A little less than a year after its introduction at last year’s U.S. Open, the Professional Tennis Players Association recently announced the appointment of an executive director and advisory board, as the fledgling union effort seeks to make headway in mobilizing athletes of one of the world’s most popular sports. Tennis, a global sport with a long, sporadic schedule and stark inequality among players, is difficult to organize, as top players earn lavishly while lower-ranked players struggle merely to afford to compete. While the PTPA has earned the support of the National Basketball and Major League Baseball Players Associations, the group, co-founded by the top-ranked Novak Djokovic, has failed to attract the approval of the other two of the sport’s “big three,” Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, who instead continue to support the ATP tour, which jointly represents players and tournament owners. The WTA, which runs the women’s tour, operates similarly. Although the PTPA was slow in its outreach to female players, the group says it wants to represent members of both tours, and Djokovic has said that he has been in discussions with top female players, including Serena Williams, about the association.
On June 21, Las Vegas Raiders defensive end Carl Nassib became the first active NFL player to come out as gay and just the second in the history of the four major North American sports leagues as an active player, joining NBA veteran Jason Collins who came out in 2013. In an Instagram video post, Nassib also pledged a $100,000 donation to the Trevor Project, which provides crisis intervention and suicide prevention services to the LGBTQ+ community. The response has been overwhelmingly positive, as Nassib’s jersey became the top-selling item across the NFL in the 24 hours following his post. Advocates are optimistic that Nassib’s announcement and the popular reaction to it may signal a shift in what has long been a hostile culture in professional sports, especially men’s sports, for gay athletes. The number of publicly out athletes in professional women’s sports outpaces that of men’s leagues, where the hope is that declarations like Nassib’s will help erode the homophobic attitudes that have long been pervasive. Just two days after Nassib’s announcement, Japanese soccer star Kumi Yokoyama, who plays in the National Women’s Soccer League in the United States, said they are transgender, further directing a spotlight on sexual and gender diversity and awareness in professional sports.
Just weeks after senators Joe Manchin and Maria Cantwell introduced a bill to prohibit the appropriation of federal funds for the 2026 World Cup until the U.S. men’s and women’s national soccer teams receive equal pay, a group of Democratic female members of Congress introduced legislation that takes the equal pay fight a step further. The Even Playing Field Act would guarantee equal pay among U.S. national team athletes regardless of gender in any sport by amending the statutory requirements for the U.S. Olympic Committee and amateur sports’ national governing bodies. Unsurprisingly, the lawmakers’ statements in support of the law focused on the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team, whose high-profile crusade for equal pay, including ongoing litigation against the U.S. Soccer Federation, is detailed in a new documentary on HBO. In response to the film’s release, U.S. Soccer posted a 17-message Twitter thread, complaining that the film includes a “concerning level of dishonesty” and “a misleading and inaccurate account of the facts.” The Federation reiterated the arguments that won them partial summary judgment on the pay equity claims, including the contention that the pay disparities are the result of different compensation models negotiated and agreed to by separate unions representing the men’s and women’s teams. The players’ attorney, Jeffrey Kessler, pushed back in a statement to ESPN, saying the “USSF, regrettably, continues to try to rewrite the past, making up a narrative that it has offered an equal rate of pay to the world champion women players, but it has not.”
On June 28, the Boston Celtics hired Brooklyn Nets assistant Ime Udoka to be their next head coach, a move that would normally not raise more than a blip if it weren’t for the current climate’s heightened scrutiny on racial representation among head coaches in professional sports, especially in the National Football League. Udoka is a Nigerian-American former player and assistant coach, having played a total of 316 games over seven seasons and coaching for another nine years. To its credit, the ratio of non-white to white head coaches in the NBA is better than that in the NFL, with both leagues predominantly made up of players of color. This year, the NBA’s regular season ended with seven Black coaches out of 30 in a league where 74.8% of players identify as African American. Three out of the four coaches among the NBA playoff’s semifinal teams this season are Black. One explanation for the lack of coaches of color at the highest level of professional sports played primarily by Black athletes is the “pipeline problem,” which suggests that Black athletes who may want to transition to coaching after their playing careers are either not adequately prepared for such jobs or excluded from them entirely. Notably, Udoka was a participant of the National Basketball Players Association’s Coaching Program, a hands-on instructional camp for current and former players interested in learning about becoming a coach. Udoka’s hire is an encouraging sign for former players, new hires, and Black coaches seeking to break open more opportunities at the league’s highest levels.
We conclude with two brief updates on stories we have been following closely. 15-year-old soccer phenom Olivia Moultrie has become the youngest player to ever sign with a team in the National Women’s Soccer League, agreeing to a three-year contract with the Portland Thorns. The deal comes after Moultrie won a preliminary injunction in her antitrust suit against the NWSL, which had unsuccessfully argued that the league’s ongoing bargaining with the players association should prevent the court from implementing an injunction. Meanwhile, on July 1, the governance bodies of all three divisions of the NCAA voted to adopt an interim policy suspending prohibitions on student-athletes’ ability to monetize their names, images, and likenesses. The move is meant to stabilize the playing field as NIL laws go into effect in states across the country and comes in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision in NCAA v. Alston, which, although it addressed only a very narrow issue related to education-related benefits, could have broader implications for the collegiate athletic system.