Black women who broke and continue to break barriers in sport
🏀 WNBA: Signed, sealed, delivered
Where else to start but the WNBA? As the Black women of the W continue to lead on and off the court, let’s look back at the league’s earliest signees.
In 1996, Sheryl Swoopes signed with the Houston Comets, becoming the first woman to ink a WNBA contract. Swoopes then led the Comets to the league’s first-ever championship (and the next three after that!).
- She went on to become the first three-time WNBA MVP and three-time Defensive Player of the Year. And she did it all in style thanks to her 1995 contract with Nike, which made her the first woman to have a signature athletic shoe. Straight fire.
- Plus, Swoopes continues to impact the game today. In 2019, she founded an organization called “Back to Our Roots” which aims to empower and educate youth with things like sports and farming. What a combo.
Lisa Leslie, a fellow member of the WNBA’s inaugural signing trio, also revolutionized the sport. On the court, Leslie’s long list of accomplishments includes being the first player to dunk in a WNBA game, winning three league MVP titles and two championships.
- Leslie continued to break the mold beyond the hardwood, adding author, actress, model and team owner to her already towering resume. Nowadays, she works as a BIG3 league coach and a basketball analyst for Fox Sports Florida.
With icons like these laying the foundation, it’s no wonder the Black women of the WNBA (nearly 80% of W hoopers) are the blueprint. From the league’s historic 2020 collective bargaining agreement to flipping the U.S. Senate in 2021, where would we be without the WNBA?
⚾️ Baseball: Dazzling on the diamond
In 1949, Toni Stone made her pro baseball debut with the San Francisco Sea Lions of the West Coast Negro Baseball League. By 1953, Stone joined the Indianapolis Clowns of the Negro American League, replacing none other than baseball legend Henry “Hank” Aaron at second base.
- Stone’s most notable achievement came during an exhibition game when she recorded a hit against one of the best pitchers of all time, Satchel Paige. Stone later called the achievement “the happiest moment in my life.” Sure pays off to hit like a girl.
Outside of the majors, Mo’ne Davis captivated the sports world in 2014 when she became the first Black girl to compete in the Little League World Series (LLWS) and the first girl to ever earn a win and throw a shutout at the LLWS.
- And diamonds still are a girl’s best friend. Davis is now suiting up for the softball team at Hampton University, an HBCU.
The coaching box isn’t exempt from shattered glass, either. In 2021, Bianca Smith became the first Black woman to coach in the pro game, working with position players in the Boston Red Sox minor league system. Home runs all around.
🏒 Hockey: Boldly breaking barriers
When it comes to hockey firsts, Blake Bolden leads the way on both sides of the glass. After graduating from Boston College, where she took the Eagles to three NCAA Frozen Four appearances, Bolden was selected fifth overall by the Boston Blades in the 2013 CWHL draft, becoming the first Black player to be selected in the first round.
- Bolden then led the Blades to their 2015 CWHL Clarkson Cup title before joining the NWHL (now PHF). In doing so, she became the first Black player to compete in the league, while leading the Boston Pride to the Isobel Cup title in 2016.
- Bolden is still breaking hockey barriers today, this time in the NHL. In 2020, she became a scout for the LA Kings, making her the league’s first Black woman scout and second female scout.
With Bolden paving the way, there have been several hockey firsts for Black women in recent years. Team Canada’s Sarah Nurse became the first Black woman to win Olympic hockey gold at the 2022 Beijing Games, while Buffalo Beauts star Mikyla Grant-Mentis signed the then largest contract in PHF history last summer.
⚽️ Soccer: Kicking down the door
Goalkeeper Briana Scurry is perhaps best known for anchoring the USWNT to their historic 1999 World Cup title. Scurry competed in three Olympic Games over her impressive career, leading the USWNT to two gold medals. In 2017, she became the first Black woman elected to the National Soccer Hall of Fame andthe first female goalie ever chosen for the Hall.
- Since her retirement, the documentary star remains an advocate for the LGBTQIA+ community and also brings awareness to the seriousness of traumatic brain injuries.
As for the next generation, the USWNT boasts more incredible Black women on its roster than ever before, with standouts like Crystal Dunn, Alana Cook, Naomi Girma and Mallory Swanson making star turns.
- 2022 NWSL champ and league MVP Sophia Smith made one of the biggest splashes last year, becoming the first Black woman to ever win U.S. Soccer Player of the Year by leading both club and country in goals. LFG.
- It’s no different north of the border, the likes of Ashley Lawrence, Kadeisha Buchanan and Desiree Scott holding it down for CanWNT.