In life, we are continually faced with decisions that ultimately change the course of our life, and in some cases, the lives of others. This last week, my USA teammates and I sport of softball was removed from the Olympic Games for 2012 and beyond, the sport on the international level has not been the same, and that includes here in the US. However, the sport on the youth level from t-ball through college has continued to grow in huge numbers. In my work as an analyst for ESPN College Softball, I have seen this amazing game out-rate College Baseball for almost all regular season games. This sport is so dearly loved in this country, but the big question remains, what happens to the 22 year old softball player after she leaves college?
As President of the Women’s Sports Foundation these last two years, I have listened to our founder, and a huge mentor of mine, Billie Jean King, tell me the history of women’s tennis. The birth of women’s professional tennis began with her and 8 other brave women (later dubbed “The Original Nine”) leaving the US Tour to create their own pro tour (Virginia Slims Tour). Long story short, their success is what brought equality within US and International tennis, and ultimately this success is what brought tennis into the Olympics. She has always told me, even before we were eliminated from the Olympics, “Jess, you need to get a successful professional league here in the US, and you have to ALL STICK TOGETHER. The future is not with the national team alone, but with a pro league you all believe in.” Her words are sounding louder than ever today as we all make this huge decision for our sport.
As much as I want to see our sport return to the Olympic Games, there is something this sport needs even more. The opportunity for women to say they play the sport of softball FOR A LIVING. Not as a side job, or recreationally, but to make a living playing a sport they love so much. To not STOP PLAYING at age 22, because there are very little opportunities out there. Or, similar to basketball before the WNBA, have to live abroad because other country’s pro leagues are willing to pay you to play. I see more and more women create opportunities to play their sport for a living in other sports (snowboarding, basketball, tennis, BMX, golf, to name a few) because of the professional opportunities they, and sponsors, have created. My dream now is to make these same professional opportunities for every young softball player out there.
For the first time in the history of our sport, we have a professional league, called National Pro Fastpitch (NPF, www.profastpitch.com), that is here to stay. But it needs the help of the sports biggest names. Now is where you can see the birth of the decision we have had to make. We as players have tried to play with both the US National Team and the NPF, but like anything we do, you can not make something the best unless you give it 110%. Plus, as much as we all have wanted to try to make both successful, the support for us to play professionally and with the US National team is no longer there. So the decision has been made by all of us from the 2008 Olympic team who are still playing (myself, Natasha Watley, Cat Osterman, Monica Abbott, Caitlin Lowe, Lauren Lappin, Andrea Duran, Vicky Galindo) along with current national team members to leave the US National team and play in the NPF.
The reason this decision is so hard? There is nothing better than playing a sport you love where the three best letters, U-S-A, are worn across your chest. I have been blessed to play with the National Team for the last decade, through two Olympics, and it has been the best softball memories of my life. I am hoping this is not a goodbye from the National Team.