When Ifeoma Onumonu was selected eighth overall by the Boston Breakers at the 2017 NWSL college draft, she went on stage to give a short speech and get draped with a new blue-and-white Breakers scarf. All ten first-round picks were present at the draft this year, a first for the NWSL, which kicks off its fifth season on April 15. Five of those players—Onumonu, Kayla Mills, Darian Jenkins, Margaret Purce, and Miranda Freeman—were women of color, the most in the first round since the league's first draft in 2013. By the end of the night, 11 women of color were drafted, out of the 40 total selections.
"It's exciting that there's so many women of color," Onumonu said just after she walked off the conference hall stage. "Half of the first round picks being women of color just shows this sport's expanding. It's becoming popular. People are becoming more open to it."
Women's soccer, especially at the highest levels, has long been a predominantly white, suburban sport. While the exact percentage fluctuates from year to year, white players have made up more than three-quarters of the NWSL since its inception; through the end of the 2016 season, of the 221 players who saw playing time, 76.5 percent were white. The U.S. women's national team, meanwhile, has had only 15 women of color on its World Cup and Olympic rosters over the past 26 years.
That lack of diversity is built into the system, starting from the ground up. It takes a lot to get noticed among the bevy of good D-I women's soccer programs; to even get to that level a player normally has to be scouted through high school, which usually entails having access to elite club programs that cost thousands of dollars a year in fees, equipment, travel, and other expenses. This "pay-to-play" system means that Black and Hispanic households, which according to the U.S. Census Bureau have lower median incomes compared to non-Hispanic White households, are more likely to get priced out of high-level soccer early on.
On top of that, there are also cultural barriers—many women of color get the signal that they don't belong in soccer. "Even when I was growing up, I was pushed into certain sports ... mostly track, which is supposed to be—it's a predominantly African-American sport, especially for women," Onumonu said. Crystal Dunn, who played for the NWSL's Washington Spirit for three years before signing with Chelsea this fall, also alluded to the role preconceived notions of black female athletes plays in the soccer world. "I think there's so many stereotypes about black women playing soccer, [that] all they are is fast," she said at the most recent USWNT camp in Carson, California, last month.
And so this year's NWSL draft was greeted by many as a sign of progress. "I think this sport, you don't see too many women of color," said Lynn Williams, a forward for the North Carolina Courage and a former sixth overall pick in the 2015 draft who was also at the Carson camp. "And I think [the draft results are] awesome. It grows the sport, it shows that we're diversifying, it's not just a predominantly white sport."
That kind of visibility matters. In a Facebook post around Black History Month in 2015, Sydney Leroux, who made a name for herself as a forward in recent years, recounted meeting fans while training with the national team in Florida, and how a young black girl tearily told her, "I look like you and I want to be just like you."
"What happened that day," Leroux wrote, "was my life. The ability to have people look at you as a woman of color and say, 'I look like you, I want to be like you,' and have them believe that it is possible."
"I think that [the national] team has done a great job of inspiring little girls of color to pursue soccer and go in that direction," Williams said. "So I think it's just great to see that other little girls are going to look up and be like, 'Wow, I see somebody who looks like me playing.' It's really exciting."
Williams was one of 13 women of color in the national team's 35-player camp in January; some of them are U23 players, some are on the fringes of the WNT, and some are already well integrated into the roster. By contrast, Pia Sundhage's end-of-2011 training camp roster had only four WOC out of 30 players. A Tom Sermanni training camp at the beginning of 2013 had four WOC on a roster of 29. So did Jill Ellis' January training camp two years later—they were, in fact, the same four women (and the overall lack of turnover on the U.S. women's roster for several years was a definite factor in how few WOC were able to break into those ranks).
But the recent surge in diversity is less a result of any coordinated effort on the part of the U.S. Soccer Federation and more an indirect consequence of a renewed emphasis on expanding the national team's talent pool and integrating newer, younger athletes in preparation for the 2019 World Cup and the 2020 Olympic cycle.
"There is a desire to see players and women of color participate at more frequent and at higher levels," said Benjamin Lear, a member of USSF's all-volunteer diversity task force. Beyond desire, however, the federation may not actually be implementing much in the way of outreach efforts. "As to program or feature that addresses [more women of color] from a diversity perspective and from a socioeconomic perspective, which statistically likely embraces a lot of those women," Lear said, "I don't know of anything specific as to reach those populations, no."
Doug Andreassen, the head of the diversity task force, said that USSF's efforts kick in at the U14 age group; the federation has little effect on younger age groups beyond technical aspects like ball and field size. Due to limited resources, his task force has to choose where to focus their efforts, and for now it remains on increasing player participation from all communities, including those that have been traditionally underserved by the U.S. system.
"Our goal would be if we can set something in place at the youth level where youth have greater opportunities," Lear said. "Youth of all backgrounds have greater opportunities to play, and then possibly to learn coaching skills, and then in addition opportunities to learn administrative skills. Then those youth would rise up in the game to some higher level on the field possibly, but also off the field, and then they would also work their way up into administrative roles, as well."
Could the NWSL be doing more to encourage diversity? The league's new managing director of operations, Amanda Duffy, believes the answer is yes. "I think every player has a story to tell, and the league has a story to tell, and that this year and in future years with the league, we want to be in position and have the staff here at the front office to tell those stories," she said during a phone call. "I think as a whole we haven't told enough of the stories about players who have such a diverse background in so many ways."
Today the league is in a better position to help its players. After several years of cautious growth, the NWSL is finally expanding its front office from just three full-time employees, Duffy said, to ten to 15 full-time positions. League commissioner Jeff Plush also spoke at the draft about helping more players become licensed as coaches through U.S. Soccer, creating a pathway for more women in the game at every level, and also to expand the network of opportunities and mentors for players.
When asked if some of those efforts could focus more on women of color, Duffy was a bit circumspect. "We can't say anything is off the table when it comes to that," she said. "For us right now, I think more importantly we need more women across the board to be a part of those programs and to pursue coaching or working in sports as a career. And in part that includes wages and making sure across the board that the pay matches that to what a male counterpart would be making as well ... As we get more diversity with our players, the expectation would be life after playing is going to have greater diversity as well as we continue to bring those opportunities to them for further and continued education."
But is "more diversity" just going to happen naturally, without implementing structural changes to help remove barriers to women of color in the game, both on and off the field? This year's numbers could be a temporary bump rather than a sign of a lasting trend. After all, the WNT has seen WOC numbers on the roster increase, then decrease before: the 1995 World Cup roster had zero WOC and the 2007 roster had six, followed by three on the 2011 roster. There's no reason to think right now that the NWSL couldn't experience something similar.
That doesn't mean this year's draft turnout shouldn't be celebrated, but the need to push for diversity is by no means over and many challenges remain. Players like Sydney Leroux, Crystal Dunn, Lynn Williams, and Ifeoma Onumonu show how women of color can achieve at the highest level of soccer—if only they have the chance.
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