By Patrice Nkrumah
As the month of March came to a close, the Chicago Crusader and SportsZone Chicago podcast “What’s Up Cuz?!” with hosts Lance Irvin and Jason Palmer welcomed three African American women athletes in honor of Women’s History Month.
Softball great Natasha Watley, professional soccer player Sarah Gorden and college basketball coach Erin Dickerson joined the guys to discuss the gains in women’s sports and talk about areas still in need of improvement.
Watley is an Olympic Gold medalist for USA softball and inspiration to Black girls everywhere. Now retired, Watley currently runs a program in Los Angeles through her foundation that has nearly 1,300 girls of all ages, who are primarily Black and Latino, playing fast-pitch softball.
“After the 2008 Olympics I went on a speaking tour in the inner-city in south L.A. and one young African American girl asked me, ‘what is softball?’
“For me that was a lightbulb moment,” Watley said. “I grew up 45 minutes from where this girl lived, so her answer was unacceptable for me. Now we have a league that we have partnered with through the City of Los Angeles. If they fall in love with the sport, that is great, but if they don’t, there are so many other intangible benefits that come with playing a team sport.”
Watley added that she is happy to see more African American women playing softball at the collegiate level. She said the sport has an incorrect reputation as being a “white girl sport,” but in reality, it is an international sport that will be played at the Olympics this year in Tokyo.
“I think putting the NCAA softball championships on ESPN has been a huge boost for recruiting more girls of color to the sport,” she said. “The viewership around the Women’s College World Series is larger than the men. If you see it, you can be it. I think that is why we are seeing a more diverse population playing the game and that is how you grow the game.”
Erin Dickerson, who grew up in Chicago and was a prep basketball star at Whitney Young before playing four years at Northwestern University, spoke about Black women in coaching and the opportunities the sport created for her. Dickerson also weighed in on the controversy last month in San Antonio, when female players and coaches took the NCAA to task publicly for not providing the same number of amenities for the women’s basketball players as they did for the men at their tournament in Indianapolis.
“When we got there, it was pretty crazy as everyone saw,” Dickerson began. “We were in quarantine so you couldn’t do anything. You couldn’t go in each other’s rooms. You couldn’t leave the hotel and were restricted to your floor. And that’s what made everything more out of control when we found out about the weight room situation.”
The NCAA did not provide the women with a proper gym for the athletes to workout and the food was subpar, as was reported in several media outlets. The women were provided with a weight pyramid, instead of a weight room. Their meals consisted of beef brisket and baked beans. Some teams got Salisbury steaks—foods that modern athletes do not eat.
“It was not okay,” she said. “One thing COVID has taught us is that this Generation Z, they are not going to be quiet about what is important to them. So, they went on social media and complained, and the NCAA reacted immediately.”
Dickerson said she went into coaching to make a difference, even though she has a degree from Northwestern and had a high-paying consulting job lined up in downtown Chicago. Dickerson said her coach at Northwestern told her she was crazy to decline a good paying job to go into coaching.
“Coaching creates a platform for you to really impact the lives of these young women,” Dickerson said. “I wanted to be able to give back.”
For Gorden, she said she got into soccer at an early age and said she was motivated to stick with it because people kept telling her how good she was. A graduate of Conant High School and DePaul University, Gorden also works as a part-time sideline soccer reporter and models. Gorden is also a part of a Black athlete’s collaboration that focuses on social justice initiatives and also has her own non-profit, HoodSpace, which brings yoga and other mental health initiatives to girls and women of color in Chicago.
Gorden became pregnant her junior year at DePaul. She opted to take a year off to have her baby. She talked about that experience.
“It was uncharted territory. It was difficult,” Gorden said. “When I came forward and said I was going to be taking the year off, the reactions of some teammates and coaches varied. As far as support from the school or NCAA, that wasn’t really a thing. I think the media has done a great job in just talking about these issues.”
Gorden also talked about the salary for female professional athletes. When she was a rookie, she said her salary was only $8,000 a year. She said the salary prevents many from reaching their full potential.
“It’s true the men’s revenue is higher but you have to look at how much is put into their sport. We are just asking for a crumb of that. We want to see what happens when you invest into our sports,” Gorden explained.
“If the money is not there, they can’t give us what they don’t have. Our base salary has gone up. But we need the investments in our sport. I think that making anything as a rookie under $50,000 is unreasonable.”
Her non-profit HoodSpace brings acts of mindfulness to Black girls in Chicago. She said she struggled mentally after she had her son. She said getting into meditation and yoga really helped her during some tough times.
“I just want to bring some of those resources and tools to Black girls in the city,” Gorden said.