Maya Moore’s Marriage to the Man She Helped Exonerate Is a Great Story in an Awful Year

Too often, the work against injustice is abstract and without reward. This story is a heartwarming outlier.

A year and a half ago, one of the world’s best basketball players, Maya Moore, a four-time WNBA champion and two-time Olympic gold medalist, stepped away from the game. She was putting her career on pause to devote her time to the case of Jonathan Irons, a wrongfully convicted man who was more than two decades into a 50-year prison sentence on charges of breaking into a home and shooting the homeowner (the homeowner survived the shooting). No physical evidence had ever connected Irons to the crime. A judge ruled in March that the prosecution had suppressed fingerprint evidence that could have helped exonerate Irons.

This summer, Moore’s work, and that of many others, finally paid off. Irons was released from prison on July 1. On Wednesday, the 31-year-old Moore and 40-year-old Irons appeared on Good Morning America to make another announcement: They’re married.

To Moore fans who’ve followed her work on Irons’ behalf, their romantic relationship will come as a surprise. Moore has known Irons for a long time: They first met when Moore was 18, through Moore’s godparents, who’d begun advocating for Irons through a prison ministry. She began speaking publicly about racial injustice and the failures of the justice system in 2016, when she and her Minnesota Lynx teammates wore T-shirts bearing the names of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling, against WNBA policy. But even in the time since Moore announced that she was taking time off from the league to focus on Irons’ case in February 2019, she’s never let on that they were in love.

Moore consistently shone a spotlight on Irons’ conviction but clearly kept their personal relationship quiet. This seems to have allowed Moore and Irons to develop their relationship on their own terms and their own timeline. On Good Morning America, Irons said they’d first acknowledged their feelings for each other a few years ago, after several years of friendship. “I wanted to marry her but at the same time protect her, because being in a relationship with a man in prison is extremely difficult and painful, and I didn’t want her to feel trapped,” he said. “I wanted her to feel open and have the ability to, at any time, if this is too much for you, go and find somebody, live your life.”

When he asked Moore to marry him, Irons asked her to hold off on giving him an answer. “I just want you to wait until I’m home,” he said he told her, “because in my mind, I didn’t know if I’d be home.” He asked her again when he was released in July, alone in a hotel room, after celebrating with family and friends. They married soon after.

Some people have wondered if Moore’s romantic connection to Irons diminishes the sacrifice she made by taking two years off in the prime of her career to help overturn his conviction. But having a personal connection to a matter of injustice doesn’t make the work to right it any less noble. It merely makes the victories sweeter. And who better to advocate for a person’s freedom than someone who cares deeply for him? In an earlier Good Morning America segment, filmed the day after Irons’ release, Moore told Robin Roberts that personal relationships can ground an activist’s efforts. “Get to know somebody who isn’t exactly like you and doesn’t come from the same background as you,” she said. “Educate yourself, and then just keep showing up and finding ways to show up for people, and your voice will come out of that relationship.”

The knowledge that Moore’s passion for freeing Irons, who was tried as an adult by an all-white jury at age 16, was driven by a desire to live her life with a person she loves and a desire to see justice done adds a new emotional tenor to her advocacy. In a video of Irons’ release, Moore falls to her hands and knees at her first sight of him walking free, after years spent traveling to see him shackled in courtrooms and confined to prison visitation rooms. His life, as he wanted to live it, was finally his again. Hers was, too.

“In that moment I just, I really felt like I could rest,” she told Roberts. “I’ve been standing, and we’ve been standing, for so long.” Moore and Irons have now launched a get-out-the-vote campaign, and Moore is considering returning to basketball in the spring. But for now, they’re taking time to adjust to the new lives they’ve spent years working to win.

The Irons-Moore union is uncommonly heartening for a story that began in a place of punishment and estrangement. It is a balm, in this time of so much visible pain, disregard for truth, and indifference to human suffering, to see two people justly rewarded for their perseverance with a chance at love and a life together. And at a moment when athletes are making bolder moves to speak on issues of racial justice, it is galvanizing to watch one of their leaders, one of the first pro athletes to take a risk to make her stand, see her efforts pay off.

Of leaving the league in 2019, Moore told Roberts, “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.” It’s a powerful message in an industry that glorifies the grind. Since she left, Moore’s peers in pro basketball have continued asserting their power as workers and refusing to pretend they’re unaffected by today’s civil rights struggles. Moore is insisting on their right to joy and respite, too.