It’s also a major turning point in the hearts and minds of former softball girls like me, and hopefully a move in the right direction for gender equity in sports at a most urgent time. With legislative attacks aimed at blocking access to healthcare and sports for LGBTQ people and women, any moves toward greater gender equity are most welcome.
I played softball from the age of 3, all through my youth and adolescence and in bar leagues well into my 20s. I can still feel the relief of a cool, summer night’s breeze on the mélange of sweat and dirt caked on my face after a hard-played ballgame. I was a catcher, perpetually close to the ground and with perilous proximity to the backswing of the baseball bat. I spent hours squatting wedged between batter and umpire, ready to face the runner rounding third or stave off that steal to second base with my best long-range throw.
For someone who spent most days with a nose in a book or in front of a computer, softball was the one physical, visceral constant in my life that forced me to be in the moment, to sync my mind and body and be present, agile, collegial.
As much as I loved the game, I went to enough Major League Baseball games to know from an early age that softball was only ever intended to be a hobby for girls like me, because boys were the ones who could consider pursuing baseball or any professional sport as a career.
Of course, the north star is for women to be drafted in equal measure for equal roles at equal pay rates as men in MLB, but Hopkins’s edging into MLB history is tremendous news, not only for women in professional sports, but for those searching for hope at a time when women’s sports are being used as a political weapon.
It seems clear that Jackson understands that questions like these are about far more than women’s sports. They are about who we are, and what it means to be an American.
Would she have felt compelled to play in Russia to make more if she were paid on a level with her male peers? Her identity as a Black, queer woman in Russia renders her more vulnerable, and it’s hard to imagine that outcry for her safe return wouldn’t be louder if she were, say, LeBron James or Steph Curry.
As the former US senator and professional basketball player Bill Bradley once said, “Sports is a metaphor for overcoming obstacles and achieving against great odds.” Indeed, what happens on the field, including who is even given a chance to win, is a microcosm for broader society.
Sports represents culture and vice versa — providing collective access, for our children especially, to self-expression, leadership, achievement and (at their best) joy. It’s no surprise that culture warriors and anti-LGBTQ+ activists have set their sights on sports. It’s where so many of us live.
And yet, when I feel frustrated by the slowness of progress, I remind myself that Hopkins and Thomas and Griner and Rapinoe are the latest in generations-long line of women who refused to settle for the roles we’ve been told we must fill. They’re not going to stop, nor will the ones who come after that.
That’s what I told myself as I signed my 4-year-old up for his first tee ball league this spring. I can’t help but feel both excitement and hope. I can’t wait for him to get a taste of the pure adrenaline of connecting the bat with the ball.
I also hold hope that Hopkins is the foot in the door that will edge open even wider for the next generation of women and gender diverse athletes. I am hopeful that the toddlers, both boys and girls, playing together on the tee ball fields across America today, will see themselves reflected in equal numbers — in representation, treatment and earning potential — when they are grown.
If I squint, I can imagine the little girls on my child’s team becoming women, competing under the bright lights in major league stadiums, dirt in their cleats, sweat on their brows, crowd cheering for them, not as second-rate players, but as professional athletes, taking up the same space as the men who came before them.