Hardly a month seems to go by without high-profile US athletes speaking out on non-sporting causes. Increasingly, the most passionate voices belong to women.
Take the recent basketball game between Seattle Storm and Chicago Sky. The team’s owners organised a pre-game rally in support of Planned Parenthood, the nonprofit that provides reproductive healthcare and whose funding is under perpetual attack from the Republican party and the Trump administration. Several players, including star Seattle forward Breanna Stewart, issued a video backing the event. The Sky centre Imani Boyette skipped warm up to attend.
It’s not that female athletes haven’t stood up for what they believe in before – just look what Venus Williams achieved for equal pay at Wimbledon. But as women’s sport grows in status and popularity, athletes’ activism – fuelled by social media – has taken off.
I caught up with Stewart a few days after the Planned Parenthood/Storm event. The 22-year-old rails against injustice and inequality and has publicly backed many causes. In January she joined protests over Donald Trump’s travel ban at Los Angeles international airport; she has supported Black Lives Matter and gay rights and urged equal media coverage for women in sport.
She recognizes the power of her profile, telling me: “I think its important to speak up because as I continue to gain success and followers in my sport, I also have a platform which I can speak on and I’m speaking for others who might not have the opportunity.
“When I first did it, you question yourself a little bit and think, ‘Oh people might not like this,’ but you know what, I don’t care if people don’t like it because there’s going to be more people that do like it and appreciate it. I’m trying to make change not just let things stay the way that they are.”
A combination of factors turned her into a social activist, she said.
“It’s a mixture of things. Growing older; having a better understanding of what’s going on in our world, politically or in terms of equality; and realising the voice that I have. I didn’t know how many people would come up to me on the street and say, ‘Thank you for what you said,’ like after the protest in LA over the travel ban.”
Many other sportswomen are making themselves heard on issues covering race, gender, sexuality or religion – unlike their male counterparts, where race is often the catalyst.
Perhaps because they have all had to fight for respect as women, there is a level of camaraderie within their sports not seen among men.
When the Minnesota Lynx basketball team protested the shooting of two black men by police and the killing of five Dallas officers at a subsequent rally, they attracted widespread support across the WNBA.
Six teams wore Black Lives Matter T-shirts, four only answered Black Lives Matter-related questions at post-match press conferences and three knelt during the national anthem in the playoffs.
Megan Rapinoe, the Seattle Reign and US soccer star, has been outspoken about LGBTQ rights. She was one of five players whose names were on a complaint filed against US Soccer alleging wage discrimination last year. She also knelt during the national anthem in solidarity with then San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick and his protest against racial injustice.
Fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad, the first US citizen to compete at the Olympics in a hijab in 2016, has voiced her fears over Trump’s “campaign of terror” against American ideals. Simone Manuel highlighted police brutality after becoming the first African American woman to win an individual gold medal in swimming at the 2016 Games, saying: “My colour comes with the territory.”
Stewart, who recently wore a T-shirt bearing the words “Wild Feminist” to the Nickelodeon Kids Choice sports awards ceremony, said female athletes often have direct experience of what they are fighting for.
“We’re involved in it. As women in sport we’re still trying to fight to have that equality in the game in terms of pay, viewers, status. While we’re fighting for ourselves, we’ll fight as an ally for other issues too. We’re all in this together.”
While stigma over sexuality remains in men’s sports in the US, female athletes are particularly vocal on gay rights.
Stewart said she thought “there are more openly gay female than male athletes”, adding: “I think everyone deserves the right to be equal. There are more things now where people are being told you can’t do this because you’re LGBT or because of your race or religion. It’s like, what are we doing? We’re in 2017! It’s frustrating.”
What about Planned Parenthood? “Most people just think of it as abortions,” said Stewart. “It’s so much more than that. It’s healthcare, making people more aware of contraception and STDs and so on. Why are we not in support of this?”
She said there was a domino effect when a woman spoke out. “They see someone do it and think, ‘I can do this too, I have the same opinions and I’m going to share my voice whether people like it or not.’”
She admits a thick skin, something necessary for sport at the highest levels anyway, is handy when you take a stand. “Some people don’t like what I’m saying, but it’s my life and I’m living it the way I want to and I feel like I’m making a difference.
“I haven’t had people come up to me, usually people hide behind a phone or computer and say it on social media. That’s fine – people say negative things about my game on social media too. I’m used to it.”
Stewart views her activism as separate from her game. “I don’t know what impact it would have on my professional career. What I do on the court speaks for itself as does what I stand for off the court, and I don’t plan on those messing each other up.”
Michael Skolnik, an activist in Brooklyn who often helps celebrities become effective campaigners, says the level of influence wielded by major stars by tweeting, wearing a T-shirt or mentioning an issue in an interview is “unimaginable and unquantifiable”. He thinks athletes have been using their platforms to highlight social justice issues much more effectively since the death of Trayvon Martin in 2012.
He also believes that women in sport have been vocal for decades, without getting the credit they have deserved.
As in many countries, women’s sport in America has never been viewed as seriously as men’s. But as women’s sporting status grows, so with it does respect for female athletes. When they speak out, more people now listen.