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The WNBA Players Association (WNBPA) doesn't stop in the league offseason as it continues to expand its impact, reach and visibility alongside the league's growth.
The union is announcing a multiyear partnership with Pepsi Stronger Together to support causes important to the players in each of the league's 12 markets. It kicked off with Los Angeles and a $50,000 donation by Pepsi Stronger Together to Girls on the Run LA. The program is in conjunction with the union's 23rd year and represents not only a chance to fulfill one of its three 2021 advocacy pillars, but also a way to expand visibility of both the sport and the union.
"It’s kind of like a beautiful connectivity in a lot of ways that contributes to educating communities about more than just what they know," WNBPA president and Los Angeles Sparks forward Nneka Ogwumike told Yahoo Sports.
The union has stressed long-term efforts over one-offs, hence the multiyear commitment. The advisory panel for the causes includes Ogwumike, WNBPA executive director Terri Carmichael Jackson and PepsiCo South Division president Derek Lewis.
Partnerships such as this are a win for all involved as the program receives critical funding and the two entities are able to put their brand and name out there. For a league that's in grow mode and faces hurdles men's sports don't, that's huge. And Ogwumike views it as about more than sport and fandom.
"The avenue through which these partnerships exist through the WNBPA," she said, "not only exposes these communities to a union — which is something that even some players entering the league don’t know about — but it also exposes communities to the teams in these markets and organizations like Pepsi Stronger Together that are supporting initiatives and also supporting women in sport who want to get these things off the ground."
That's a perfect situation for an organization such as Girls on the Run, which combines physical training with values-based lessons that build competence, compassion and self-worth for girls in grades third through eighth.
"Nneka has perfectly articulated the importance of having visible unions and role models," Molly Snow, executive director of Girls on the Run LA, wrote in an email to Yahoo Sports. "Visibility is an important part of positively influencing girls, especially at this age. At this age of development, being able to 'see it' is exactly how girls believe they can 'be it.' Strong women who lead by example are instrumental in helping girls believe in their own efficacy. The partnership with WNBPA is invaluable in showing girls what being a force for good can look like."
There are unions for nearly every major sports league; only 10.8% of workers in 2020 were part of a union, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Unions are associated with higher wages, improved health and safety practices and better benefits. And they show how people can unite for a common goal, just as most change is made by Parent Teacher Associations (PTAs) or neighborhood community groups.
Nneka Ogwumike on building empowerment in others
Ogwumike has been involved with Girls on the Run, a nationwide organization with 185 independent councils, for many years. The 2016 WNBA MVP has delivered encouraging messages, helped the girls do warm-up stretches for the annual 5K and virtually helped celebrate the organization's 25th birthday this past March. Snow said the organization has had a challenging 18 months, but is "building back strong" and can have a quicker positive impact in the community again with the resources.
The program builds to a 5K at the end of the weeks-long session and addresses the public health pillar the WNBPA set for 2021. It also falls in line with a big part of Ogwumike's life she's spoken about with Kelley O'Hara of the Just Women's Sports podcast.
Ogwumike, 31, said she was unsure if she wanted to enter the WNBA draft after attending Stanford and was similarly noncommittal on joining WNBPA leadership. It was her sister, Sparks forward and ESPN host Chiney Ogwumike, who urged her to do it and players who nominated her for positions without her knowledge.
"I think there’s this misconception — especially for young aspirers and younger generations trying to figure out not only how they want to make an impact in their life but also in the world — that everyone who is doing what they see that they want to do has everything figured out. And that is not always true," Ogwumike told Yahoo Sports.
In her time as WNBPA president and a WNBA athlete, she told Yahoo Sports she's come to reflect a lot on those around her thrusting her into good situations and how she's done the same for others. Girls on the Run does that for scores of girls every season, and now has more resources to positively impact their lives and what they can pass around to others.
"It takes a core or a circle of individuals to understand the meaning of empowerment, the meaning of gathering and togetherness and just lifting people up," Ogwumike said. "And one thing that I think that can be difficult to learn in society as we get older is helping someone does not take away from you. It adds value in so many ways, and I'm just really grateful that I've been able to align with individuals that have helped me become who I am today, but also have helped me to evolve into who I am."