Politics belong in sports

Copy of women sports

July 2019 has been a spectacular month for watching American women dominate in sports. Athletes of color and women athletes have always used their platforms to fight for justice, facing backlash from critics who say this makes them un-American. However, as YW Boston’s President and CEO Beth Chandler wrote in a blog post last year on sports and protest, it is wholly American for one to utilize their platform to call for greater equity. This month, for once, women athletes have taken as much, if not more, of America’s interest than men athletes. Both the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team and Serena Williams’ platforms have been magnified, which they have used to work toward gender and racial equity. As we support them on the field and court, we must, too, support their work for justice.

In soccer, the U.S. Women’s National Team brought home the World Cup after defeating the Netherlands, gaining the longest winning streak in either men’s or women’s World Cup history. Wimbledon, the world’s most popular tennis tournament, saw a number of American women advance through the rounds. Coco Gauff, the 15-year-old Floridian, captured America’s attention after reaching the fourth round. Serena Williams, the most decorated player in women’s tennis made it to the final before losing to Simona Halep of Romania.

These players weren’t just taking America by storm for their athleticism. Both the U.S. Women’s National Team, including the outspoken co-captain Megan Rapinoe, and Serena Williams gained media attention for speaking about injustice. 

This past March, all 28 players from the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team filed a gender discrimination lawsuit against the U.S. Soccer Federation, claiming that institutionalized gender bias has led to the women’s soccer team being significantly less funded than the men’s team. This funding gap leads to less pay and fewer resources for travel, healthcare, and more.  For years, players have been speaking out about this pay gap and the team even boycotted a tournament in 2000 for their cause. Still, the women’s team has not been able to secure additional funding, despite outperforming the men’s team each year. This year, their rallying cries for equal pay have gained a larger audience, and when the team won the World Cup on July 7, the crowd could be heard chanting “Equal Pay” in support. 

In addition to being strong champions for equal pay, the soccer team has inspired many with its LGBTQ representation. A number of players are out lesbians with many, including co-captain Megan Rapinoe, who are vocal advocates of LGBTQ rights. Megan Rapinoe has spoken about how the current administration’s policies hurt LGBTQ people and she supports a number of LGBTQ organizations. One of her most quotable moments was when the team won their quarter-final this June and she shouted “Go gays!” and then stating “You can’t win without gay players.” In addition to these causes, she also showed support of Colin Kaepernick’s #TakeAKnee protest by kneeling during the national anthem and has spoken about the intersectionality of LGBTQ rights, equal pay, gender equity, and racial equity.

Serena Williams has been an activist for the majority of her career in tennis. She has supported the #BlackLivesMatter movement, worked toward education equity and access, advocated on behalf of domestic violence survivors, and much more. In addition to this formal work, she has continually been a vocal self-advocate, especially as she has experienced sexism and racism at the hands of tennis officials, her fellow tennis players, and the media.

With the Williams sisters, Coco Gauff, and Sloane Stephens representing the United States, as well as Naomi Osaka of Japan and Heather Watson of the U.K., black women have been the major leaders in tennis this century. Still, racism continues to be a major problem within the sport. Earlier this month, Heather Watson spoke about the racist messages she receives from online trolls, which she considers to be her new normal. As the most successful and visible black woman in tennis, Serena Williams has been the subject of the most anti-black racism in the sport.

Serena Williams has experienced inequitable scrutiny for her outfits and her presence on the court. In an essay in Harper’s Bazaar from July 9, she stated, “I’ve been called every name in the book. I’ve been shamed because of my body shape. I’ve been paid unequally because of my sex. I’ve been blatantly cheated against to the point where the Hawk-Eye rules were introduced so that something like that would not happen again.” In response to this discrimination, she continually speaks up about her experiences and states that, “I think of the next girl who is going to come along who looks like me, and I hope, “Maybe, just maybe, my voice will help her.”

Both the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team and Serena Williams have experienced criticism for their activism. Before the World Cup, President Trump tweeted that Megan Rapinoe “should WIN first before she TALKS! Finish the job!’’ A Fox News anchor “accused Rapinoe of using her platform ‘to mar or spoil or tar what could have been this great unifying victory.’” Serena Williams has experienced criticism from many angles, but this year the most shocking came from Billie Jean King, a former tennis star and LGBTQ and gender activist. Of Serena Williams, Billie Jean King suggested she “focus on tennis and stop behaving like a celebrity and fighting for equality,” stating “Just stop this insanity.” When asked about this, Serena Williams responded, “The day I stop fighting for equality and for people that look like you and me will be the day I’m in my grave.” 

Those who silence the protesters are turning their backs on making this country great for all people. Click To Tweet

The critics state that both the soccer team and Serena Williams should do nothing but play their sport. However, their sports are central to their lives, and as people experiencing injustice daily, equity is crucial to their work as athletes. In order for American sports to thrive, we must listen to our athletes and take their causes seriously. As YW Boston President and CEO Beth Chandler stated, “Those who silence the protesters are turning their backs on making this country great for all people.”

It is a testament to both of these fights that their leaders have found solidarity with one another. Serena Williams tweeted her congratulations for the soccer team, adding her support to Billie Jean King’s tweet: “These athletes have brought more attention, support, & pride to women’s sport than perhaps any other team in history. It is long past time to pay them what they rightly deserve.” Following Wimbledon, Megan Rapinoe echoed Serena Williams, stating she also wouldn’t give it up “until the day I’m in my grave.’” They recognize that their work supports each other.

As more Americans tune in to watch these women dominate in their sports, let us also tune in to their protests and work with them toward equity. Click To Tweet

While their fights are not identical, the U.S. Women’s National Team and Serena Williams are both working to ensure that women athlete’s voices are not silenced. As these athletes utilize their platforms to discuss issues that affect women, people of color, and women of color, we must listen. Protest has always been a major part of American sports and it has always received backlash from critics who tell players to focus on the game. These women know that their wide platforms provide them with the opportunity to speak out on behalf of themselves and their communities. As more Americans tune in to watch these women dominate in their sports, let us also tune in to their protests and work with them toward equity.

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About YW Boston

As the first YWCA in the nation, YW Boston has been at the forefront of advancing equity for over 150 years. Through our DE&I services—InclusionBoston and LeadBoston—as well as our advocacy work and youth programming, we help individuals and organizations change policies, practices, attitudes, and behaviors with a goal of creating more inclusive environments where women, people of color, and especially women of color can succeed.