On October 11, the Black Women’s Player Collective announced itself to the greater soccer world on twitter. Since then, it feels a little bit like the entire country hasn’t really had a chance to slow down and take a breath until now. With NWSL now in their offseason (albeit with a huge slate of logistical events happening before the start of the 2021 season), the players finally have a chance to wind down and process. On Thursday, Lynn Williams will be talking about this hectic year within the framework of being a Black female athlete on a post-election Game Changers panel from Just Women’s Sports and the Black Women in Sport Foundation, alongside Monica McNutt, Sydney Colson, and Ysaora Thibus.
Welcome to our voice. pic.twitter.com/N5tzvw05iC— Black Women’s Player Collective (@BWP_Collective) October 11, 2020
It’s been a long year of reckoning for this country, and NWSL teams weren’t exempt from having serious conversations about racism and all the injustices, big and small, that Black Americans face. Those conversations, Williams said, were long overdue, for a lot of reasons. “I think just in this country we have such a long systemic issue with race,” she said. “Obviously we are colonizers. We had slaves. And so I think there is a level of being uncomfortable with the topic of race because of all the terrible things that have happened in the past. So I think there’s twofold: so one side of it is people feeling like, oh that was so long ago it doesn’t exist, racism doesn’t exist anymore, which is false. And then I think there’s the other side of people feeling guilty for lack of better words? Even though it wasn’t them that necessarily did it, there’s this guilt or this uneasiness about it where it’s just hard to talk about when it shouldn’t be hard to talk about it.”
That national uneasiness with talking about race has certainly made it harder to talk about race on the more micro level within American women’s soccer. Williams pointed at the clearly disparate level of Black players in NWSL versus the WNBA - something like nearly 80% Black players in the WNBA, to NWSL’s under 20%.
“I think that, unlike the WNBA, when they want to mobilize everyone is just kind of onboard and they don’t have to convince their teammates that this is an issue,” said Williams. “Whereas because the Black [NWSL] voice I think is smaller – not in loudness but just in size – that it was really hard, or it’s really hard to convince people who don’t believe that this is a real issue that’s going on.”
Williams hopes the BWPC can be the backup that Black voices need in NWSL. For her, she found it easier than others to talk to her teammates at the North Carolina Courage about being Black in America. “I feel like I was blessed to have, what was there, six Black girls on the team? Which is so unheard of,” she said. “I was like oh my gosh, I have so much support here.” In the wake of George Floyd’s murder by the police in May of this year, Williams said the Courage got the team together in a circle and had an open forum discussion, in which she and her Black teammates were willing to answer questions. She also had more personal discussions with roommate Sam Mewis, letting Mewis ask questions and sharing her experiences.
But that wasn’t the case on every team, perhaps more so at clubs that didn’t have as many Black players. Williams said it broke her heart that some people felt like they were alone. But going forward, the BWPC could provide support, and do education and outreach. Not just at the pro club level, but all the way down to the youth system; Williams is acutely aware that Black players get filtered out of the system starting from the bottom up, and so she wants to use the BWPC as a way to give more young Black women access to the development pipeline and resources to stay there.
That’s a longterm goal for the BWPC; Williams couldn’t say much because they’re still in planning mode, but in more immediate terms, they’ll be looking to get some funding, maybe partner up, and generally settle their organizational structure and solidify how to implement their mission statement. But five years from now, hopefully they’ll be showing Black players how to navigate the NCAA or the professional world, and they’ll also be encouraging the addition of more people of color to leadership positions. POC, Williams said, who might make players of color in the league feel less afraid to speak up and ensure they’re being heard and having their needs met. And then there’s fixing the youth system and how players get moved up through the ranks and how media talks about Black players and how coaches evaluate them - a huge system of interconnected problems that seems like it’ll take generations to unravel.
“I think when you start to dive into it, you kind of can get overwhelmed,” Williams said. “You’re like, where on earth am I supposed to start? And I think that we need to recognize that me, Lynn Williams, I’m not going to solve the whole issue by myself and neither are any of the athletes.”
“Nobody’s going to be able to take it on themselves but everybody’s doing a little piece of their part then hopefully over time it will change,” she added. She pointed to people like Brianna Pinto, who along with her Next Gen United group, is running to join US Soccer’s Athlete Council so that they’ll have a voice in the governance of the game. “Gen Z is going to save us all,” Williams said, laughing.
There’s also the matter of the Racing Louisville expansion draft, which is scheduled to air the same night as Williams’ panel. It’s the latest in a series of moves that have changed the landscape at the Courage, with the departure of Crystal Dunn for Portland and Jaelene Daniels retiring. But as befits a player on a team with a reputation for having one of the most intense, focused, and mentally resilient locker rooms in the league, Williams is looking forward to the challenges that change brings. “I think a lot of the team has been like okay, we’ve been playing the same system for four years, we’ve been playing the same players for four years which is great and lets you bond and gel together, but now I think we’re to the point where we’re like okay, let’s spice it up a little bit. Let’s see what we can do,” she said.
Still, expansion is weird to the players, even in a sport where anyone can get traded at just about any time. Williams may lose a teammate she’s known for years, possibly even two of them. “I don’t know what would be the next best system to do it,” she said. “It’s kind of like PKs where you’re like, this is terrible to win or lose on this but no one’s figured out a better way to do it. It’s so sad.... It’s amazing teams are coming in and this league is growing but let me have my teammates.”
It might be a season of huge change for Williams, for both the little and the big picture, but it sounds like she knows exactly what she’s capable of doing. Lynn Williams will do what Lynn Williams can, and hope that everyone else joins her.