Iyonna Stephenson learned the term soccer moms became defined through the 1999 U.S. women’s national soccer team when two players hired a nanny to care for their children.
“Most people say boys are stronger than girls, but you never believe it until you do it yourself,” said the fifth-grade student at KIPP DC Aim Academy in Southeast.
Iyonna, 11, joined several hundred people who attended a more than two-hour discussion on athletes and activism Thursday, May 30 at the Entertainment and Sports Arena in Southeast. The talk presented by The Athletic and Washington Mystics featured stories from current and former professional athletes which focused on historical moments in sports, equality and the intersection of sports and social justice.
Cameron Coye, 14, listened to Briana Scurry, a two-time Olympic gold medalist and World Cup champion, who explained how the women’s national soccer team constantly fought for equal billing with the men’s team.
“My aunt played basketball. I didn’t know that people focus on men athletes more than girls,” said Cameron, an eighth-grader at AIM Academy who runs track and plays soccer. “It’s not good. Women went through a lot to get where they are.”
Besides Scurry, attendees also heard from U.S. women’s hockey star Hilary Knight, Mystics guard Natasha Cloud and Ibtihaj Muhammad, who won a bronze medal in fencing in the 2016 Olympics.
The most colorful comments came from former NFL player Martellus Bennett, who retired in March 2018 and played for five teams that ended with the New England Patriots.
In 2016, Bennett became one of the handful of NFL players who supported former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick to silently protest against police brutality and other unjust treatment against Blacks. Instead of standing for the National Anthem before games, he kneeled.
Bennett, 32, poked fun at the majority of current athletes who proclaim to fight for injustices but are simply “false activists.”
Bennett also challenged white, high-profile quarterbacks Tom Brady and Drew Brees and retired quarterback Peyton Manning to speak up on racial injustice and challenge the NFL’s policies on players charged with domestic violence who are allowed to play.
“All these great white heroes they have running around throwing the football. If they jump in the conversation, it would be so much bigger,” Bennett said. “You look at NFL advertisement, it’s all quarterbacks. Every single commercial is a quarterback doing something stupid. If they were to take a knee with Kaepernick, the conversation would totally change.”
During the more than two-hour session, a video showcased moments in sports history that included a 1968 Olympic Games photo of John Carlos and Tommie Smith, who raised their fists wearing black gloves at the podium to protest racial inequality.
After it happened, former TV broadcaster Brent Musburger, a sportswriter for the defunct The Chicago American newspaper, who wrote a column and called the two sprinters “black-skinned storm troopers” after Smith won a gold medal and Carlos a bronze in the 200-meter race.
“He doesn’t even exist in my mind,” Carlos said Thursday about Musburger. “He didn’t mean anything to me 51 years ago. He doesn’t mean anything to me today because he’s been proven to be wrong.”
Carlos, who turned 74 on Wednesday, June 5, explained how the current sports and activism culture of “shut up and dribble” resonated in the 1960s. During that time, American stood divided on the country’s decision to go into the Vietnam War and ongoing racial tensions.
“While [protest opponents] might take my life, but they can never take this demonstration away. Once it’s done, it’s done. I felt that was far more important than my life,” he said. “When I came into the games, I didn’t go to the games to make a statement for John Carlos. I meant to make that statement for my kids and their peers.”
Carlos later said, “I was born dead. I’m fighting to live.”
DC Councilman Trayon White (D-Ward 8) said a national conversation that features prominent athletes highlight improvements in the city, particularly his district.
“It’s good to see athletes using their platform to fight for a just cause,” he said. “Our young people are going to gravitate toward that. We’re happy to have students from all over Ward 8 to participate and learn and grow.”