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‘We can’t be silent’: Black voices in softball have begun a culture shift in the sport

Players are not only tweeting, but have taken a stand after Scrap Yard’s tweet

For Kiki Stokes, the first game back was everything.

Despite her team, Scrap Yard Fast Pitch, losing the first game of a seven-game series with the USSSA Pride in Melbourne, Florida, on June 22, Stokes kept her head up as she walked off the field and into the locker room.

For the first time in months, softball had returned and a sense of normalcy seemed to be on the horizon. On top of that, softball was poised to be a blueprint for professional sports returning to play in the U.S.

But that changed dramatically when Stokes checked her phone after the game.

Stokes had received a text from teammate Kelsey Stewart, who had not played in the game due to personal reasons, that included a screenshot of a tweet sent from Scrap Yard’s Twitter account.

Stewart had also sent a message to the team’s group chat:

“I am not going to ever be a part of this organization whatsoever.”

The team’s tweet, which had been sent out while the players were on the field and without their consent, included a photo of the team standing during the national anthem that read:

“Hey @realDonaldTrump Pro Fastpitch being played live @usssapacecoast @USSSAPride Everyone respecting the FLAG!”

Soon, every member of the team would read the same tweet addressed to President Donald Trump, who has repeatedly voiced his discontent with players who have kneeled during the anthem and has a history of denouncing athletes who have spoken out or peacefully demonstrated to raise awareness of social injustice and police brutality in the United States.

“We all got blindsided,” Stokes said. “No one even knew about it until we walked into the locker room.”

The original tweet had been published by Scrap Yard general manager Connie May and was quickly deleted after receiving intense scrutiny.

While emotions in the locker room ranged from anger to rage, Stokes, the lone Black player in the room, was overcome by feelings of hurt and sadness. She felt an incredible depth of isolation. She felt numb.

“Feeling like I didn’t matter,” Stokes said.

When May was brought into the locker room following the game, players expected an explanation. According to Stokes, May instead tried to justify what she had posted and described how uncomfortable she had felt. When May then mentioned the phrase “All Lives Matter,” Stokes had heard enough and walked out of the locker room.

Moments later, her teammates took off their jerseys and followed her. According to Stokes, every player in the locker room was done after that moment. They would no longer play for May or the Scrap Yard organization.

I think everybody knew that in that moment that it was … so much bigger than softball,” Stokes said.

Kelsey Stewart of the United States looks on during Game Three against Japan at the Tokyo Dome on June 25, 2019, in Tokyo.

Takashi Aoyama/Getty Images

Stewart calls it “backhanded racism.”

It’s an experience that players such as Stewart, Stokes and USA Softball outfielder Michelle Moultrie say they have all experienced during their careers. Backhanded racism is subtle: comments about a Black player’s expectation to run fast, comments on a Black player’s natural hair, comments related to economic and social class, comments that result in a double take.

“I think that’s 100% the norm,” Stewart said. “I think the backhanded racism is actually something that’s been very current in today’s softball.”

It’s an experience relatable to many Black employees, regardless of athletics, operating in predominantly white spaces.

“You’ve probably got one or two Black girls on every team, and that’s about it,” Stokes said. “Our representation at our level is like slim to none. You can count on both hands how many we have.”

From 2014 to 2019, Black players represented just 5% of collegiate softball, according to demographics provided by the NCAA.

As arguably the best Black player the sport has ever seen, Natasha Watley understands the history full well. Watley, the first Black player to appear in the Olympics with USA Softball, is a trailblazer for Black women in softball. Her impact is displayed all over today’s game — both Moultrie and Stewart said they were either inspired by Watley or aspired to be Watley growing up.

Natasha Watley of the United States bats against Japan in the women’s semifinals softball event at the Fengtai Softball Field during Day 12 of the 2008 Games on Aug. 20, 2008, in Beijing.

Clive Rose/Getty Images

Watley said she never dealt with any overt forms of racism during her playing days, but could relate to the experiences of today’s Black players. For much of her career, race was never addressed on teams Watley played for. It wasn’t spoken about. As Watley says, it wasn’t a “thing.”

“It was a thing for me personally,” Watley said. “Individually, I just never vocalized it.”

Stewart, Moultrie and Stokes can each relate to Watley’s experience, mentioning multiple accounts of their own in the sport when they allowed racially biased comments or experiences to get swept under the rug and internalized in an attempt to prevent discomfort for others.

“As a Black person, you just get used to it,” Moultrie said.

But when Stewart texted Watley in the midst of Monday’s events and asked Watley, “How should I go about this?” it caused the softball legend to reflect on her own career.

“One of the things that I regretted during my time being on the national team was not using my voice enough,” Watley said. “I thought me visually being an African American woman was enough. Now, given the climate of where we are … I wish that I used my voice more.”

Monday night, Watley did just that by tweeting her disappointment and displeasure with May’s tweet, which resonated across the softball community. Stewart’s tweet followed.

From one generation of USA Softball infielder to another, Watley had encouraged Stewart to use her voice, and to never stop.

“I want them to be able to move freely, speak freely and not have to feel that burden,” said Watley, who hopes her voice can help to improve the experience of Black players.

“We can’t be silent.”

In the wake of the social justice movement that has been felt across the country, Black players are finding their voices and have seemingly ignited a shift in the game’s culture.

In the weeks that have followed protests stemming from the killings of Black Americans such as George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, Stewart and Moultrie, the only two Black players on USA Softball, have also taken it upon themselves to facilitate a dialogue with their Olympic-bound teammates.

“I think it’s very important that they know our experiences and know what we’ve been through and realize that it is an issue,” said Stewart, who added that she was shocked when some of her closest teammates told her they were previously unaware of the issue and had assumed things were getting better. “For so long we just kind of put our heads down and went about it.”

Moultrie said that in the last couple of weeks, nonBlack players have been the most vocal they’ve ever been. She said players have sought education to better inform themselves and are having conversations with her about race that they hadn’t previously.

“If you keep sugarcoating things or making excuses, I don’t think there’s going to be change,” Moultrie added.

While these discussions and recent actions around the sport have been promising, Black players in the game know it won’t solve the problem alone — diversity in the sport needs to happen at all levels.

Watley said more needs to be done, especially to lower barriers to entry around the sport, but she’s optimistic for increased change. She added that the energy that is placed in showcasing the game to white girls in a suburban community must be equal to kids in Black neighborhoods.

“It’s got to be an aggressive attempt to put the game in front of Black young girls, it’s just that simple,” Watley said. “We’ve got to put this game in front of them and show them that this is a sport for them.”

Kelsey Christine Stewart (center) of the United States celebrates after hitting a solo home run in the fifth inning against Japan during their playoff match at ZOZO Marine Stadium on Day 10 of the WBSC Women’s Softball World Championship Aug. 11, 2018, in Chiba, Japan.

Takashi Aoyama/Getty Images

If ever there was a barometer to measure the progress made by the softball community, Monday’s events showed that players are not only listening or tweeting, but are willing to act — even in a sport with few revenue-generating opportunities.

That Scrap Yard was the team impacted on Monday also can’t be overstated. The Scrap Yard roster features several Olympians and some of the game’s most prominent names, such as Cat Osterman, Monica Abbott, Keilani Ricketts and Aubree Munro. The act of the sport’s top white players standing with Stokes and Stewart was significant.

“They have big platforms to make a change,” Stewart said. “I think through all of this, my white teammates have really seen a different side of what’s going on and they are now directly affected by this. They’re starting to see it through different eyes, my eyes, Kiki’s eyes.”

“It’s powerful that not one of them stood back and said this doesn’t really affect me, I’d rather play,” Watley added. “We’re already getting paid pennies and now we’re going to get paid nothing to stand up for this. That’s how much it matters.”

Despite walking away from the Scrap Yard organization, players are still hoping to play ball this summer. Since Monday’s incident, the team has continued to meet in an attempt to salvage its standing series with USSSA Pride, which announced Wednesday afternoon that its series with Scrap Yard had been canceled. Should the former Scrap Yard players come to an agreement with the Pride to continue play, they’d do so unaffiliated with the Scrap Yard name.

As of Thursday morning, Scrap Yard had yet to release a public statement about the incident.

“As a team we collectively decided that we want to continue to play, just not for the Scrap Yard organization or Connie May,” Stokes said. “We can still have an impact and still do this the right way.”

The team is still working out details of what a return to play could look like, with the growing effects of the pandemic not making it easier. Stokes said players have received an overwhelming amount of support in navigating their way back to the field.

“The ball is in our court,” Stokes said. “We’re not going to be ran by anyone else but us.”

Liner Notes

The Undefeated’s Jerry Bembry contributed to this report.

Sean Hurd is a writer for Andscape who primarily covers women’s basketball. His athletic peak came at the age of 10 when he was named camper of the week at a Josh Childress basketball camp.