At 6'3", Los Angeles Sparks power forward Chiney Ogwumike is hard to miss. And yet, somehow, her name probably wouldn't come up in a conversation of the best basketball players in the game. Which is crazy when you think about it: At Stanford University, Ogwumike was the top scorer—female or male—in the history of the West Coast's collegiate athletic division Pac-12. She was the WNBA’s number one draft pick in 2014. She's a two-time WNBA All-Star. “If you put my credentials on a man, you would know and you would care,” Ogwumike says. “But people don’t even know how to say my name.”
Women in sports have always been overlooked and underestimated; Ogwumike has been quietly working to change that by building a media career on the side of her full-time job as a professional athlete. Broadcast media—and especially sports media—wasn’t exactly built for women who look like Ogwumike, but she has built a steady track record as an ESPN cohost and analyst for the past five years. She’s become the first Black woman to host a national radio show on the network, and last month she launched a podcast with basketball legend Lisa Leslie. Deliberately, strategically, she’s been doing the work to learn the industry and define her voice.
So this summer, when protests over systemic racism broke out across the country and every news network suddenly wanted to talk about how athletes—especially players in the WNBA and NBA—were leading the charge as activists, Ogwumike was ready.
“I had agreed to go on [ESPN show Get Up!] to talk about the NBA schedule just as the George Floyd news was breaking” the Nigerian-American athlete says. “And it really messed me up. Like, here I am, ESPN is asking me to go on to talk about NBA schedules. Meanwhile, as a Black woman, I am very in tune to what I represent. There's no way I was going to go on TV and just talk about something that didn’t really matter, like scores.”
“If I don’t show up to work, then that’s letting someone else win.”
For two days Ogwumike gathered her thoughts. “I was sad, I was angry, I was frustrated,” she says. She sat with those feelings. And then she agreed to go on TV: “I was given the task by certain shows to explain Black Lives Matter. I was given the task to explain, on national television, why athletes are choosing to go into protest, to turn activism into action. I was put in a position by the company who trusted my voice and also trusted my representation. And I finally trusted myself.”
After her ESPN appearance, the media requests started pouring in. Ogwumike appeared on Good Morning America, Morning Joe, and CNN’s New Day. She spoke about Black Lives Matter, rebuked Fox News host Laura Ingraham’s “shut up and dribble” comments, and talked about her involvement with LeBron James’s More Than a Vote. “LeBron and his team were like, ‘Whoa. She really is someone whose voice we can amplify,’” Ogwumike says. “‘And not just her voice, but what she represents: Black women.’”
Given how little female professional athletes are paid, having a side hustle is common—necessary, even. But Ogwumike never thought hers would be a media career (though she says her parents aren’t surprised: “My parents will laugh. They’re like, ‘Chiney, ever since you were a baby, we can never shut you up’”). “As an athlete, I sort of grew up with the mindset that you have to fit in a box,” she says. “That you are the summation of your statistics—not a person that has opinions or a voice.”
Many WNBA players sign contracts to play overseas, where playing opportunities are more lucrative, during the off-season. But the nonstop schedule takes a serious mental and physical toll. Ogwumike got two potentially career-ending injuries, one to her right knee and one to her left Achilles, while playing in Italy and in China. “I quickly realized that I may not be a fit for the 24/7 basketball-is-life type of thing. So I was like, Well, if I don’t have the opportunity to go overseas, I need to find a way to create my own opportunities here,” she says.
While recovering from knee surgery in 2015, Ogwumike was living at home with her parents, bored, worried, and “literally relearning how to take steps.” Basketball wasn’t forever, she realized.
Earlier that year she’d dipped a toe into the world of broadcast media with two appearances on ESPN. This, she realized, was a way to have a voice when she wasn’t on the court. That fall during her recovery, the collegiate conference she played for while at Stanford, asked Ogwumike to do some media for the Pac-12 Tournament. “The first appearance they had me lined up to do was interviewing mascots—which, you know, mascots don’t talk,” she says wryly. “I was like, Either I’m going to say, ‘What am I doing?’ Or I’m just going to have fun with it and be myself.”
She did the latter. Interviewing mascots turned into a nine-game slate calling women’s college basketball games, which turned into analyzing NBA games on air for ESPN, which turned into a gig cohosting SportsCenter in Africa, which turned into cohosting an ESPN radio show (Chiney and Golick Jr.) and a podcast on women in sports (Front and Center With Lisa and Chiney). Hit by hit, Ogwumike built a rare platform for a 28-year-old Black woman to have a respected voice on women, sports, and politics.
All that time, she maintained her status as one of the top WNBA players in the league, first for the Connecticut Suns and now for the Sparks, and serves as the vice president of the WNBA Players’ Association, playing a pivotal role in negotiating the players’ recent historic contract.
Ogwumike tells this as though she’s lucky, as if all these opportunities fell into her lap. She’s humble in a very un-millennial way. But the reality is she’s been relentless—something she’s working on giving herself credit for. In her early days at ESPN, she would wake up at 3:30 a.m., drive an hour and a half to the studio, put together her notes for the day’s topic while in hair and makeup from 6 to 6:30, and do SportsCenter hits all morning. After her last appearance at 2 p.m., she’d drive the hour and a half home, work out for two hours (she’s still a professional athlete, remember), make dinner, take a nap, and then be up to watch basketball games from 7 p.m to 1 a.m. “I’d log every play that I thought was important and send it to the producers so when I went in the next morning, they had already created a highlight based on the clips I liked,” she says.
She’d do that three to four times a week, while always putting her hand up for the early-morning or late-night appearances, “the ones that most people won’t want to do,” Ogwumike says. “The reason why I did it was because I knew that most NBA guys would never agree to go wake up that early in the morning. But I was doing it because I think it matters. I’m willing to do that work because I want a voice in this space.”
Giving Women the Mic
Ogwumike knows what her voice represents—especially in this moment. We spoke on the day of the Breonna Taylor verdict, and when I asked her what it’s like to have to prepare to talk about that on national television, she let out a long sigh. “I have to sit in it and understand it so that I can articulate it. And that is not an easy thing to do while I’m also trying to process my feelings and emotions, knowing that that could have been me—that could have been my sister, that could have been my teammate,” she says. “It’s overwhelming, but [Black women] are still expected to go out there and deliver and do our jobs. It is almost an impossible task, but we still get up knowing that that’s what we have to do.”
That keeps her motivated as she works her way into bigger and bigger arenas. “If I don’t show up to work, then that’s letting someone else win. I know that by having the mic, having the platform, that’s what is going to help,” she says. “There are people out there that have been doing the good work and people that have been paving the way for people like me. That’s what I hope to be like [for the next generation]—I’m just thinking, Okay, how do I create that next opportunity for someone?”
It’s the same philosophy that’s been ripping through the world of women’s sports: If the game or the industry or the world isn’t built for you, band together to change it. “Women get omitted from the narrative—female athletes know this,” Ogwumike says. “As women, we have had to be so competitive because there’s always been only one seat at the table for one of us. But by being collaborative, they can’t ignore us. We’re realizing that we can shake that whole table down.”
Originally Appeared on Glamour