Jasmyne Spencer is a forward for OL Reign of the NWSL. She spoke with JWS about the Black players of the NWSL coalition and how they’re working to put their social justice message into action.

After the statements made by Dell Loy Hanson, what is your hope for the future of NWSL ownership and how do you think the league can continue to progress?

I think one of the big things is that these things are now coming up to the surface. It’s difficult to make change when you’re unaware of it, so as terrible as the statements were, I think it was a really big learning curve to see that within our own ownership group, within our league, that these old mindsets were present. Now, we can flush them out and hopefully bring in leadership that is on board with social justice and social reform and really understand that what they represent is a diverse group of women and a diverse community of fans. It was a terrible incident, but in a way, it has forced us to raise the standards league-wide. I know for us and all the Black players of the NWSL, what we would really like to see is people of color in those leadership roles.

The Black players of the NWSL released a powerful statement regarding his comments. Can you talk to me about what being a part of that statement means to you? 

It’s been difficult for the majority of us to find our footing because we are a minority in our sport. Back in May, when everything happened with George Floyd, a bunch of us felt like, “Enough is enough. We need to do something with our platform.” But, it was also right in the midst of the tournament starting and there were so many things that were unclear. And, for all of the Black women on the OL Reign roster, we were in Montana, we’re in the midst of transitioning to Montana. So, we were very much already isolated in a bubble. It was just a difficult time to even be given space to process and just understand our own feelings, let alone speak on them.

Ahead of the Fall Series, now that everyone’s back in their home market and has had time to process and come together, we thought it was super powerful if we formed our own union, for lack of a better word. Then we can really start to propose some actionable change out there using our platform. This is just another way where we can support each other and check in on each other, and just make sure that we’re all okay and feel secure in our environments and have a safe space to feel and decompress if we need or act if we need. Just to know that we’re, we’re all in this together.

What was the league’s response to your statements?

So far, everyone we’ve spoken to, the PA, the league, and a majority of the individual teams have been super supportive and reaching out and asking for ways they can help. That has been refreshing. I know, here at the Reign, they have been very good in taking a back seat and letting us lead and teach and basically let us help them and guide them in ways that they can be better allies. And, we can do right by the Black and Brown communities that we represent here in the Seattle-Tacoma area. We’re just trying to basically expand that to make it not only league-wide, but nationwide, because we represent a big demographic of women, young girls of color who love the sport of soccer. So far so good, and we hope that we can continue to grow and have a greater influence as time goes on.

We’ve seen in recent weeks the WNBA lead the way in terms of protesting. Does your team, or any other NWSL teams that you’ve heard of have any plans for social justice messaging during the Fall Series?

We’ve all bounced around a couple of ideas of ways we can demonstrate. Our board specifically has reached out and had a lot of positive conversations with members of the WNBA. I think a challenge for us, as I said before, is we’re minorities in our sport, where the WNBA is 70% women of color. We’re just trying to basically learn from them and be advised by them and ask, “How have you been able to do this for so long, so effectively? What are ways that you’ve been able to stay unified as a league to present these super powerful messages?” I think we’ve had a lot of good conversations and inspiration that we’ve taken from them, and hopefully, we’ll be able to execute throughout the Fall Series.

What have you learned up to this point about the role athletes play in national conversations around race and social injustice?

I think our role has been huge. I think it’s always been huge. I think that right now, being that most of the world is still shut down or just coming back to life, we’ve really been able to use our voices more than ever, because we’re some of the few community leaders whose voices can be seen and heard at this time. I think we all collectively as professional athletes just recognize that this is our time to really use our platform for good. I think it’s been amazing to see, across all types of sports, how we’ve embraced that responsibility.

Is there anything that you have personally been using this time to reflect on?

I really have been getting a lot of questions about, “Why now?” Or, “How can we do better?” What I’ve been paying close attention to is just making sure the narrative isn’t leaving out the greater story, which is that most of us have always spoken about these things. It’s just that now, people are listening and then using that, and then shedding light on what the root of the problem really is. It is that our country is built on systemic racism and we have to break it down piece by piece. It’s going to take all of us: Black, white, Latina, everything in between, to really make change. At this point, a lot of us are getting the attention and the questions, and I think we’ve done a really good job of circling back and reminding everyone that it’s really going to take a united front to get the change that we wanted. I think that’s been super cool. What I’ve been enjoying, as I go through this process, is it’s our turn to use our voices to continue to fight for the greater good, which is what we’ve all been trying to do this whole time.

How have conversations been between teammates, while all this is going on?

Here, with the Reign, they’ve been incredible. I take my hat off to our non players of color for really wanting to learn and be better allies and being sympathetic to our experiences. Just giving us a space that has made us feel comfortable in sharing, and not forcing us to overshare traumas. They’ve just been so good at balancing their want to learn more, but not push us and force us into uncomfortable conversations if we’re not exactly in the mood, because it’s a lot. It can be overwhelming. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. They’ve been great allies thus far. We’ve got some really good things that we want to roll out in our community here, that they’ve really taken in stride. Players are enthusiastic about the ways that they can help better our own Black and brown communities in the Seattle-Tacoma area. It starts with those small conversations and, if done well, then you can really start to see some action come into play, and it’s been incredible.

Is there anything else that you wanted to talk about, that I didn’t mention at all?

Just keep an eye out on the things that the Black players of the NWSL are working on. We’re still ironing out the details of making ourselves a legal entity and what we want to represent and stand for in the initiatives we want to set forth. But it’s going to be amazing when it’s all said and done, and we’re super excited to be in this generation that’s really starting it and hopefully setting the future up to be pretty awesome.

Jasmyne Spencer is a forward for OL Reign of the NWSL. Spencer previously played for the Orlando Pride, Western New York Flash, and the Washington Spirit as well as in Australia’s W-League and in the Cyprus and Danish professional leagues. Below, she spoke with Just Women’s Sports about her time in the NWSL bubble and how OL Reign is gelling under new coach Farid Benstiti.

How has life in the NWSL bubble been? What has surprised you about the whole bubble experiment? 

The most surprising thing is how smoothly it’s all been running. And I know that has a lot to do with the league and how well Utah has done as a host. But also our staff has been incredible, particularly our Assistant GM. We’ve been calling her our ‘Tournament MVP’ because she is just crushing it — making sure we have all of the resources possible, anything we need to make this our home away from home. I think we were all hesitant about what life in the bubble was going to look like. We’ve been doing this for two months now, because we were in a bubble in Montana and then relocated. But her and our staff have been so good about making it all as smooth as possible.

Has everyone been following the rules? How has it been with the protocols?

Everyone has been good. When the pandemic first broke out, everyone was concerned so we had pretty strict protocols in the state of Washington. By the time we got into this specific bubble, we had already become accustomed to following the protocols back in our home city. I think it gets a little tricky now because we are obviously in a hotel, and there are regular guests coming in and out. So we have to be conscious of limiting our interactions with them — sometimes we have to jump off elevators because we’re not allowed to ride with them. And then the tournament testing protocol is very, very thorough. I think that has helped ease any extra anxiety that players have because we get tested so frequently.

What about leaving the facilities? 

We’re not allowed to leave our hotel. We’re allowed to walk in the general vicinity if we wear a mask and social distance. But beyond that, we’re not allowed to go anywhere. We’re transported to and from the hotel for lunches and training and anything else that would take place outside of the hotel. We have to be driven in our team-issued vans by our admin. It’s pretty strict. But once the games start, we are so tired and focused on taking care of our bodies that honestly there’s no real downtime when you would want to do much more than just recover and get ready for the next game.

The gameplay has been exceptional so far. A lot of people have been surprised to see just how cohesive teams look with so little preparation. What do you think accounts for that?

This league has always been very competitive, so it’s been fun to get back into it. I do think it’s been a crazier version as far as how competitive everyone’s been. It’s a testament to how dedicated and professional everyone has been in being able to stay fit and focused, training most of the time on their own for those past couple of months. It’s a testament to all of the players and the coaches for doing their homework off the field and making the right tactical decisions.

For us, we have a new coach, a lot of new players, and a lot of players returning from injuries last season. We are for sure still working the kinks out, but the beauty of this tournament is that we all get to go to the quarter finals. So we get these four group stage games to work out the kinks and grow into the tournament. It’s pretty cool.

How has it been playing without fans?

It’s been strange, but also women’s soccer is definitely still in the growing phase. I think all of us can remember a time where you were playing in professional or semi pro games with little to no fans in the stands. We for sure miss them and wish they could be here with us. But at the same time, it’s familiar territory. We’re just trying to put on the best show we can and hope that people are tuning in from home.

Well, they definitely are. I think there were almost 600,000 viewers on CBS for the opening matchups. What do you think it means for the future of the league that people are tuning in to watch?

It’s incredible. I think we really took advantage of being one of the first sports back in this country. The sport has been growing on a national level and on the world stage, and a lot of people have become interested in women’s soccer. The tournament is just another step in showcasing our talents to the world. It’s going to be huge for women’s soccer going forward.

You mentioned playing with a new coach this season and new teammates. How has that been so far, and what are your expectations for the rest of the tournament?

It’s been great. Farid [Benstiti] has done a really good job of trying to build a family-oriented environment, especially in this crazy situation that we’ve all been thrust into. With everything going on outside of soccer, we’ve really been able to come together and be a strong united front. And I think it’s going to help us go far in the tournament. We obviously want to win, but this game is crazy and this league is crazy, so we focus on one game at a time. We’ve always prided ourselves on being a stingy defense and that old saying, “Defense wins championships,” is so real. The goals will come. They always come at some point, especially when you need them the most. If we can really just be stingy in our defense and limit the amount of opportunities that other teams can create, then we know that we’ll give ourselves the best chance of winning in the end.

Is there anything else that you’d like to add? 

The only thing I would add is that it’s been really great to be able to use my platform. This moment in time has given us all, but me especially, a greater reach with the Black Lives Matter movement since there are not too many sports being showcased right now. It’s nice to have you guys giving us another opportunity to use our platforms and share really great messages with the world, so thank you.

On that note, why do you think it’s so important for athletes, specifically, to speak up about social justice issues, especially Black Lives Matter?

As athletes, we have the unique opportunity for our voices to be heard more frequently than say someone who isn’t in the limelight. As female professional athletes, we don’t often have as big of a platform as our male counterparts. But right now, we are one of the only sports that people are going to watch, so it’s given us a chance to elevate and use our voices.