Change can be difficult for many. And in sport, change can mean injury, team trades or retirement. It’s hard to imagine your favourite player retiring. When I think of Christine Sinclair announcing her retirement, which she eventually will one day, I can’t even manage the emotions that will flood my senses. As a life-long soccer lover, I can’t even fathom the sport without her presence.
Similarly, when I read the Vogue piece that tennis great Serena Williams had written to announce her retirement, I was stunned. Not only was her piece beautiful and heartfelt, but she was so candid about her feelings about the actual word “retirement” and how she was having difficulty using it. She played in the National Bank Open in Toronto the next day and was shown so much love. Deservedly so. Serena Williams has emerged to be the greatest player of all time and thinking about her not playing anymore feels sad even for casual fans of the sport.
In the same timeframe, we also learned that two basketball greats — Sylvia Fowles and Sue Bird — would be retiring from the WNBA. For those that know women’s basketball, Fowles and Bird are stalwarts of the game. Women’s basketball is increasing in popularity, much because of their contributions to the league and to basketball culture on and off the court. Bird, Team USA soccer star Alex Morgan, swimming phenom Simone Manuel and snowboarding champion Chloe Kim (all Olympic gold medallists) created a digital media company called TOGETHXR to amplify the success of women in sports.
Fowles has the reputation of being one of the kindest and warmest souls to play basketball and before her final game in Minnesota on Aug. 14, she spent hours knitting beanies for her teammates who lovingly call her Mama Syl. Fowles has been studying mortuary science for the past seven years and will pursue that vocation in retirement.
Speaking of phenomenal mothers, track superstar and maternal right rights activist Allyson Felix also announced her retirement. With 11 Olympic medals and a career that spans more than 17 years, she is the most decorated track athlete in U.S. track and field history.
It felt as if a ripple had turned into a giant wave and the retirement of these formidable athletes would leave canyons in their respective sports. And while their careers have been inspirational, they haven’t been without challenges and struggles.
William has fought against anti-Black caricatures and misogynoir in the media. She boycotted a tournament because its racist actions toward her father were deplorable. Williams has also shown her vulnerability and came forth publicly about her struggles with maternal health, the anti-Blackness she faced while delivering her daughter Olympia, and her postpartum depression.
Women athletes at forefront of BLM movement
Despite being a celebrated Nike athlete, Felix wrote an op-ed exposing the company’s unfair practices, including not offering maternity benefits to their women athletes who had families.
She left Nike and started her own apparel company, Saysh, when she had no sponsor for the Tokyo Olympics. “I was tired of asking for change,” she said. “I knew I needed to create it.”
Fowles and the Minnesota Lynx were at the forefront of Black Lives Matter activism and were critical of police brutality in the U.S. This issue that polarized Americans at times felt like it rested on the shoulders of women basketballers who laid the blueprints for activism and action, in addition to their stellar athleticism
But as women athletes, their rise to the top of their game has been less lucrative than their male counterparts. In a 2021 interview Bird said this about the pay disparity between the NBA and the WNBA: “Male athletes, female athletes — we all put in the same amount of work, I don’t care what anybody says, we’re all putting in the same amount of work. So, is it a hard pill to swallow, knowing that somebody else’s work is being rewarded?”
Serena Williams may be the exception to the pay gap issue, but that is mostly because before her, Billie Jean King, the patron saint of women’s sports, advocated for fair prize money for women in tennis.
Like King, these athletes have left their mark on the courts and on the track, and continue to advocate and support their communities locally and globally, showing that after the whistle blows and the match is done, their toil continues.
In that way, they are retiring from a specific kind of play but remain at the forefront of the many wars against racism, misogyny, homophobia and other issues that affect athletes in the league and beyond.
It is important for these women to take care of themselves and prioritize their families and the next steps of their careers. At the same time, this loss feels immense. In many ways, they have grown their sports in front of us. We have been fortunate to watch these formidable athletes carve out a path for the ones who come after.
If we have learned anything, in addition to the joy of watching their talents and personal accomplishments, it is that this calibre of women will continue to succeed in whatever they do. They might focus on a new career, such as Williams dedicating her time to becoming a full-time venture capitalist with her investment company, or working in a completely new field, like Fowles.
Whether we see them shifting to sports announcing or commentary, or just in attendance as fans, there is no doubt that these legends have impacted sports for the past 20 years. So while change can be unsettling, we are also here to witness the beautiful changes of these players and celebrate their accomplishments.
Now that many have changed the game, we will continue to watch them and perhaps their daughters, change the world.