As many of you may know, my wife was a Division I softball player.
As some of you may know, my daughters are still young enough to be able to play multiple sports – and fastpitch softball is at the top of the list for both girls. So I’m versed in being a softball dad.
As most of you probably don’t know, I actually got my softball start back in college as a student assistant in Missouri’s Sports Information department – and softball was the first sport I was allowed to handle on my own. Media guide … game notes … PA duties from behind the backstop … doing whatever needed to be done.
The point is, I have an affinity for the sport of fastpitch softball. So it was exciting last year to write for the Chicago Bandits’ yearbook and for their online site.
It also was an honor when Monica Abbott agreed to do a question-and-answer interview with me.
Abbott is a professional pitcher with the Scrap Yard Dawgs of the National Pro Fastpitch League and a former player for the Bandits. In 2016, she signed the first million-dollar contract in the history of the NPF – a contract believed to be the most lucrative paid by an American pro franchise to an active female athlete in team sports.
At the time she signed the contract, she was playing in Japan. If you’re a professional fastpitch player in the United States, the season is just over three months long. So when the opportunity arises to perfect your craft and get paid a suitable wage doing it, you jump at that chance – even if it’s over 5,000 miles away from home.
When I initially conducted the interview, the hope was I would be producing the Q-and-A for more important outlets than my site – and maybe I still can. Until then, I want to share her words with you.
Most importantly, I want to share her words with my daughters – and to let them know that athletic dreams can come true.
Chuck: You didn’t just wake up one morning and decide you wanted to be a role model for gender equality – or did you?
Monica Abbott: “I’ve been playing softball for as long as I can remember. I’ve had great examples of male athletes and female athletes my entire career. Growing up in my hometown … to the University of Tennessee … to playing on the USA team. Even a whole lot of coaches that talked to us and the kids on the team – talking about how valuable we are as athletes and how much of a voice we have. Coach (Mike) Candrea would always talk to us: ‘You have a voice. Athletes do have a voice. But they have to use it.’
“I had great examples. In the end, I have this amazing talent of pitching. And if this is the path God is choosing for me – with my talents – then I’m more than willing and very happy and honored to be that voice for so many others that can’t speak up.
“I never dreamed of not playing softball. I never had this dream of being in an office or being … I don’t know … a nurse or a doctor or a schoolteacher. That wasn’t me. I always dreamed of being a professional softball player.”
Chuck: What’s it like to be a voice for empowerment and change?
Monica: “It’s really awesome. I think a lot of people in America are ready for change. Especially athletes. Male athletes and female athletes that have played college sports. We all went through that same grind. A football player goes through that same grind as a women’s basketball player. A women’s softball player goes through that same grind as a men’s hurdler. We all go through it. It’s a unique step for athletes with the skills we all possess. That athletic prowess.
“I’m so happy that I can be this voice. I just hope that I can continue to be the voice for not only other players in softball and that they can rally around it – but also for female athletes, too. It’s important. It’s bigger than me.”
Chuck: Your name has been linked to other voices of empowerment like Billie Jean King and the U.S. women’s soccer team. How does that make you feel?
Monica: “I think that’s an honor. Billie Jean King changed the game for every female athlete from Title IX in women’s tennis. She was the first one. She was the brave one to step out and make a change. The Women’s Sports Foundation helped create that for everyone else – to be able to have the opportunity to also have a voice.
“It’s an incredible feeling. I just want to be the best voice and carry the torch as best as I can for everyone else. It is a really powerful statement and a really powerful message, and I know I have support all over the world. And that means a lot to me.”
Chuck: Who had the greatest influence in telling you that you should get paid the same as a male?
Monica: “I was a Lady Vol at Tennessee. In that athletic department, it was just as important to be a female athlete as it was to be a male athlete. I got to spend a lot of time with Pat Summitt and Coach Weekly – both Ralph and Karen. Even with the Women’s Sports Foundation with Jessica Mendoza and Ms. King herself. And able to talk about some of these issues. Again, just having some really great examples of people using their voice. In my case, it was more of when an opportunity presented itself. If I didn’t take this opportunity to sign this contract … if I didn’t capitalize … if I did not take this opportunity, what would I be doing? I go out and preach about this stuff. I needed to stand on my truths. I needed to hold myself accountable to myself in all aspects of my life, not just on the softball field. And if I was given this opportunity, I needed to be that voice for everyone else. The opportunity is not given to everyone. And I know that. And the person who gets that opportunity – their voice has to be heard.”
Chuck: What does it say that – at the time you signed the contract – you were overseas playing in Japan?
Monica: “I’ve been playing overseas for eight years. I’ve been over here for a long time because – like many other female sports – we can’t make a substantial living in America to be able to not have another job. So playing overseas has given me an opportunity to continue playing my career long after my early years.
“In 2008, I played in the Olympics – and then softball got voted out. That changed the entire forefront of our game. People didn’t know what to do. There were no Olympics. Companies didn’t know where to put their money. ‘Should we still sponsor athletes? Where is the growth in our sport going to be? Is the professional level going to stabilize? What’s going to happen?’
“Japan has a historic league that’s been around a long time. I had an opportunity to come here – and I was asked to play here after the 2008 Olympics. I had a chance to extend my career and continue to play.
“The Japan Softball League is owned by companies, so there is company based support. I play for Toyota Motor Corporation. Each company owns teams, and then the girls – once they retire from the softball team, they have a position within that company. They have an opportunity to pursue a career within the company they played for. So that’s a big difference.”
Chuck: While you were able to sign a big contract, you were the first to be able to do so. How do you think that now happens for other female athletes?
Monica: “The biggest thing here – now there is an opportunity. Coming out with a million-dollar contract – for a long time, that seemed impossible for a lot of female athletes. Now, it’s going to create dreams for 12-year-olds and 14-year-olds that they can make a million dollars, right? But then also the girls that are playing now, it will hopefully give them the confidence to be able to negotiate a salary for themselves.
“The league and the teams have to invest in their players and find ways to keep the girls employed year-round on the same team so that they can continue brand recognition throughout the year. Once you have a name, you have to have corporate sponsorships and TV and all of those things. It’s not just about girls salaries. It’s about creating a name and a brand of individuals throughout that team’s organization.”
Chuck: How tough was it for you to watch former teammates have to stop playing the game because, frankly, they couldn’t afford to keep playing?
Monica: “It’s so tough. There have been some great softball players – and better people – leaving and retiring because it’s too hard to train and have a full-time job in the offseason. They’re just as talented as myself – but at a different position. Whether it’s a shortstop, like Tammy Williams, or an outfielder like a Vicky Galindo. When you’re over 25, you have to make a choice to pursue a career in regular life or try to continue to play softball. It’s a tough choice and it’s tough to watch because there are so many talented people who had to finish too early. If they could stay in the game longer, the brand recognition for that player and for the team that the player is on grows. When that team’s brand recognition grows, the league grows. And when the league grows, you start to get more TV. And when you start to get more TV, you get more corporate sponsors. Everything becomes a bigger circle. So we need to keep players in the league longer to create a bigger brand name for the players – and that creates a bigger brand for that team.”
Chuck: As you look back, did you think the day would come where a softball player could land a million-dollar deal?
Monica: “I did not expect this. In my dreams, I always knew this could happen. I always believed it. A million-dollar deal – I always believed it would happen in our game. I know the pro league. I know softball. I know the Olympics. Softball as a sport is well worth the money and well worth the investment. The pro league is on its tipping point. It’s about to explode. Now it’s a question of who’s going to be involved. Who wants to be involved in it when it blows up and gets that much better.
“Why shouldn’t a woman get paid the same as a guy? You don’t grow up thinking that way – thinking that, ‘Hey, I’m not going to make as much because I’m a girl.’ I work just as hard. I’ve put in just as many hours.
“It’s exciting for a 12-year-old softball player to watch TV and see a softball player getting a big deal. That’s exciting. They should be excited. And their parents should be excited, too. That’s a good thing. That’s a great opportunity. Because if I can do it, they can do it, too. Did I get there by not practicing and not throwing strikes and not being consistent? No, I didn’t.”