Women’s Sports Foundation Celebrates Athletes, Pioneers, And Game Changers In Women’s Sports
This year’s gala was one-of-a-kind as the first produced virtually and free for anyone to view. Former WSF President Laila Ali hosted, and the event featured guest appearances by Phaidra Knight, Alana Nichols, Candace Parker, Tom Brady, Carli Lloyd, and Natalie Portman among many others.
“Speak with Sport” served as the perfect theme for the night, as the hour long broadcast featured captivating stories and highlighted teams and athletes overcoming adversity and creating change.
The Wilma Rudolph Courage Award was the first honor of the evening, and was presented to the players of the WNBA who dedicated their season to Breonna Taylor, the #SayHerName campaign, and Black Lives Matter.
Named after Olympian and trailblazer Wilma Rudolph, the award is given to an athlete or group who has displayed extraordinary courage in order to make a difference in sports. The WNBA has always been at the forefront for change, and players made another impactful difference this year as they postponed play for two days in late August after the police shooting of Jacob Blake in order to discuss actionable items to implement change, and stand alongside other professional athletes and the NBA.
WNBA reporter and 9-year-old media star Pepper Persley presented the award to Layshia Clarendon, first vice president in the Women’s National Basketball Players Association and one of seven players who represented the WNBA in this season’s Social Justice Council, who accepted on behalf of the league.
“The 2020 season has meant a lot to me, obviously we dedicated it to the #SayHerName campaign so first and foremost is that so many black women whose names don’t get said who go forgotten whose stories literally don’t get told,” Clarendon told Persley. “There are so many black women stories that I don’t know about as a black woman because they get buried. They don’t get the news coverage they deserve, they definitely don’t get the justice they deserve, and so a big success coming out of this season was that we could partner with African American policy reform and truly highlight these women.”
The event also featured a tribute to Jennifer King, football trailblazer and offensive assistant for the Washington Football Team, for her courage and determination in following her dreams. King loved football from a young age and always wanted to coach. She worked as a police officer and basketball coach while also playing football in the Women’s Football Alliance. When she accepted a coaching position at Johnson & Wales University in Charlotte, North Carolina, her office was near the Carolina Panthers training facility, where she later worked with Ron Rivera and the team for four months through mini and training camps. She was an inaugural recipient of the Scott Pioli & Family Fund for Women Football Coaches and Scouts, which allowed her to work as a quality control coach at Dartmouth University. She is now back on the sidelines with Rivera in Washington, and is the first Black woman in a full-time NFL coaching position.
“I’m in good company. There’s some awesome women coaching football right now at this level and it’s super important for us to do a good job and really be an example for the next generation,” King said.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach Bruce Arians was honored with the Champion for Equality award, which is given to someone who has shown unwavering commitment to gender equality and the advancement of women in sports. Arians is the first coach to hire two women to his coaching staff in NFL history.
“For anyone that follows this path or anything they have a passion about… to find that one person who is willing to give you a chance, who’s willing to sort of step out of the norm because they see something in you, it’s just life changing,” Buccaneers assistant defensive line coach Lori Locust said. “When (the players) go from saying ‘yes, ma’am’ to ‘yes, coach’ in my mind that’s a success because I’ve taken their mind off the fact that I may look a little bit different and now they’re treating me the same way they’ve treated any coach they’ve ever had.”
The Buccaneers also advocate for gender equality and advancement in sports outside their team. The organization hosts the largest flag football tournament in the country with more than 1,000 athletes, as well as funding an academic scholarship providing support to female football players so they can pursue a career in sports.
WSF founder Billie Jean King presented the award to Coach Arians, who gave advice to other women and girls who aspire to coach in the NFL.
“Anything is out there for you. Work hard, put your nose to the grind and don’t ever give up. Just keep fighting for it,” he said.
Ursula Burns received the final honor of the evening. As recipient of this year’s Billie Jean King Award, Burns is recognized for her outstanding leadership and significant contribution for women in the workplace. Burns made history in 2009 when she was named CEO and chairman of the Xerox Corporation, making her the first Black female of a Fortune 500 company.
“Ursula, she’s been so extraordinary in how she’s broken down barriers and all that’s to witness and understand how she’s going to be helping so many generations of women’s leaders for now and the future, and she’s such a ‘Shero’ to me,” Billie Jean King said ahead of Burns award. “Ursula, you’re a game changer. We owe so much to you and congratulations.”
Last year’s Billie Jean King Leadership award recipient Sheila Johnson, the co-owner of the Washington Mystics, Capitals, and Wizards, presented the award to Burns. Burns discussed growing up as a Black woman, the moment she realized she could become a Fortune 500 CEO, and dealing with pressure. She also offered lasting advice to young women and girls, particularly girls of color, who think the boardroom might be out of reach.
“Success doesn’t only look like a CEO. … it’s not about if you make it only, it’s about if we can all make it, and the only way that’s going to happen is if we are unflinching in our impatience for change,” Burns said. We’ve prepared for some fundamental inequality, for some injustice. We’ve prepared for it, but don’t settle for it.”
The evening ended with a special tribute to Billie Jean King and the ‘Original 9’ for their work in fighting for pay equality fifty years ago. Natalie Portman, Academy Award winning actress and co-owner of Angel City, the newest NWSL team, presented the tribute.
The Annual Salute to Women In Sports was made possible by the Foundation’s incredible partners: Athleta, espnW, Gatorade, NBC Sports Group, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and Yahoo Sports. Viewers can rewatch the inspiring event, and donate to support the WSF’s mission to help young girls and women reach their potential in sport and life by participating in an online charity auction hosted through Charitybuzz, which ends October 22. Donors can also text WSF to 91999 or visit the WSF website to contribute.