What does National Women and Girls In Sports Day mean to Kaitlin Inglesby, Kylee Lahners and Victoria Hayward, veteran leaders of the powerhouse Huskies softball program? It means female athletes have so many more opportunities than their mothers did – and that they should have so many more.
By Gregg Bell
UW Director of Writing
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SEATTLE – You think Kylee Lahners was hot last week while ripping home runs in the first three games of the Husky softball season, while batting .400 with 13 RBIs in five opening wins?
You should have seen 2014’s first national softball player of the week when I asked her to describe how far women have come in sports over the last quarter century.
The junior infielder from Laguna Hills, Calif., said that unlike what is potentially out there for the best Husky football players, the current state of professional sports for women in this country makes it difficult for her to dedicate her entire self to being an elite softball player in college.
“Yeah, I want to be a professional athlete. But I have to figure out what else I have to do (to make a living),” Lahners said on the edge of turf at UW’s Dempsey Indoor facility following a pre-practice batting session last week.
“You have to do other stuff at the same time,” she said, meaning internships and steps toward a job outside of sports after graduation. “You can’t truly dedicate that much time to your sport as you would like -- as the professional baseball boys do, with all that money in their pockets.”
Steam was almost coming out of her eyes and ears, let alone through the tone of her voice.
“It’s just frustrating,” Lahners said, “even though we have definitely come a long way.”
I went to see three veterans of the powerhouse Huskies softball team that reached another Women’s College World Series in 2013. It was the day before National Women and Girls in Sports Day on Feb. 5. I expected to get Lahners’, senior ace Kaitlin Inglesby’s and senior outfielder Victoria Hayward’s perspective of how far women’s sports have come in their relatively short lifetimes.
And I got that. I heard their appreciation for Title IX and the explosion of college athletic scholarships and opportunities for girls and women in America since that landmark legislation four decades ago.
“Oh, yeah. I think it’s just given women a reason to play sports for something other than just because they love it,” Hayward said.
The native of Toronto has been a member of the Canadian national softball team since 2009. She moved to the United States and settled in California soon after she was born in 1992.
“We’ve definitely come a long way...we still have a long way to go."
“Obviously in high school sports a while ago for girls was just a pastime. Now it can be a way to get into college,” said the double major in communications and political science who is writing a blog this season for espnW.com. “It just opens the door for girls to get into a university like this, where they may not have had the opportunity before. And that’s just great for kids.
“I mean, I know people who can’t afford and would never have thought about school otherwise, but with their crazy athletic ability had opportunities there.”
But what I also got talking to these Huskies was their view of how far softball and all women’s sports still have to go.
“It would be great to grow that sport to give women more opportunities and have kids look up to professional women athletes, see that they are successful and they can make it at that level. But there’s just not the money and the support for it yet,” said Inglesby, the 2013 All-American pitcher and slugger whose own personal narrative is amazing.
Inglesby’s bulled through being 80-percent deaf plus having a thyroid condition to be a world-class athlete -- in two sports -- while an elite student. She began her athletic career playing alongside boys, as a world-champion racquetball player into her teens.
Her mother Beverly was told she could play only three sports growing up: swimming, tennis or golf.
“We’ve definitely come a long way,” her daughter said.
Then in the next breath Kaitlin added: “We still have a long way to go.
“Even in sports in universities, they are definitely trying to equalize but I still think there’s room (to grow)” Inglesby said. “I mean, here at U Dub it’s football and men’s basketball that is dominant. There’s still a ways to go to getting our sport out there.”
Lahners considers herself lucky; she’s played softball since she was 8. She joined a traveling club softball team when she was 10. Her mom JoAnn, though, grew up in Minnesota playing hockey and baseball with the boys, because, well, that’s all her school had back then.
Lahners was standing next to Inglesby in their purple and black practice uniforms inside the Dempsey last Tuesday, proud owners of a college athletic scholarships that mostly didn’t exist when their mothers were their age. Two days later they were on paid-for flights staying in a paid-for hotel eating free-to-them food in Las Vegas. That’s where the Huskies rolled through the season-opening UNLV/Sportco Kickoff Classic, winning all five of their games by a combined score of 39-8.
As big as Washington, the preseason favorite to win the loaded Pac-12, is nationally in softball, as big as Lahners was in whacking three-run home runs in each of this season’s first three games, she speaks the truth about trying to play sports as a woman beyond age 21 or 22.
“It’s not going get as big in softball as MLB,” Lahners said, referring to Major League Baseball. “But I think there is still a lot more growing that needs to happen. And obviously a lot more money is going to help that.”
COLD, HARD FACTS
Lahners is the older of two daughters of Joann and Ken Lahners. Her father is a former USC baseball player and now a prominent club-team softball coach in Southern California. Her sister Sydney, a senior in high school, is headed the University of the Pacific in Stockton, Calif., to play softball.
Kylee knows she has this season and next with the Huskies and then but one, relatively limited chance at professional softball in the United States: National Pro Fastpitch.
She knows that NPF is a four-team league – with no team west of Chicago – in which players make an average of $5,000-6,000 per year.
Just to clearly define the absurdity of that: The average annual salary for a worker at McDonald’s is $23,000.
There are just 80 roster spots in the NPF – 20 per team -- with a salary cap of $150,000 per team for a three-month season. With many returning veterans, there are only few roster spots available for rookies out of college in the entire league. And those lucky enough to get one of those few spots better have a Plan B lined up to make a reasonable living.
Lahners knows all too well that Major League Baseball will have a minimum salary of $500,000 for the 2014 season, thanks to its all-powerful players’ union (NPF softball doesn’t have a union) and more money from television than women’s sports could ever fathom. The average MLB salary in 2013 was $3.39 million. Its salary cap is $178 million per team, and clubs can and do go over that by paying a luxury tax to the rest of the league.
Lahners also knows MLB has multitudes more entry points than professional softball through its 30 big-league teams, with 750 roster spots, plus and 228 minor-league teams from Class A-AAA.
These women get that the inequity comes from the fact far more of the American public wants to watch men play pro baseball than wants to watch women play pro softball.
And they are not diggin’ it.
“It’s just frustrating as a female athlete. You grow up watching the boys play and look at the opportunities that they get,” Lahners said. “That’s just the way it is, but ... I don’t know ...”
Inglesby interjected, “One of our freshmen was asking me – because I’d like to play in the NPF – she was asking me what are the salaries, the benefits; she was writing a paper on the NPF. For women, the NPF, you can’t make a career out of it – unless you are Keilani Ricketts, who is THE best in the world ...”
Ricketts is the two-time national college player of the year and ace from the University of Oklahoma who last year signed a three-year contract with the USSSA Pride of the NPF. But according to her league’s salary structure even Ricketts, renowned as one of the best pitchers in her sport, would have to get a second job or perhaps play for another team overseas in the NPF offseason to eclipse even $100,000 in annual salary.
“You’ve got to work another job, September to May,” Inglesby said.
Lahners, standing to Inglesby’s right, nodded in agreement.
Basketball isn’t much different, in comparison between women’s and men’s pro leagues. The Women’s National Basketball Association has 12 teams with 11-player rosters and a minimum salary in 2013 of $37,500 per year, according to a February 2013 study in the New Jersey edition of examiner.com. The maximum WNBA salary last season was $107,000 – and a player had to be in the league at least six years to get that.
She and thousands of other young women in America are living the unrealized athletic dreams of their mothers, aunts and even some older sisters.
The 30-team NBA? The average salary this season is $3,914,807, according to the comprehensive basketball-reference.com. Blake Griffin of the Los Angeles Clipper, at 24 only a couple years older than these Huskies, is guaranteed $94,538,625 – whether he ever makes another basket in his career or not.
Griffin could buy the entire WNBA and NPF, combined. Nine times over.
I asked the Huskies if they saw a day in their lifetimes that salaries and opportunities were more comparable between men and women in professional sports, even if we accept equal is impossible.
“I think it would be really great. But I don’t see it in our era,” Inglesby said. “It has to grow more for 20-some years. I mean, it’s grown so much in the last decade, but it has to grow so much more.”
Lahners has an idea.
“It would be cool to see these MLB guys support it,” she said of professional women’s softball. “How do they not support it? The way I look at it is, it’s your sister sport ...”
“We can’t play baseball,” Inglesby interrupted.
“And you’ve got all this money, and unfortunately we can’t get any of it by going to play baseball,” Lahners said. “We can’t do that.”
“I mean, they make so much money,” Inglesby said, shaking her head.
Lahners shook hers, too.
“It’s disgusting,” she said.
“I GET A FREE EDUCATION. YOU CAN’T BEAT THAT”
Growing up in Laguna Hills, in south Orange County, Lahners also played basketball, soccer and golf.
Last year in the LPGA, professional golf’s women’s tour, Paula Creamer earned $875,574 on the course and another $4.5 million in endorsements according to The Golf Digest.
Now Lahners could make those ends meet.
The money in that sport for women is why she is trying to be practical in keeping the rust off her golf game. She plays semi-regularly with her dad -- just in case. She says she can drive a golf ball 275 yards off the tee.
“We talk about, you can’t be a professional softball player (and make a lucrative living). I look at the LPGA right now and -- pfft! -- If you have a shot to go in there ...
“So that’s opened up a few doors, potentially. My dad and I have considered it, had talks. Keeping options open.”
Don’t get them wrong, these Huskies are appreciative and excited over what women’s sports and the Title IX era have afforded them: the opportunity to play the sport they love while earning a degree at one of the nation’s most highly regarded public universities – for free.
Lahners, who moments earlier was spitting fire over how Major League Baseball players have it made, realizes she and thousands of other young women in America are living the unrealized athletic dreams of their mothers, aunts and even some older sisters.
“When I get heated about the whole MLB talk I find myself thinking, ‘Dude, you are just fortunate to be able to go to school, have your education paid for and play the sport that you love,’” Lahners said.
“It’s takes me to get a little heated about that to realize it. But like Kait says, I don’t think we have had to go through as much as our mothers.
“It’s really cool.”
Inglesby, a senior, realizes the same thing.
“We’re appreciative of it, but we haven’t seen as much as our moms have for how we’ve come,” she said. “In 20 years, to see how it’s changed from now, I think we’ll be like, ‘Wow!’ Like, we still didn’t have that much but we’ve come so far.
“I mean, to get to play at a Division-I school and get a free education? You can’t beat that.”
Gregg Bell is an award-winning sports writer who joined the University of Washington's staff in September 2010 as the Director or Writing. Previously, Bell served as the senior national sports writer in Seattle for the Associated Press. The native of Steubenville, Ohio, is a 1993 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. He received a master's degree in journalism from the University of California, Berkeley in 2000.
Gregg Bell Unleashed can be found on GoHuskies.com each Wednesday.
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