When the ever-evolving topic of sports and politics emerges, there are always a few names that immediately come to mind: Muhammad Ali, Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, Colin Kaepernick. Each man is remembered for his contribution to the national conversation around politics, race, foreign affairs, in some cases perhaps more so than his contributions to a game. But when sports lovers talk about contributions athletes have made throughout history, women are often left off the list. So much credit goes to Billie Jean King for her activism, and rightfully so, but what about Althea Gibson, who was the first Black person —not woman but person—to win a Grand Slam title? What about Wilma Rudolph? What about Kathrine Switzer?
Too often, the political contributions of women athletes are lost in the history pages, unless that contribution involves the phrase “first woman to do [thing].” It’s not much of a surprise, considering that so much of being a woman athlete is wrapped up in having to prove that women can play sports too. Women athletes are so busy trying to earn equal pay, air time, and sponsorship that their larger political ideologies often take a back seat. But with a national uprising in full swing, an increasing number of women athletes are putting their politics front and center.
On Monday, two professional women’s softball teams took to the field in Florida, the new home of every single sport in America, to begin what should have been a seven-game series. As is the new norm, the entire thing was undone by a single tweet. One of the teams, Scrap Yard Fast Pitch, was photographed standing with their hands over their hearts for the National Anthem. The photo was shared on Scrap Yard’s official twitter account with the caption, “Hey @realDonaldTrump Pro Fastpitch being played live... Everyone standing for the FLAG!” The tweet, which has since been deleted but lives on in screenshots, set off a chain reaction that resulted in all 18 players on Scrap Yard quitting the team in protest, according to the New York Times.
Before the tweet, the team’s general manager Connie May had also released an “All Lives Matter” statement on the team’s Facebook page in response to the murder of George Floyd, “We believe black lives matter, as do all lives. Each and every life is an equally precious gift from God,” the statement reads in part. A former Scrap Yard player, Kelsey Stewart, told the New York Times, “I never really thought that [Connie May] didn’t care about my life or [Kiki Stokes’] life until that post.” Stewart and Stokes were the only two Black players on the team.
The women of Scrap Yard are in good company, as players in the National Women’s Soccer League and the Women’s National Basketball Association are using their career success to amplify their politics. In early June, the U.S Soccer Federation repealed their ban on kneeling during the national anthem after Megan Rapinoe kneeled in 2016. Despite players fighting against the ban since its start in 2017, it was only repealed this year after mounting public pressure on USSF to treat its players better amid a pay equity lawsuit and calls for sports organizations to acknowledge players’ rights to protest. Individual teams in the NWSL also took a beat to establish their positions on the Black Lives Matter movement after soccer superstar Carli Lloyd posted a tone-deaf meme on her twitter with the caption, “It doesn’t matter your color. We are humans.” Lloyd was chastised by fans, sportswriters, her own teammates, and team management, eventually leading her to apologize and “learn” from her mistakes. Soccer, a sport plagued by racism the world over, is finally taking a collective stand, and at least in the U.S., women are at the helm.
Since the killing of George Floyd, the WNBA’s Minnesota Lynx has been at the center of the sports universe over their history with the Minnesota police department and calls for racial justice. In 2016, Lynx players famously wore shirts that read, “Change Starts With Us: Justice and Accountability,” following the killings of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling. In response, police officers who were off-duty working security at the game walked off and were then praised by the president of the Minneapolis Police Federation. Maya Moore, an eight-year veteran of the Lynx, led the charge for the team’s 2016 protest and is now leading once again, this time from the sidelines. In January, Moore announced that she would voluntarily be sitting out another season of the WNBA to focus on her work in criminal justice reform; she told the New York Times, “Basketball has not been foremost in my mind.” By making this choice, Moore, who is considered one of the greatest players in the U.S., withdrew herself from consideration for the 2020 Olympics, which were still set for June at the time.
As several states try to return to “normalcy” while still sitting in the first wave of a global pandemic, the question of the importance of sports in a moment such as this has been raised time and again. Why should anyone care about a ball in a net when people are dying? But the question “Is sports important” is a reductive one. Of course, basketball or baseball in itself isn’t important. It’s always been about the people. Tennis is just a ball and two rackets until Coco Gauff and Naomi Osaka make it a life-altering showdown. Soccer is just running back and forth until Jessica McDonald makes it a platform for highlighting how businesses fail to consider childcare when hiring women. Women athletes have always worked to be at the forefront of political movements, but now they’re finally getting the one thing that’s eluded them since the battle of the sexes: national attention.