Tuesday’s Panel on Equity in Sports and Entertainment hosted by Angel City FC was dedicated to discussing experiences of some of the Black players of the NWSL. Moderated by Saskia Webber with Panelists Nils Clausen, Jasmyne Spencer (OL Reign), Ifeoma Onumonu (Sky Blue FC, Black Women’s Player Collective Board Member), Estelle Johnson (Sky Blue FC, Cameroonian Women’s National Team), Tziarra King (OL Reign), the hour-long discussion was dedicated mostly to the panelists speaking about their origins in soccer. While all players had varying experiences in the ways they were introduced to soccer, they all discussed leadership roles they feel a sense of duty to play. And, they’ve all played the roles well. Not just as athletes, but as community leaders. Sometimes sure, it is easier to be an athlete without the onus of the responsibility of representing the voices of millions who are silenced, but when you are one of few in the position to make a change, you step up without questions.
Spencer, is forward on and off the pitch. The OL Reign forward has her own eco-clothing label, Jas It Up, that she launched in 2017. It remains a family operation with her sisters-in-law. A portion of their profits go to a program at the Wayne Densch YMCA Family Center in Orlando, where she hosts a soccer clinic every year. When 2020 brought the opportunity with the timing of the Challenge Cup at the apex of the Black Lives Matter movement that summer, she collaborated with her clothing line to design the t-shirts OL Reign wore for their opening game.
Sky Blue striker, Ifeoma Onumonu, is using her platform directly to impact social injustice through The Black Women’s Player Collective (BWPC) as a board member. The BWPC, with 43 Black women in the NWSL, provides a collective voice to the Black perspective and experience of professional female athletes, while being a force for social change. Last year, they partnered with the MLS’ Black Players for Change, Adidas, Musco Lighting and U.S. Soccer Foundation to bring mini-pitches to urban youth in communities across the country. Her voice rings across social media with the natural leadership she embodies.
“I am a Black woman in America with a Black American perspective of America. Despite the social climate I chose not to voice my thoughts on social media at first. Although, after speaking to a friend I think it’s important to let those who know me and care for me, to know this; This fight for me did not begin a matter of months ago, but this is my entire life. It’s not enough to just post a few words on Instagram or Twitter acknowledging the racist attitudes and quite frankly, the racist complacency this country demonstrates. Rather, there needs to be constant reflection, education, and movement in bringing an end to this country’s criminalization of the black skin. I need to stress that this is a fight for Basic Human Rights not a trending hashtag that will disappear in a few months time. I want the right to be black and not be systematically targeted for demise. That is my reality. As Jim Golden states: racism is perpetuated by people who refuse to learn or acknowledge its reality. SO, FOR THE SAKE OF BREVITY; (IF THIS IS THE ONLY PART YOU READ) TO WHOM EVER READS THIS OR NEEDS THIS, MY SILENCE DOES NOT EQUAL COMPLACENCY BUT CONTEMPLATION. The current social uprising has brought fear to those in power because they now know social change is demanded and inevitable. So, how far are we willing to go to ensure a truly just system for Black Americans?” ~ Ifeoma Onumonu
Sky Blue FC’s Estelle Johnson, bridges Black and white, and discusses it openly. “I am brown.” She’s the daughter of an American father and Malian mother and grew up in multiple countries. Something she learned early on in her youth was to navigate multiple worlds. She does it with finesse as a mixed-race player on the Cameroonian Women’s National Team celebrating her international and multicultural upbringing when in the U.S. and in Cameroon. Johnson had a built-in support system within her family and the small network of Black families in Fort Collins, Colorado where her family moved to when she was 7. Even if no one else looked quite like her in the small town of Fort Collins where she started to play club soccer, she credits her family as giving her a safe environment to explore her identity as both Black and white. In recent years, Johnson has worked with the U.S. Embassy cultural exchange program in Bahrain, which began their women’s soccer program in 2003 and continue to evolve as a major player in sports diplomacy in the Middle East. She stays internationally true to her roots on and off the soccer pitch.
Tziarra King, rookie for the Royals, found herself caught in the the Dell Loy Hansen storm of 2020, and thrust into the social justice spotlight with her widely shared tweets on the matter. When the dust settled, she ended up in Seattle with OL Reign ready for a fresh start. But did you know she’s also been vocal in the NWHL tweeting her criticism of a shirt for the Metropolitan Riveters? “I really want this shirt. But can we get some texture in that pony(tail) for the black girls? I’m thinking something like (Riveters rookie) Saroya Tinker. Maybe one for the short-haired girls too?” King tweeted. She ended up contributing to more designs for the line of t-shirts that addressed the representation issues. You really never know where a tweet will lead.
“Representation is such an important part of feeling empowered, especially in a space where many people don’t look like you.”
These four stars of “The Call Up,” a docuseries that shares insights on experiences of Black players in the NWSL, are often on different teams and battle each other on the pitch, but they also fight on the same team for equity, evoking change as leaders every single day.
Image credits: Getty Images, Sky Blue FC, OL Reign, Ifeoma Onumonu, NWHL, NWSL