the super stars, it’s the relatively unknown women of the WNBA who also manage to do some pretty amazing things in their “off hours.”

A couple of years ago, I attended a leadership conference put on by the NBA, specifically to help current and former players manage – or in some cases, repair – the transition to their post-basketball life. I wasn’t there on assignment, so I can’t quote anyone directly. (I was there to lead a session on how to do a 60-second elevator pitch, a fun story for another time.)

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But this I can say: The difference between the post-game lives of the men and women players was notable.

While some (not all) of the men were struggling with their careers, finances and families in some fairly familiar ways – some, many years out, were in tough shape – the women, by and large, were transitioning well. Why? They were prepared for life after the game because the game wasn’t their only life.

“It’s simple,” one recently retired marquis WNBA player told me. “I never expected to have a huge career in basketball because it doesn’t exist for women in the same way.” The outsized promises and expectations that male athletes live with from birth didn’t apply to the women.

Being a talented kid, having a great high school experience, and being recruited to play college ball was wonderful. Traveling the world playing professionally? Amazing. But she never expected to have the wealth or brand heft of a Michael Jordan, a Kobe Bryant or a LeBron James. “What I got was a great education I didn’t have to pay for. Playing pro ball was frosting.”

No, that’s not fair. But, having limits can free you up in interesting ways.

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Buried in all our networks are groups of people who were told or understood that the greatest successes of the world are reserved for someone else, a category of person they can never be. What they do with their “spare” time, is usually pretty telling.

The WNBA players I met got law, business and other degrees, poured their discipline into foundation work, or became champions for people just a few rungs below them. They took what they had earned, leveraged it, and paid it forward.

They also got each other.

In my experience, this is what talented “marginalized” people tend to do – take advantage of opportunities that let them wedge their way into systems not perfectly designed for them, and do really amazing stuff when nobody is looking.

And sometimes, when they are.

If that’s not a business case for diversity, I don’t know what is.

When she’s not writing about the world’s greatest rock star-leader, Ellen McGirt is busy working on Fortune’s raceAhead, a newsletter about race and culture.