Inside the W: Players Using Offseason to Pursue Off-The-Court Careers

Essence Carson

Essence Carson was sitting in her office at Capitol Records, taking a moment out of her day as a manager at Priority Records, a hip-hop label owned by Capitol Records in Los Angeles.

“I look at this as investing in myself,” said the Los Angeles Sparks forward, one of a collection of WNBA players who took a pass on playing overseas to pursue career options off the court. It is an option that seems to be open to more players in recent years.

“I didn’t want to wait until I was 40 or 41 to pursue this opportunity,” Carson said. “I knew I would eventually take time to invest in myself a little more and all the stars aligned.”

In the fall of 2017, Carson began an internship at Capitol as part of the WNBA Players Association internship program. When it was over, the label offered her a full-time job.

Carson works on the business side of the music industry, coordinating distribution, working on finance and marketing. And for her, “It works.”

“Music and basketball are two things I’ve done concurrently my whole life,” Carson said. “I started playing music at nine, started playing basketball at 11, and the two things have gone hand-in-hand ever since.”

Carson worked full-time for the record label during the 2018 WNBA season, juggling it with her commitment to the Sparks.

“They knew about my playing career and this is the first time they’ve done something like this,” Carson said. “Both of us were open to trying it. We agreed to a trial period to see if it could work and it ended up working out. I travel and I work and I play and I can handle it.”

Carson said that her dual careers have made her “really disciplined” with her time and her choices. “I sacrifice things, but when you want to get something done, when you want something, you make the time. I wanted to get this done so I figured out how to get it done.”

Carson said that for a long time, she felt like she had to keep quiet about holding down a full-time job and playing in the WNBA. “I didn’t say a word,” Carson said. “I thought people might judge me if I had a bad game, or think that I wasn’t focused on basketball. And then Chiney (Ogwumike) came out about working full time at ESPN, and now I feel like I can talk about it, because I’m not the only one doing it.”

Renee Montgomery

People don’t want to say “break a leg” to Renee Montgomery.

“Since I’m an athlete, people think that’s the wrong thing to say,” said the Atlanta Dream guard, who is pursuing her dream of becoming an actress in one of the country’s hottest entertainment meccas. Some people call Atlanta the “New Hollywood.”

Montgomery said has always wanted to act. In high school, instead of auditioning for drama productions, she played basketball every day.

“For almost my whole life, it’s been eat, breathe, sleep, basketball,” Montgomery said. “I always wanted to do this, and timing is everything. This was the right time.”

Montgomery, who bought a home in Atlanta eight years ago, said hardly anyone knew.

“A couple of my teammates did, but I never really put it out there,” Montgomery said. “I started taking classes, but basketball has been a year-round job, but for a long time it was hard to turn down an overseas contract.”

Montgomery acknowledged, like Carson, that it is a significant sacrifice to turn down a contract to play overseas. “It’s automatic money and it’s hard to pick a time to stop making money,” Montgomery said. “But this was going to be the year.”

Montgomery said her classes quickly led to some auditions and then she started getting parts. She is appearing in a holiday film on Amazon Prime called Not My Favorite Christmas, debuting on Dec. 20, and an independent film called Penny, Piper & Fianna.

“I’m doing some indies and short films,” Montgomery said. “They aren’t big-budget or anything, but I’m getting a chance to act. You have to pay your dues and I’m in the process of trying to get there.”

Montgomery said she has had people who have told her she is “pretty good.”

“My response is ‘Wow, am I?’ I honestly have no idea. It’s not like basketball, where you can tell.”

Montgomery said she wants to reach out to LeBron James’ production company to see if she might be able to get involved in any of his projects. And she wants to “set [herself] up” for a future career as an actress.

“I’m not going to be an athlete forever. You have to find a balance and it’s taxing physically,” Montgomery said. “I’m not done with basketball. This is just me taking a step.”

Layshia Clarendon

Clarendon had just returned from Atlanta, where she sat on a panel for Turner Sports, a corporate event focusing on inclusion. She sat on the panel with NBA legend Charles Barkley and Hudson Taylor of Athlete Ally.

“It was a great opportunity,” said Clarendon. The kind she wants more of.

The Connecticut Sun guard is building her career as a speaker, “educating people and connecting with people about gender non-conforming issues.

“I’m also super passionate about my church and the LGBTQ community and helping to restore relationships and people’s faith with being who they are. … I don’t know exactly what that looks like right now, but I know that’s where I’m most passionate.”

On top of that, she is doing broadcast work for the Pac-12 Network, providing color analysis on 14 women’s basketball games this season.

Clarendon made a decision two years ago that she did not want to play overseas, that she wanted the time and space to work on her game — and her next career.

“I want to get better and it’s hard to consistently add things to your game when you are playing year-round with bad habits because you don’t have the time to correct things,” Clarendon said. “I also want to set myself up for my post-basketball career. Sometimes as athletes, I think we think about that too late.”

Married last year, Clarendon and wife Jessica bought their first home in Oakland over the summer.

“I’m training full-time. I’m not getting paid for that, but it’s my full-time job and it’s something that takes a lot of time,” Clarendon said. “I’m finding my balance with the broadcast work and the speaking. For me, it’s a matter of not taking on too much.”

Clarendon jokes that sometimes she questions her path when she sees a teammate pull up to the gym in a brand new luxury car.

“It’s like, ‘Dang, I could be making six-figures overseas, that would be awesome’,” Clarendon said. “But then I remember that I enjoy being home, that I’m never burnt out and when the (WNBA) season starts, I’m really refreshed. This is kind of a leap of faith, but I think it’s worth it.”

Carson, for one, said she feels lucky that she is able to pursue both of her passions.

“I can’t live without either of them,” Carson said. “How many athletes have no idea what they want to do when they are done playing and they aren’t happy?

“I think the message is becoming clearer to a lot of athletes that basketball is what we do, but it doesn’t define who we are. People are building their legacies. You can see the shift. There have been a lot of men’s players who have involved themselves in film and tech. Athletes are starting to understand they are not only athletes, but they have amazing minds and it’s time to take advantage of it.”