Since the International Olympic Committee voted to remove softball from the Olympic Games for 2012 and beyond, the sport has not been the same on the international level. However, here in the U.S., the sport has continued to grow on the youth level in huge numbers, from T-ball through college.
In my work as a college softball analyst for ESPN, I have seen this amazing game regularly outperform regular-season college baseball games in terms of television ratings. Softball is dearly loved in this country. But the big question remains: what happens to the 22-year-old softball player after she leaves college?
Over the past two years, as president of the Women's Sports Foundation, I have heard Billie Jean King -- the foundation's founder and a huge mentor to me -- tell the history of women's tennis. The birth of the professional women's game began when King and eight other brave women (later dubbed "The Original Nine") left the U.S. tour to create their own pro tour (the Virginia Slims Tour). Long story short, they succeeded in bringing gender equality to U.S. and international tennis, and this success ultimately led to tennis' reintroduction to the Olympics.
Even before softball was eliminated from the Olympic program, Billie Jean used to tell me, "Jess, you need to get a successful professional league here in the U.S., and you all have to stick together. The future of the sport is not with the national team alone, but with a pro league you all believe in." Her words resonate more than ever today, as we are all making a huge decision for our sport.
As much as I want to see softball return to the Olympic Games, there is something this sport needs even more: an opportunity for women to play softball for a living. Not as a side job. Not just recreationally. Instead, they should be able to make a living playing the sport they love so dearly. Softball players shouldn't have to stop playing at age 22 because there are so few opportunities out there. And they shouldn't have to live abroad, like basketball players did in the pre-WNBA era, because only other countries' pro leagues are willing to pay them to play. I have seen more and more women in other sports (snowboarding, basketball, tennis, BMX and golf, to name a few) create opportunities to play for a living because of the professional opportunities they, and sponsors, have created. My dream now is to create these same professional opportunities for every young softball player out there.
For the first time in the history of our sport, we have a professional softball league, called National Pro Fastpitch, which is here to stay. But to thrive, the NPF needs the help of biggest names in softball. Today is the day you can see the birth of the decision we have had to make. As players, we have tried to play with both the U.S. national team and the NPF, but as in any endeavor, you cannot make something the best unless you give it 110 percent. And as much as we all have wanted to try to make both the league and Team USA successful, the support for us to play professionally and with the U.S. national team is no longer there. So the decision has been made by all of the 2008 Olympic team members who are still playing -- myself, Natasha Watley, Cat Osterman, Monica Abbott, Caitlin Lowe, Lauren Lappin, Andrea Duran, Vicky Galindo -- along with current national team members, to leave the U.S. National team and play exclusively in the NPF.
The reason this decision is so hard? There is nothing better than playing a sport you love with the three best letters, U-S-A, across your chest. I have been blessed to play with the national team for the last decade, through two Olympics, and it has provided me with the best softball memories of my life. I am hoping this is not a goodbye from the national team. I am hoping for a future in which our pro league and our national team can work together, and we will not have to choose between one or the other.
But until that day comes, I ask those of you who support not only softball, but also the idea of a future where girls can grow up to play softball for a living, to educate others about the NPF. Then maybe one day girls will be able to answer the eternal question, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" with the response, "I want to be a softball player" -- and have it be a viable possibility.
Please read my teammates' blogs to hear their voices on this topic as well: