We had the opportunity to attend The Atlantic’s Athletes + Activism summit in Washington, D.C. on May 30th. The event was held at the Entertainment and Sports Arena, the brand new home for the Washington Mystics in the Congress Heights neighborhood of Ward 8.
The event featured speakers like Olympic Bronze Medalist in Fencing Ibtihaj Muhammad, Olympic Gold Medalist and World Cup Champion US Women’s Soccer star Briana Scurry, Olympic Bronze Medalist, Author and Civil Rights icon Dr. John Carlos, Former NFL Player, Author and Founder of The Imagination Agency Martellus Bennett, and many more.
The Atlantic’s Jemele Hill moderated the panels and the entire Washington Mystics team was in attendance, with stars Kristi Toliver and Natasha Cloud both speaking during the event as well.
Here are some of our favorite takeaways:
Activism needs support from the top.
The venue itself was a nod to the power of sports to positively impact communities and showcases the power of buy-in from the executive level. Founder of Monumental Sports & Entertainment (and owner of the Washington Capitals, Mystics and Wizards) Ted Leonsis spoke to the audience about the importance of investing in the city they call home. “We promise to leave more than we take,” he said. The arena will employee local residents of Congress Heights and the event itself had many neighboring high school students in attendance.
“We want to make the Washington Mystics the best franchise in the WNBA and recruit women who are excellent athletes but even better human beings,” added Leonsis. “I hope the entire city will embrace this Ward 8 community and embrace women’s sports.”
Mayor Muriel Bowser of Washington, DC also had great things to say about the importance of Monumental Sport’s investment. She said, “This arena is bigger than basketball and I’m so proud of the Washington Mystics and Monumental Sports & Entertainment who played an integral role in bringing this arena to Ward 8.”
These kind of citywide initiatives require a commitment from the top down to ensure success and significant impact. It’s great to see an organization like Monumental Sports & Entertainment, that is so entrenched in the DC community, make an impact in their own backyard.
The growth of women’s sports is only just beginning.
The amount of women speaking at the event itself was a refreshing site. We loved hearing from WNBA, NWHL and US Women’s National Team players who represented our country at the Olympics and who fight for equality for women both in sport and beyond sport every day. USA Today Sports Columnist Christine Brennan said it best, “Today is the greatest day to be a woman in sports – until tomorrow”.
Olympic Gold Medalist and World Cup Champion for US Women’s Soccer Briana Scurry talked about the fact that women’s sports are thriving without the investment and development that the men’s teams receive. “Imagine what could happen once development and resources are more equal,” she said. “If you have 100 seeds and you’re planting 98 on one side and two on the other – where are you going to have more growth? You’re not seeding the field properly. All we ask is for equal seed.”
We also heard from Olympic Gold Medalist and US Women’s Hockey player Hilary Knight about their fight for equality in their sport. She couldn’t say much about the ensuing legal battle she and her fellow players are embarking on, but she talked about how important it is to fight for gender equality. “Women have an innate sense of responsibility to stand up for larger causes,” Knight said.
Jemele Hill brought up that many women athletes stand up and speak out on causes and social issues when they arguably have a lot more to lose. Scurry believes it’s because women are used to fighting. “Women have always had to fight for everything, as far back as you want to go in history,” she said. “We aren’t asking for more, we’re asking for equal.”
With powerful voices like these leading the movement for women’s equality, there is no doubt that change is on the horizon.
Athlete activism is only effective if you know what you are talking about.
Throughout the day we heard from athletes that have supported movements throughout history, from Dr. John Carlos to NFL player Martellus Bennett and Olympic Fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad. Curator of Sports at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Damion Thomas explained, “Athletes don’t usually start a social change movement but rather respond to it. When they get involved, they are shining a light on the grassroots movements occurring in our communities.”
Thomas mentioned how athletes can elevate a local conversation to a national conversation- that is when an athlete’s involvement is most impactful. Hudson Taylor, Founder & Executive Director of Athlete Ally, shared a similar sentiment, explaining, “Athletes have an incredible amount of cultural capital. When an athlete speaks, people listen.”
Washington Mystics Guard Natasha Cloud was asked why the Mystics decided to speak out against the abortion laws being proposed around the country, among other issues. She explained, “I would be doing a disservice for a lot of people who look like me suffering from injustice if I don’t speak up.”
Martellus Bennett brought up the concept of fake activism- that many athletes may jump into a conversation because they think it’s cool or what they should be doing, but they may not understand exactly what they are standing up for. This can cause problems and distract from the conversation. “If you are going to be an activist, you need to be educated and understand the position you are supporting and standing up for,” said Bennett. “It’s your job to be the voice of the voiceless”.
Dr. John Carlos mentioned that one of the first things he did was go and make sure that he and his fellow Olympians protesting understood what they were standing up for. “Athletes realize they are the voice for the voiceless,” said Carlos. “You need to know who you are, and know what you’re fighting for.”
It’s so important that if you stand up for a cause or a social movement, that you understand the impetus behind the movement- why did it start? What are they fighting for? Who is fighting for it? Not knowing this information can significantly lessen the impact of lending your voice to an issue, and as an athlete it’s your responsibility to do your diligence before you promote or support a movement. Get educated and informed on the problems and both sides of the issue. Understand the criticisms you may get as well!
We believe strongly in the power of the athlete voice and the opportunity that athletes have to create a greater impact in communities. As Hudson Taylor of Athlete Ally said, “When you get that right messenger to deliver that right message, it can make a huge impact.”