San Jose State University has been at the forefront of the intersection of sport and social activism since Tommie Smith and John Carlos initiated a protest during the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City. This protest, a Black Power fist salute into the air, was inspired by the Olympic Project for Human Rights, which was founded by civil rights activist, Dr. Harry Edwards.
50 years later, Dr. Edwards and the Institute is embarking on a new era of social conscience conversation with its own Words to Action Town Hall events. As part of Women’s History Month, SJSU’s Institute for the Study of Sport, Society and Social Change recently hosted its 2nd annual event, Words to Action: Gender, Sport and Society.
Dr. Edwards set the tone with his opening remarks where he stressed that women should be held up to the same level of acknowledgement as their male counterparts, not only in sports but in the game of life. “They use women to sell everything in American society,” Edwards exclaimed. “They use women to sell cars, to sell clothes, to sell vacations, to sell cruises, to sell cleaning supplies, to sell hamburgers. But they can’t sell women’s sports? Somebody is kidding me!”
This event featured a roster of women such as Ruthie Bolton, Katie Sowers and Brenda Tracy; women who are not only trailblazers in their particular sports, but in their communities. These women share a common bond of having to overcome great adversity and obstacles in order to achieve their goals of being the best at their passion.
Bolton, a two-time Olympic gold medalist and former WNBA player, spoke about using her platform to empower young women. “There’s a quote that I love, ‘To the world you might be one person but to one person you could be the world,'” Bolton shared with the audience. “We need to remind these girls that you can turn your pain to power and use our stories to impact them. Every day I get up and think how can I make someone’s life better.”
“They use women to sell cars, to sell clothes, to sell vacations, to sell cruises, to sell cleaning supplies, to sell hamburgers. But they can’t sell women’s sports? Somebody is kidding me!”
The event also featured Sowers, the first openly gay coach in the NFL and only one of two female coaches in the league. The San Francisco 49ers assistant recalled a time in college where she had asked her basketball coach if she could volunteer on the sidelines. “He told me this is nothing personal but because of your lifestyle, I was openly a lesbian, we got rid of all that. So we don’t want you around the team,” Sowers shared. She spun that rejection – one that was supposed to deem her unfit to coach because of her sexual preference – into something more. “To this day, I keep saying I’m going to write him a thank you note. Because I was rejected and I was turned down, I don’t think I would be here as an NFL coach.”
One of the more dynamic speakers was Brenda Tracy, an advocate behind the Set the Expectaton campaign that educates young athletes on the implications of sexual assault. Her work comes from her own experience of sexual assault – in 1998, Tracy was raped by four men, two of which who played football for Oregon State University. In a discussion moderated by three-time Olympic gold medalist swimmer turned civil rights lawyer, Nancy Hogshead-Makar, she spoke of how the incident compelled her advocacy. “All of this trauma turned into a blessing of advocacy work and being able to help people,” she told the audience. “Some people ask me would you go back and change anything. I can honestly say, no I wouldn’t change anything. Everything that has happened to me has turned me into the person I am today.”
“We need to remind these girls that you can turn your pain to power and use our stories to impact them. Every day I get up and think how can I make someone’s life better.”
These women with diverse backgrounds have come together through sports and managed to promote social acceptance and change through provoking conversation. However, there is still much more work to be done as it pertains to women in all professional capacities. It was Karen Brodkin, executive vice president of content strategy and partnerships at Endeavor, who may have summed it up the best. “Until there are more women and people of color at the top of those companies, there will only be incremental change. There needs to be more diversity on public company boards. There needs to be more diversity in the C-suites of companies; including those that work in sports.”
To watch the full town hall event, you can check out the event page here.
Passionate about all things media. Diehard 49er fan. San Francisco native turned Oaklander.