Angel City FC’s Madison Hammond is Black, Native and using her spotlight in the NWSL
The soccer league’s only Native American player has grown into herself ‘as an athlete and an activist’
When the 2023 National Women’s Soccer League season kicks off Saturday, Madison Hammond will be the league’s only Native American player.
Being “one of one,” as the Afro Indigenous Angel City FC defender puts it, once felt like undue pressure, but she has turned that spotlight into a platform. In doing so, she’s fighting to make women’s soccer more inclusive.
Since being signed to Seattle’s OL Reign in 2020 amid the coronavirus pandemic and the murder of George Floyd by police, Hammond has become a beacon of inspiration for her fellow soccer players and young athletes like herself across America. Sure, there’s her mere existence as the only Indigenous player in a league notably lacking in racial diversity. But beyond the field, her activism efforts are many, as a member of the Black Women’s Player Collective, an ambassador for both Athlete Ally and Nike’s N7 initiative, a supporter of basketball legend Sue Bird’s Togethxr media brand, and a vocal advocate for racial and social justice.
“When I first started playing professionally, it felt like all eyes were on me and the word ‘responsibility’ had a negative connotation,” said the 25-year-old Albuquerque, New Mexico, native who is Black, Navajo, and San Felipe Pueblo. “Since then, I’ve grown into myself as an athlete and an activist. My new motto is to live as authentically as I can, which really comes back to how I carry myself with the values that have made me who I am.”
Those values were instilled in her early on by her mother, a single military mom. (Her father was not a formative figure in her life, so she has less connection to her Black family.) Hammond’s love of soccer was developed at age 5 when she started playing competitively on a local boys’ team. When she was 9, her mom’s work moved their family to Alexandria, Virginia, where Hammond switched to girls’ soccer and was first introduced to youth club soccer.
“Growing up, I didn’t really understand the amount of sacrifice my mom had to make as a single parent, and also what I had to do just to have the same experience as everyone else,” she said. “Looking back on it now, I realize how much of it was driven by racial and socioeconomic differences, but I didn’t know that at the time. I can count on two hands how many teammates of color I had growing up. But I never felt out of place.”
Hammond was 15 when she first experienced racism on the field, when an opposing player told her to “Get the f— off me, you Negro” during a scrappy game. That experience has stuck with Hammond, who understands that the moment could have easily derailed her passion for the sport and her future career if she hadn’t felt comfortable in her own skin.
“While I haven’t dealt with anything that blatant since then, just dealing with white fragility in white spaces means adhering to a different set of rules as a person of color,” she said. “I understand I have to work two, three times as hard to get the same opportunities as my other [white] teammates.”
It was when Hammond played soccer for Wake Forest University in North Carolina, where just 8% of the private college’s nearly 9,000 students are Black, that those racial differences became so marked. “Every time you progress to the next level, the threshold for athletes of color just gets higher and higher,” she said. “During my freshman year of college, I was one of two girls of color and the only Black girl on the team, which was very jarring.”
Despite that, Hammond made a name for herself at the collegiate level. In 2020, she made history as the NWSL’s first Native American athlete, taking the field with OL Reign teammates such as U.S. women’s national team phenom Megan Rapinoe.
Whether she was ready for it or not, Hammond quickly stepped into the spotlight thanks to her singular status. And that’s when the immense pressure fell on her shoulders.
Hammond has had the ongoing support of both her mom and her uncle, Notah Begay III, who at 25 became the first Native American PGA golfer in 1998.
“We are from two different times in sport, and 25 years ago, people didn’t care about athletes being multi-hyphenates,” she said. “I have this unique opportunity to tell my story simply because of who I am before I ever step on the field, which wasn’t something that athletes of color were provided at that time.”
The biggest differentiator between their experiences? “Two words: social media,” said Begay.
“[Former tennis professional] Billie Jean King, the icon of advocacy and activism for women’s rights and equality, acknowledging Madison never would have happened without social media,” Begay said. “Athletes now have a huge opportunity to make an impact, which comes with a high level of responsibility. Fair or not, that’s the reality of Madison’s existence, and she has a level of commitment to her community to carry that burden with pride, dignity, and authenticity.”
That doesn’t mean it’s always been easy, though. Hammond is looked upon as the sport’s sole Indigenous advocate and expert. For instance, last year when veteran NWSL player McCall Zerboni used anti-Native language during a postgame interview, Hammond called her out — and called her to talk. “Once I saw the comment, I couldn’t unsee it or ignore it,” Hammond said. “I understand that as a woman of color I had zero obligation to call her, but at the same time, I wanted to have a conversation with her before I tweeted back.”
The impact Hammond is having uplifting Native American communities outweighs any awkwardness or discomfort she might feel in these situations.
“When she goes to games, there are Native kids waiting for her who have never seen a Native pro athlete,” Begay said. “The single biggest catalyst of change in any marginalized community — the barrios, the inner cities, the Indian reservations — is hope. We’ve put billions of dollars into housing, programs and social causes. Teen suicide rates are still high. Education is still low. Mental wellness is terrible. The only way you can fight your way out of these very dire circumstances is through hope, motivation, and purpose. That’s what athletes do for us, they give us hope.”
Hammond is also inspiring her Angel City FC teammates, like forward Jasmyne Spencer, herself a strong advocate for change.
“Madison’s commitment and discipline on the field show up in her activism,” she said. “I think anybody who has a platform that reaches a lot of people has a responsibility to help make the world a better place, and that’s exactly what Madison is doing.”
But Hammond aims to effect greater change beyond just being an inspirational figure. She’s not naive about the lack of diversity in American soccer at all levels — something U.S. Soccer Federation president Cindy Parlow Cone has acknowledged, noting that soccer is “largely viewed as a rich white kids’ sport.”
The barriers to access are multifaceted — financial, geographic, cultural. The result is that Black girls, girls of lower socioeconomic status, and from urban and rural areas enter sports later, participate in lower numbers, and drop out earlier than their counterparts, according to the Women’s Sports Foundation. To address these inequities, Hammond is pushing for some of the benefits that boys’ and men’s soccer receive, such as academy teams with scholarships available for young athletes in need as well as higher pay for professionals so they can meaningfully give back to their communities.
Ultimately, it comes down to representation — not only on the field but also in coaching positions and in the front office.
“Having people of color in front offices who are influencing decision-making is really crucial in terms of creating spaces where diversity is championed,” Hammond said. “That’s how we will achieve teams that actually reflect the people who play soccer. It’s a worldwide sport that everyone plays — not just white people — and I would love for the league to reflect that.”
Throughout her soccer career, Hammond has never played under a Black female head coach and therefore has never truly seen herself reflected in leadership within the sport. She hopes that changes, pointing out that there are plenty of qualified Black coaches who could help change the face of the NWSL, which recently came under fire amid allegations of racism, sexism, and emotional abuse by coaches.
“I want anyone who wants to play soccer to know that there’s a place for them no matter what they look like, where they come from, or what their background is,” Hammond said. “I want to help create a sports world where Black girls, Native girls, and nonbinary and trans people are fervently advocated for. It’s a tall task in this climate, but I’m ready to do the work.”