Student-Athletes Changing the Game and Fighting Inequality

Student-athletes BELatina Latinx
Photo courtesy of belatina.com

The life of a student-athlete is a challenging one — hours of daily training and practice to meet the requirements of a sports team, combined with hours of schoolwork to meet the demands of academic life. It requires a great deal of determination, grit, perseverance, and passion. 

For female and minority student-athletes, the struggle is even more consuming because they have to work twice as hard to enjoy some of the same opportunities that other students have. But the future is bright, especially for these inspirational female student-athletes who are changing the game for others, working hard to set an example for future generations of athletes, and contributing to their communities in meaningful ways that will leave an impact long after their playing time is up. 

Foot Locker is honoring these students through their Scholar Athletes program, which rewards student-athletes who demonstrate exceptional academic ability and strong leadership skills in sports, in their schools, and within their communities. 

Because creating a positive, powerful impact on the lives of others is always the winning move.

Inequality in Sports for Female and Minority Athletes

Even though female athletes are some of the most accomplished and talented athletes in the world (we’re looking at you Serena Williams, Simone Biles, Megan Rapinoe, Allyson Felix…), women’s sports often get only a fragment of the attention, financial support, and acknowledgment that men’s sports receive. 

In 2019 the United States women’s soccer team filed a gender discrimination lawsuit against the United States Soccer Federation, claiming that they played more games than the men’s team, they won more games. Yet, they were paid less than the men simply because they are women. Their lawsuit also claimed that they received unfair treatment regarding inadequate coaching staff, medical care, how they traveled to games, when and where they played, and more, all because they were a women’s team compared to their male counterparts. 

In the infamous 1973 “Battle of the Sexes” tennis match, Billie Jean King faced off against Bobby Riggs (a self-described “male chauvinist pig”) and won, later saying that “everyone thinks women should be thrilled when we get crumbs…I want women to have the cake, the icing, and the cherry on top, too.”

Just this year, during the NCAA Division 1 tournaments, images and videos were shared on social media exposing the extreme differences between the women’s and men’s weight room facilities. After the NCAA was called out on its discrimination against the women’s teams, they released a statement that they “fell short this year in what we’ve been doing to prepare in the last 60 days for 64 for teams to be here in San Antonio, and we acknowledge that,” said Lynn Holzman, the NCAA’s vice president of women’s basketball. 

If anyone missed the initial video footage comparing the men’s and women’s weight room facilities, all you need to know is the men had a fully stocked, huge, weight room and the women had a single stack of dumbbells. Yes, seriously.

In 2020 the Women’s Sports Foundation released a national research report, Chasing Equity: The Triumphs, Challenges, and Opportunities in Sports for Girls and Women, which examined various aspects of girls’ sports in the US: access and opportunity, Title IX, mental and physical health, pay equity and more. 

The report found that while strides are being made in women’s sports, the gender gap in participation persists. The report also found that while overall more females are participating in sports than previous years, “girls of color, girls of lower socioeconomic status, and girls in urban and rural areas often enter sports later, participate in lower numbers, and drop out earlier than white girls, suburban girls and girls from higher socioeconomic status.”

And this past year has been particularly tough for student-athletes, especially female and minority student-athletes. Many high school students have experienced reduced opportunities for sports scholarships amidst the global pandemic, and the barriers to success are even higher for female athletes, which is why the Foot Locker initiative is so important.

Foot Locker Scholarship Program Supports Student-Athletes

In June, Foot Locker announced an initiative to award 20 graduating high school athletes around the country with $20,000 each in scholarships. The scholarships are being awarded to students not only based on their academic or athletic performance but also on those who serve as change-makers in their communities. 

These young men and women are making unprecedented strides toward equity in sports. They are paving the way for a new generation of athletes to benefit from gender-affirming and inclusive athletics. And as the world of professional sports works to move the needle forward in terms of representation in sports, this next generation of up-and-coming athletes is paving the way for racial and gender equity in sports.

These kinds of scholarships are needed more than ever. 

Scholarship programs can have a significant impact in terms of financial support for a college education, especially for diverse students in low-income communities.  For its part, the Foot Locker Foundation is committed to supporting inclusivity and diversity within the community.

“Our goal is to provide financial support to these exceptional individuals and help take that burden off their shoulders so they can focus on what matters — their academic work and personal growth,” said Richard Johnson, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Foot Locker, Inc., in a press release. “I’m incredibly proud of this year’s winners who have overcome so much, all while working tirelessly in their communities to drive meaningful change.” Portland Trail Blazers Forward Robert Covington, who helped congratulate the winners virtually, echoed those sentiments. “Despite the challenges of the past year, these seniors have demonstrated remarkable dedication to their academic and athletic careers, and the strides they’ve made to create change in their communities are extraordinary,” he said. 

We sat down to talk with three incredible Foot Locker Scholar Athletes — Aly Conyers, Amelia Marcum, and Naima Blanco Norberg — who were recently honored with these scholarships. They are as impressive as they are inspiring, and we have a feeling they are going to go on to do really big things in the future.

Aly Conyers
Photo: Twitter.

Aly Conyers

Aly has lived in 10 different places as a military brat, but her one constant was finding a track team. Aly is a 3X All American and 3X State Champion. Aly is also a national social justice activist. Last summer, she led thousands of students during several marches in Washington, DC, after the death of George Floyd. Aly served as the keynote speaker in front of the White House and the US Capitol and was profiled in The Washington Post, Teen Vogue, and other newspapers, television, and radio. She also co-founded a nonprofit organization called Faces of the Future, which has conducted voter registration drives and collected thousands of pounds of feminine hygiene products for homeless women. Aly has a 3.7 GPA and is a member of The National Honor Society. The future lawyer will attend the University of California, Berkeley.

How did you learn to balance your commitment to your team, sports training education, and community involvement?

During the summer, I was out every single day protesting, then attending track practice in the afternoons. It was extremely hard learning to balance these two seemingly opposite worlds until I realized how much they benefit each other. Speaking publicly at protests helped grow my confidence, and I used my small track audience to spread messages about community events. I learned to realize that the more successful I was at one, the more I became at the other!

Describe your most challenging moment during the Covid-19 pandemic. What about your proudest moment of this past year?

Accepting uncertainty was a challenge for me during quarantine, as well as understanding that opportunities will always be there, as long as you are prepared for them. Uncertainty whether we were going back to school or having a track season. Despite all of this, my proudest moment would be leading the Black Lives Matter Protest in Washington DC. 

What do you hope other student-athletes and future generations of Latinas learn from your accomplishments and hard work? 

Own your confidence. A lot of times, minority voices are silenced. So, when you speak for what you believe in, speak like the whole world is watching because they just might be!

Amelia Marcum

Amelia Marcum founded her school’s Girl Up club, a United Nations Foundation initiative encouraging girls to advocate for equality. As President, she hosts awareness campaigns, including a 5K race to fundraise for an Ethiopian girls’ running team and a #HerFitSquad athletic event to encourage wellness and female participation in sports. Amelia serves as one of the twenty-five girls worldwide on Girl Up’s Teen Advisory Board, and her 4.54 GPA is the top mark in her senior class. As a proud Native woman, her cultural upbringing has been highly influential in developing her values and drive to pursue purposeful life work. In 2020, she was honored to speak at the inaugural Youth UN General Assembly on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women. Amelia’s dream is to shape groundbreaking public policy and extend her reach to positively impact Native youth as an ambassador for Sovereign Nations. She will be attending Stanford University.

What were some of the biggest obstacles you faced as a student-athlete, especially as a female minority athlete?

Being a female minority athlete has profoundly shaped my identity and drive to achieve my dreams. I am motivated by the many strong female role models that have come before me and remain committed to guiding the way for future female athletes. Growing up, the biggest challenge that I faced was being cut from my competitive soccer team. Of the three girls cut, two of us came from underrepresented minority backgrounds. This setback in my sports career motivated me to work harder than I ever had to improve my skills and rise above the disappointment. The following year, I received an offer to play on a team ranked six spots higher than my previous team. This experience taught me that hard work and motivation are the keys to success.

What do you hope other student-athletes and future generations of Latinas learn from your accomplishments and hard work?

I hope that other student-athletes and future generations of Latinas learn about the power of resilience and determination. I have faced many setbacks in my sports career, but each time I have come out stronger and ready to take on the next challenge. You can do anything you set your mind to because you are incredibly powerful, so do not let others get in your head and convince you otherwise. Challenges are really opportunities in disguise and how you choose to respond is what matters. So, stay strong in your passion for sports and do not let anything deter you!

What’s next as you embark on your next adventure – college? What are your goals for the future?

AM: Next fall, I will be studying at Stanford University. I am so excited to be attending my dream school! I plan to continue my advocacy work for underrepresented girls by pursuing my education in social justice and international relations. In my future career, my goal is to help Indian Country address challenges on Reservations. I hope to shape groundbreaking public policy, connect with Native communities on economic development, and extend my reach to positively impacting youth as a United Nations ambassador for sovereign nations.

Naima Blanco-Norberg

Naima Blanco-Norberg was voted San Francisco Examiner Fan Choice: Girls High School Soccer Player of the Year 2020 and 2018-2020 BCL-West 1st Team All-League. Naima is a distinguished youth leader, serving her community through her role in organizations such as PODER (People Organizing to Demand Environmental Justice). She co-organized projects to educate and mobilize the community for affordable housing and immigrant rights. She’s the president of FANG (Fostering Activists in the Next Generation) student group, where she organized teach-ins on racial and restorative justice and was instrumental in initiating Ethnic Studies pedagogy into her school curriculum. The Peace and Dignity Journeys, where she organized a youth-led Spirit Run 4 Black Lives to promote partnership across Black and Indigenous communities for healing. Her artistic contributions have included murals for LOCO BLOCO, an artivist youth organization in San Francisco. Her words, creativity, and leadership have inspired her peers. She plans on attending Yale University in the fall, allowing her to pursue her goals.

What were some of the biggest obstacles you faced as a Latina student-athlete? 

I often found myself having expectations and assumptions about what it means to be a Latina female athlete, which at times puts a lot of pressure on me. I’m aware that many social constructs continually impact my thoughts and behavior. However, I continue to challenge myself to be resilient in the face of these social constructs. Representation of female Latinx players and coaches has also been very important to me. Other obstacles included the financial aspect of participating in club soccer and access to other individual training opportunities. Soccer attracts over 4 billion people and is the most participated sport worldwide. Still, when I began to compete at higher levels, I noticed fewer and fewer people of color on the pitch. In the U.S., competitive soccer can be very expensive. At times my family had to ask for financial aid to cover the costs of travel, tournaments, and other team costs.

Describe your most challenging moment during the Covid-19 pandemic. What about your proudest moment of this past year?

My most challenging moment during the COVID-19 pandemic was definitely throughout the college application process. Managing online school, college apps, training and staying in shape, involvement in community organizations, and staying connected with friends was extremely difficult. I was constantly tired and had to learn how to take care of my own well-being through exercise, sleep, healthy eating, and to know my limits. One of my proudest moments of this past year was when I organized and led an Indigenous Spirit Run in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. I have grown up participating in Indigenous spiritual runs across California. It meant a lot for me to take on the responsibility of creating a space of healing and empowerment in my own community last summer. Seeing so many people from diverse backgrounds and experiences unite together in a seven-mile run of solidarity was so powerful and made me incredibly proud.

What legacy do you hope you leave behind for other student-athletes and future generations of Latinas?

I hope that future generations of Latinas and student-athletes learn that it is okay to ask for help. For a long time, I felt like I had to do everything myself, and I would push myself to the brink by putting so much pressure on myself. It is important to remember that you do not always have to do things all by yourself. Finding support in the community, elders, and people who have (or haven’t!) gone through your experience is very beneficial. I would also say always to remember your roots. A quote I consistently use to remind myself states: “A people without the knowledge of their history, origin, and culture is like a tree without roots” (Marcus Garvey). It was important for me to acknowledge who I am and where I come from to stay connected to my cultures, histories, and ancestors.