Kelsey Stewart has been a member of Team USA softball since 2014. A University of Florida graduate, she led the Gators to two National Championships. Recently, Stewart was among the 18 softball players who quit Scrap Yard Fast Pitch in response to a controversial tweet from the team’s GM. The players went on to form This is Us Softball. Below, Stewart discusses the events of the last few weeks and what softball can do to become more inclusive. 

(Editor’s note: this conversation took place shortly before This is Us Softball announced they would be cancelling the remainder of their season due to coronavirus.)

What was your reaction when you first read the tweet from Connie May, the Scrap Yard GM? How did the events unfold? 

I had actually left that morning, before the game, because I had to go take care of some personal stuff. One of my friends sent me the tweet and she was like, “Is this serious?” When I went on Twitter and saw the tweet firsthand, it was actually unbelievable. I screenshotted it and sent it to the girls. Then, I sat there and I thought about it. Should I make a statement? Should I not?

I realized I’ve been quiet for so long. I had been having conversations with other Black softball players over the past few weeks, so I knew this was the perfect opportunity for me to stand up for what I believe in and take a stance. I sent a message in the GroupMe saying that I respected whatever decision everyone wanted to make, but I personally would not play for this organization ever again.

A lot of people thought that it was about the flag or us standing during the anthem, but it wasn’t. She basically used us as a political pawn. She threw her views on us. She didn’t allow us to have a voice. And it was very insensitive to what’s going on with the Black Lives Matter movement.

How did it progress from a few players speaking out to more players quitting the team? 

I think everyone saw how hurt I was and how hurt Kiki [Stokes] was. Everyone was in agreement. That’s it. Everyone just got on board. Then, we started the This Is Us team, which is super cool. It’s about empowerment, unity, and awareness. I think we’re doing a great job. We have a website, This Is Us Softball, and I think we’re making great waves in the softball community.

What was the atmosphere like after you left the team and how is it now with the formation of the This Is Us team? 

I think when I left, everyone was a little stressed out. They were confused. They didn’t understand what was going on. I think it’s hard to relate to what Black people go through when it’s not your own issue. I think that this was the first time most of them had to deal with it firsthand, and it really opened their eyes.

Now, we’ve all decided to change the narrative — make it about this movement and what we can do as softball players to make our sport more inclusive. Now, it’s a little more lighthearted. We’re playing for something way bigger than ourselves. As you get older and you become professional, you sometimes forget about those reasons. To find something bigger than yourself is always a great thing.

How do you think softball, specifically, can be more inclusive and supportive of its Black athletes?

I think that it starts at a young age. A lot of people in the Black community don’t play softball or baseball because they are expensive sports. I think we can find ways to give back to the younger generations. I know I go through bats and gloves often — I get a new glove every year and my old gloves are still in great shape. Once you’re done with your equipment, you can donate it to younger kids and it will make a difference. Then, as far as the college level and the professional level goes, I think we need to allow players to have a voice. We need to allow them to have a platform to express their beliefs, and be proud of their background, and not have to hide who they are.

The This Is Us team consists of 11 players who are also on the Team USA roster. How do you think that being together in this movement has allowed you all to become closer, and what do you think you all have learned?

I think we were already getting closer before this because we were on tour with each other. Then, with COVID, it stopped. I think we knew that if we were going to be in this, we had to be in it together. That is something that I will take with me forever because this is the first time where I feel like my teammates truly and honestly have my back — that they would do anything and everything for me. We’ve learned that we can trust each other, no matter what. Now I know that my teammates would defend me to the death, and that’s pretty cool.

We’ve also learned how powerful our voices really are. Softball is not on the same level as soccer or volleyball. But our voices are powerful and we can reach a lot of people. It was important for us to stand up and realize that people do want to hear our stories. It doesn’t matter how big our platform is. As long as we stand for something that matters, it will reach the masses.

What does it mean to you, in our current political and social climate, to represent the United States at the national level?

Now, it’s bigger than ever. I think that the Olympics being postponed was actually a blessing in disguise because I’ve had this opportunity to use my platform. There is more awareness now. And I can really represent the Black girls. I was fortunate growing up that softball was in the Olympics consistently, and I saw Natasha Watley and realized, wow, I can be just like her. Now, I have my platform and I can really thrive in that. Michelle [Moultrie] and I are the only Black girls on our team, but we can now thrive in that. We have the platform to engage the younger generations, and allow them to want to be in our position, and encourage them that they can do anything they put their minds to.

You’re signed on to play for Athletes Unlimited. What do you think that league, especially as a new league, can do to promote inclusion and equality within the sport at the professional level? 

Athletes Unlimited has, honestly, been a refreshing experience. They do everything so professionally. We are always informed. I think they do a great job with allowing us to have a platform to use our voices. When everything started with the Black Lives Matter movement, they were one of the first organizations to reach out and say, “What can we do to help?” They are asking our opinions and they want to have meetings. The amount of people in this league who are from different backgrounds and different ethnicities is really cool. I’m excited for this new league to start because I think it’s going to be fantastic and it’s going to grow into something even bigger.

Has there been any word from Athletes Unlimited as to when you will start play, or if there will be a season?

We actually start on August 30th. We will report there either August 17th or a couple of weeks earlier, so we can quarantine. We won’t have any fans, but Athletes Unlimited partnered with ESPN and CBS so you can watch all of the games online.

Why do you think it’s important for athletes to speak up about social justice issues, specifically racial inequalities, in and beyond the sport?

The people who motivated me and inspired me to use my voice were Natasha Cloud and LeBron James. As athletes, we have a platform — we reach the masses. We reach the younger generations and the older generations. If we stay quiet, nothing will change. People support us on the court and they support us on the field. I think people need to realize, though, that yes, we are athletes, but we are also people and we fight different things every day. People learning who we are, beyond our sport, will really change the next generations. As athletes, we have to have a voice in everything that is going on. We have to vote. Just because we play a sport, doesn’t mean that is who we are. It’s just something we do.

The Olympics were postponed until 2021. What is happening in the meantime with Team USA? Are you planning on training together once it is safe to do so? 

We will probably start training this fall. It’s still up in the air because, with COVID, everything changes daily. As of right now, we have a couple of training sessions scheduled for this fall, and then we will start to tour again in February. Fingers crossed that everything stays on course.

Is there anything else that you want to mention?

On a lot of my posts recently, there have been comments from people saying that they want to put their bat and their glove down. Right now, I think that all of us older softball players are going through this so that younger players don’t have to. To all the younger players, keep swinging, keep playing catch, and we will protect you the whole way.