By Justin Gamble, CNN
The Howard University men’s basketball team is joining the fight to protect Black maternal health as the nation faces a crisis that leaves Black women at high risk for pregnancy-related complications and death.
The team will host a special event ahead of Martin Luther King Jr. Day with the organization Mamatoto Village that is focused on combating racism and health disparities for Black mothers. The event will be held Sunday in Washington DC, with the team helping to package pregnancy care kits.
Howard team coaches say the players decided to focus on the issue after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade last year — a controversial decision that is expected to leave millions of Black and brown women without access to abortion care.
In many states, Black and Hispanic women receive abortions at higher rates than White women, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which collects data from state health agencies.
“Women’s health issues aren’t just women’s health issues,” Howard basketball coach Kenney Blakeney told CNN. “Everyone is affected by this, not only the women but also men.”
Blakeney says he recruits players who he feels can help carry on the university’s legacy of social justice activism.
“When we recruit our student athletes to Howard, we aren’t just recruiting them to represent us on the basketball court,” Blakeney said.
Blakeney says he gives the team a choice of what social justice activity they would like to participate in each year. After Roe v. Wade was overturned, he says his players felt they had to do something for Black maternal health.
Guard and team captain Jelani Williams says players believed it was important for them to use their platform to shine a light on an issue that is important but not spoken about enough.
“We have Black mothers, aunts, cousins, friends and we just felt like it would be… a good issue to shine a light on,” Williams said.
Freshman forward Shy Odom says he was immediately in support of the project.
“I kind of related to it,” Odom said. “I have a single Black mother. She had me very young, so I feel because I relate to it, it would be a good cause to support.”
Mamatoto organizers say they are grateful for the basketball team’s efforts and agree that Black maternal health issues affect men as well.
Executive director Aza Nedhari said Black maternal health is not Black women’s “burden to bear alone.” She adds that Black males have a responsibility as well. “Black men are fathers and they are brothers,” Nedhari said.
Nedhari says she’s appreciative of any help for her organization.
“It’s always refreshing when Black men join alongside us to uplift the issues that are going on,” Nedhari said. “It just can’t be Black women carrying the bag and holding all the responsibility for making improvements for something that is a systemic and societal issue anchored in racism.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story gave an incorrect first name for Shy Odom.
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CNN’s Nicquel Terry Ellis contributed to this report.