WNBA Legend Sheryl Swoopes Is A Role Model With Her Non-Profit

By Cheryl Robinson

Equal gender pay in sports has been an ongoing saga since women started playing professionally. In May, the news of the U.S. Soccer Federation announcing that players for the men’s and women’s national teams would get equal compensation sparked hope for all female athletes. Although there are still major obstacles to overcome in the other sports leagues, some efforts have been made to shrink the gap. For example, the Women’s National Basketball Association sold equity in the league declaring an increase of $75 million in capital. Additionally, the Premier Hockey Federation committed to investing $25 million into the women’s hockey league in the next few years with a significant emphasis on players’ salaries. Equal pay in sports isn’t just about the money; it’s about the opportunities that equal pay enables the players to do off the court. On a larger scale, it acknowledges the worth of female athletes and how they positively impact the world. Trailblazers in this space continue to shine a light on the importance of women playing professional sports and how it impacts communities.

Sheryl Swoopes, the first player to sign to WNBA, gold medal Olympian and cofounder of Back to Our Roots, continues to serve as a role model for current and future professional female athletes. Additionally, she supports equal pay for equal play. Since signing to the WNBA’s inaugural season in 1997, she has won four WNBA championships, three Olympic gold medals, was the first female athlete to have a Nike shoe named after her, and is often referred to as the “female Michael Jordan.” In 2016, she was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame. Today, she’s on a mission to empower and educate youth to believe in themselves through farming, gardening, goal setting, sports and exploring different cultures, particularly in Africa.

“Being a Black woman in America who has a son, nieces and nephews, I have seen way too many of our kids question who they are and not understand where are they fit in this world,” Swoopes expresses. “Back to Our Roots educates and empowers our African American youth on our heritage, where we come from, and how powerful we are as a people. Part of what we will do with my nonprofit is take some of our young African American kids back to Africa. They can see the motherland, and we’ll do DNA testing so they can understand part of their heritage. The other side of that is we also grow our own herbs and vegetables. We have field trips where we bring kids out and teach them how to grow their own food and learn the importance of being able to be self-sustainable.”

Swoopes began playing basketball at seven years old with her two older brothers. Early on, she knew her skill set was more advanced than others. Her brothers treated her like any other player, which instilled a different type of mentality and the ability to develop her self-confidence. Every time she stepped out on the court, Swoopes was prepared to prove the doubters wrong.

Initially, she enrolled at a junior college before transferring to Texas Tech University. Swoopes set more than ten school records, and in 1993, she scored 47 points in the NCAA Championship, earning her the MVP title. She helped the 1996 U.S. team win gold at the Olympics. Then, when the WNBA launched in 1997, she became the league’s first draft pick.

“When you’re doing something that you love and enjoy, and you’re very confident in your ability and who you are, I don’t consider that pressure,” Swoopes shares. “I consider it an opportunity to show people exactly who I am, what I’m about, and bigger than that, who we are as women. When the WNBA finally happened, a lot of people said, ‘You’re the first to sign. You’re the first at this. You’re the first at that. That’s a lot of pressure.’ I looked at it as an opportunity. I’ve never viewed it as pressure. It was just another opportunity to be great.”

Since retiring in 2011, Swoopes has partnered with JP Morgan Chase, serves as a product manager for Nike and continues to focus on her nonprofit. Also, this summer, she partnered with Nike and Dick’s Sporting Goods’ It’s Her Shot campaign. It’s a collection of nationwide events put together by Nike and Dick’s Sporting Goods to create awareness of the need for safe spaces for girls to play unstructured hoops and make a lasting impact in local hoops communities. Additionally, she’s running her first ever Swoopes Hoops Elite Basketball Camp, a free basketball camp for girls, this week.

As Swoopes continues to pivot in her career, she focuses on the following essential steps:

  • Don’t leave one position before you have something else lined up. Preparation is half the battle but critical when it comes to success.
  • Trust your gut. Second guessing yourself will lead to delayed progress and may even hinder your strategy. Go for what you want.
  • Acknowledge the fear, but don’t let it paralyze you; continue moving forward.

“It was a surreal moment [being the first draft pick],” Swoopes concludes. “I never got an opportunity to watch women play. You could turn the television on and find a men’s game all day long, but you couldn’t find any women playing. I was that woman for little girls to see that I didn’t get to see. So even though I knew it was happening, it still seemed surreal. I was excited. I was anxious. I was nervous. I was scared. But more than any of those emotions, I knew I was ready for that moment.”


Photo Source: Hamish Blair /Getty Images