(Jade Hewitt/Athletes Unlimited)

Cassidy Lichtman understands the importance of her role as chair of the Athletes Unlimited Volleyball Player Executive Committee and a member of the league’s board. The opportunity to help change the game through a player-led league was too good for the volleyball veteran to pass up.

“When they say we’re an athlete-led organization, it’s incredibly genuine and all of the decisions really are run by the five of us,” Lichtman told Just Women’s Sports. “We have a very diverse player population. Sometimes it makes the decisions a little bit slower, but I think it makes them better in the long run.”

Lichtman, 32, was happily retired before Athletes Unlimited’s inaugural volleyball season in 2021. Returning to the court with AU was an easy decision for the outside hitter. From there, the Player Executive Committee felt like a natural fit with her motivations for joining the league in the first place.

“I felt like if somebody was finally going to make a genuine concerted effort to create professional volleyball within the U.S., I wanted to be a part of that,” Lichtman said. “And being a part of the PEC, you have a genuine hand in creating what that’s going to look like.

“It really feels like we’re all on the same side of the table and it’s not a negotiation, it’s a conversation.”

Lichtman’s run on the court has been as strong as her work off of it. After finishing the 2021 season in 24th place with 2,203 points, Lichtman has been on fire in AU’s second season. Currently fifth on the leaderboard with 2,528 points, Lichtman will serve as a captain this week in place of the absent Sheilla Castro. Entering the final week of play, she has already beaten her point total from last season.

Still, while Lichtman enjoys the competition, it’s not her main focus anymore.

“It’s at this point about what I can do to grow the sport, make it better and create opportunities within it for the next generation,” she said.

The task of shaping a new league includes outlining what its values are. When the Texas legislature proposed new laws last September that directly opposed league and player values, Lichtman said Athletes Unlimited co-founders Jon Patricof and Jonathan Soros were the first ones to start the conversation about possibly moving the upcoming volleyball season away from Dallas.

“I think it says so much about the organization,” she said. “We had the venue lined up, we had hotels. Just from a business perspective, it would’ve been really difficult to move it. But they were a hundred percent ready to do that, if that was the right thing for us in the league.”

But as Lichtman outlined in an op-ed on JWS last month, after discussions with local advocacy groups, the players decided it would be more powerful for them to remain in Dallas and be a part of the effort to roll back bills targeting voting rights, youth transgender sports participation and other liberties.

“What we really thought about is, how can we live our values and express what we believe in and celebrate the stuff that we think should be celebrated?” Lichtman said.

During Texas’ first primary election of 2022, the state rejected nearly 23,000 ballots under the new, tougher voting laws. The percentage of returned mail ballots was roughly 13 percent. Anything above two percent is usually cause for concern.

“It says to me that there’s something seriously wrong with the way that the mail ballot policy is being administered,” Charles Stewart III, director of the Election Data and Science Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, told the Associated Press in March.

As part of a year-long voting registration campaign called “Power in My Voice,” people who attend AU volleyball games have the option to register to vote at booths located within Fair Park Coliseum.

In protest of Texas legislation limiting students’ educational opportunities, AU set up a small shop in the stadium concourse that sells books written by and about women, people of color and other marginalized communities. The goal is to lift up diverse voices and stories that have long been suppressed.

The concourse also has a wall featuring women in history who have inspired current AU athletes, including Ida B. Wells and Patsy Mink.

Lichtman’s favorite is Juanita Craft, a civil rights activist and politician who became the first Black woman in Dallas to vote in a public election. In 1967, she also played a key role in the desegregation of the Texas State Fair, held annually at Fair Park.

“There are now women all playing together, women of different races, all playing on the same court,” Lichtman said. “The fact that there’s this woman who wasn’t allowed into the Park with white people, and now she’s put up on the wall to be celebrated, I think there’s something really special in that.”

There’s also something special in being able to play in front of fans again, after the COVID-19 pandemic restricted attendance last year. With the energy and purpose surrounding this AU season, Lichtman knows she could never walk away from the sport completely.

In addition to serving on the PEC, Lichtman joined Athletes Unlimited’s Board of Governors in December. As she works to create more opportunities for women through the sport of volleyball, she’s also given thought to the legacy she hopes to leave behind.

“Volleyball is written in my soul,” she said. “I’m never going to just walk away from the sport or from the sports world.

“I love playing volleyball and I’m happy to do that. But the reason I’m here is to build something that lasts.”

Emma Hruby is an associate editor at Just Women’s Sports.