Indian Tennis Star Sania Mirza, a Pro at Being “First”

Sania Mirza. (Courtesy of ndtv.com)

Sania Mirza. (Courtesy of ndtv.com)

Sania Mirza knows what it’s like to be the first. From 2003 to 2013, the women’s tennis star was ranked as the No.1 player in India in both singles and doubles, as well as the Association of Tennis Professionals’ (ATP) overall highest-ranking female tennis player in Indian history. The 3-time major mixed doubles champion is also the first-ever Indian to surpass $1 million in tennis earnings.

In a storied career of Indian-firsts, however, Mirza’s most honorable “first” distinction could very well be the one she most-recently earned off the tennis court.

On Nov. 25, the United Nations named Mirza the Goodwill Ambassador for South Asia at its International Day to End Violence Against Women. The 28-year-old is the first-ever South Asian woman to be appointed Goodwill Ambassador.

Upon receiving the UN’s distinction, Mirza voiced her desire to fight the epidemic of gender disparity and violence against women in South Asia, while also empowering women to strive for equality.

“My role is a very important battle that I will fight off the tennis court for gender equality,” the 2014 WTA Finals champion said. “Gender equality is what I believe in.”

To Mirza, the problem is cultural, as women are often made to feel like second-rate citizens by their male counterparts.

“To that effect, there is an urgent need to change this mindset,” Mirza said. “Women must be made aware that they are equal to men.”

At the UN event, Mirza also emphasized the need for men and women of all walks of life to get on board with making sports, as well as life, more female friendly in South Asia.

“Equality depends on each and all of us,” said the 2014 mixed doubles US Open champion. “From the government that changes its laws, to the company that advances equal pay and equal opportunity, to the mother and father who teach their daughter and son that all human beings should be treated equally, to the athletes who demonstrate equality and excellence.”

Likewise, the tennis star urged members of the media to advocate for gender equality, as she acknowledged that their influence on modern South Asian society is considerable and far-reaching.

“Media has the biggest voice; they can and should make a difference,” Mirza stated.

At the UN event, Mirza also opened up about her own struggles as a female athlete in India.

“It is difficult to be Sania Mirza in this country,” admitted the first-ever Indian to crack the World Tennis Association’s top 50 rankings. “I think a lot of controversies that I had faced in my career was because I am woman. Had I been a man, I could have avoided some of the controversies.”

UN Assistant Secretary-General Lakshmi Puri touted Mirza’s vast athletic achievements and fervent voice for social issues as reasons for her appointment as the UN’s Goodwill Ambassador.

“She has been a role model to many children, including girls to break barriers and strive for their goals in life and career choices,” Puri said. “She has used the spotlight on her professional success to highlight social issues that are of concern for many Indians.”

With her most-recent distinction, Mirza looks forward to serving as an even louder voice for women’s equality than she was in the past.

“It inspires me to work hard towards a level playing field for women,” Mirza declared. “Gender equality in sports as well as using sports to advocate for gender equality in communities is essential.”

If Mirza’s track record of barrier-breaking feats is any indication of what to expect from her tenure as Goodwill Ambassador, more “firsts” are surely on the way for women in the movement towards gender equality in South Asia.

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Softball Stars Honor Late NCTC Players

North Central Texas College has never produced any big names in softball. In fact, NCTC’s softball team, of the National Junior College Athletic Association, doesn’t frequently play on television and has never won a national championship.

(Courtesy of the Star-Telegram)

(Courtesy of the Star-Telegram)

But, when NCTC players Brooke Deckard, Jaiden Pelton, Meagan Richardson, and Katelynn Woodlee tragically lost their lives after an 18-wheeler collided with the team’s bus following a fall ball game in September, the entire softball world was shaken. A dozen other players, as well as the team’s head coach, were also injured in the crash.

That’s why some of the sport’s biggest names were honorary Lions on Saturday at this year’s annual NCTC Softball Alumni Day.

The Gainesville, Texas community college hosted Olympic medalists Jennie Finch, Danielle Lawrie, and Lauren Lappin, who served as guest coaches at Alumni Day, while Division I All-Americans Amanda Scarborough, Taylor Hoagland, and Lauren Chamberlain also attended the event.

Chamberlain
, a current senior at the University of Oklahoma and arguably the sport’s most popular active star, was especially moved by the tragedy in September, and thus, aspired to help the NCTC team in any way she could.

“I immediately thought, what if that was my team,” the Sooner first baseman said. “It hit me hard.”

For former Olympic teammates Jennie Finch and Lauren Lappin, hundreds of miles of travel couldn’t keep them from showing support for NCTC’s softball family.

“This community has been an inspiration to the entire softball community across the country and we just hope that we can show any support that we can to the people here,” said Lappin, a Stanford standout from 2003-2006.

“This game is so much bigger than the wins, losses, and championships,” former Team USA-ace Jennie Finch disclosed. “It’s about the relationships and just showing support for the organization.”

Similarly, Danielle Lawrie, the 2009 and 2010 National Softball Player of the Year at the University of Washington, was happy to make the trip to Texas to honor the late athletes and provide support for the heartbroken community.

“It was no hesitation for me,” Lawrie said. “With the softball community, you feel really connected, you know, a special bond exists.”

This bond, shared between some of the sport’s greatest talents of all-time and junior college players alike, provided healing and unifying powers in the midst of great sadness this past weekend at NCTC.

“Everybody rallying around each other, it’s really inspiring,” said Amanda Scarborough, a two-time All-American at Texas A&M. “It’s not just inspiring to Texas. It’s not just inspiring to Dallas. It’s inspiring to the entire softball community across the country.”

Saturday’s Alumni Day included two exhibition games involving NCTC players from the past 15 years, a home run derby featuring the honorary Lions for a day, and a silent auction. All proceeds from the event went to the NCTC Angels in the Infield Scholarship Fund honoring Deckard, Pelton, Richardson, and Woodlee.

Middle Eastern Women Face Ongoing Battle for Sports Rights

For Middle Eastern women, conflicts exist far beyond the political and military landscapes in the turmoil-laden region. Amid constant battles for fundamental human rights lie the issues of women’s rights to play sports and attend sporting events. But, because of the dominating presence of male authorities in Middle Eastern nations, women are often overmatched, and even unarmed, in the battle for sports rights.

Saudi Arabia's Sarah Attar at the 2012 London Olympics (Courtesy of Buzzfeed).

Saudi Arabia’s Sarah Attar at the 2012 London Olympics. (Courtesy of Buzzfeed)

In Saudi Arabia, women and their participation in sports are largely left by the wayside, and often neglected altogether. In September, Saudi Arabian government officials denied female athletes the right to compete at the Asian Games, after allowing two of their women to compete in the 2012 London Olympics -– Sarah Attar in track and field and Wujdan Shahrkhani in judo -– for the first time in the country’s history.

Although neither woman met the qualifying standards set by the International Olympic Committee, they gained entry because of the IOC’s “universality” clause that permits athletes with special circumstances to compete “for reasons of equality.” While at the Olympic Games, however, both women had to wear traditional Saudi clothing and be under the constant guardianship of men.

Mohammed al-Mishal, the secretary-general of Saudi Arabia’s Olympic Committee, justified his country’s decision to omit Saudi female athletes from this year’s Asian Games by saying “they were not yet competitive enough.” The kingdom’s justification, however, fails to acknowledge its age-old rejection of women’s rights, especially those of the sporting variety.

While al-Mishal added that Saudi Arabia promises to permit female athletes at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, he says their participation will be reduced to equestrian, fencing, shooting, and archery -– as dictated by the Quran.

Despite the strides Saudi Arabian officials are promising to make for female athletes in 2016, Human Rights Watch Middle East and North Africa director Sarah Leah Whitson isn’t yet sold on the government’s efforts.

Whitson said, “Two years after the London Olympics, the time for excuses is over -– Saudi Arabia needs to end its discrimination against women and ensure women’s right to participate in sport on an equal basis with men.”

Saudi Arabia's Wujdan Shahrkhani (Courtesy of feministing.com).

Saudi Arabia’s Wujdan Shahrkhani. (Courtesy of feministing.com)

However, it will take more than just the entry of Saudi Arabian women into the 2016 Olympics to reverse the trend of gender discrimination in the tumultuous Middle Eastern nation.

The first step is to lift the ban on women’s sports in Saudi Arabian public schools. With the absence of physical education and female sports teams in the country’s schools and universities, there aren’t any easily accessible feeder outlets available for women’s competition on the international level.

In addition, private training facilities are in short supply for Saudi women, and are usually limited to the country’s upper echelon. Plus, without the presence of females in Saudi Arabia’s sporting federations, aside from Arwa Mutabagani in the Equestrian Federation, Saudi women are lacking a voice in the sports world.

Apart from the ongoing battle for rights to play sports, Saudi women have long since struggled for rights to attend sporting events. Although plans to build separate sections for women in Saudi Arabian stadia have been in the works for years, they have been fervently quelled by conservative government officials, who wish to keep men and women apart in social settings like sporting events.

According to BBC News, a brave Saudi female soccer fan caused a social media uproar when she attended a match between Saudi Arabia’s team Al Hilal and the United Arab Emirates’s (UAE) Al Ain in October. Even though the match was played in the UAE, which allows females to attend sporting events, the Saudi woman’s act of defiance against her motherland’s laws was not well-received amongst Saudi men.

A video posted to YouTube captures the female soccer fan in attendance, and displays over 900 angry comments from heated Saudi Arabians.

One reads, “Women aren’t interested in football, so why go to a stadium to watch a live match.”

Another says, “Does this woman not have a man? Her place is in the house.”

This incident reflects a similar situation in Iran, which, like Saudi Arabia, prevents the entry of women into sports stadia.

Also in October, 25-year-old British-Iranian Ghoncheh Ghavami was sentenced to one year in prison after having been arrested in June while attending a volleyball match between Iran and Italy. Ghavami subsequently underwent a hunger strike while incarcerated in Tehran’s Evin prison.

According to an article in the New York Times, “she was protesting against a new rule barring women from attending men’s volleyball matches.”

While human rights activists have rallied for Ghavami’s release from jail for simply attending a volleyball match, Iran’s judiciary officials are rejecting the notion that her case is a sports issue.

Ghavami was charged with dispersing anti-Iran propaganda during the match, along with several other female protestors. According to her lawyer, however, “she will be retried.”

However, good news finally came for Ghavami and other Iranian female sports fans. The Huffington Post recently reported that the International Volleyball Federation (FIVB) threatened to strip Iran of its right to host the 2015 Under-19 men’s world volleyball championship if it continues banning the attendance of women from matches.

Although the recent action of the FIVB is a step in the right direction for Middle Eastern women, the battle for sports rights will be ongoing for years to come.

According to Adam Coogle, a Saudi Arabia researcher for Human Rights Watch, achieving progress in a country that is firmly set in its conservative cultural and religious ways involves help from outsiders, as well as the passing of time.

“There are a lot of serious reformists who want to see change but it takes a lot of time, months and years, to get the smallest changes,” Coogle told Reuters.

In the meantime, Middle Eastern women are hoping that the achievement of sports rights will someday be a peaceful endeavor. But, only time will tell if it will prove to be the fight of their lives.

Months Later, Mo’ne Davis’ Impact Persists

Courtesy of Sports Illustrated

(Courtesy of Sports Illustrated)

With the last traces of summer having just been trampled under the feet of trick-or-treaters across the country, Mo’ne Davis’ impact on the sports world is still just as strong as it was in the late-August heat.

The Taney Little League pitching sensation from Philadelphia stunned America with her 70 mile-per-hour fastball at the Little League World Series this past summer, and became the first girl to pitch a complete-game shutout at the annual tournament in Williamsport, Penn. During the 11-day, world-wide competition, the 13-year-old hurler also became the first-ever Little Leaguer (boy or girl) featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated.

And unlike many of her Little League predecessors, Davis hasn’t fizzled into obscurity with the changing of seasons.

Since Taney’s squad returned home from Williamsport at the end of August, Davis has been on the Tonight Showdonated her jersey to the Baseball Hall of Fame, and threw out the first pitch of Game 4 of the World Series between the San Francisco Giants and Kansas City Royals. She is also profiled in Teen Vogue’s November issue, and was recently named by Time magazine as one of the nation’s 25 most influential teens of 2014. Davis is set to receive the Musial Award for extraordinary character later this month at the annual Musial Awards in St. Louis.

Most noticeably, Davis is the subject of Chevrolet’s newest commercial, which first aired on FOX on Oct. 21 during Game 1 of the World Series.

The Spike Lee-directed 60-second spot depicts Davis as America’s daughter; a confident three-sport athlete, who eats pizza, loves her family, and stands for girls who want to play sports with the boys.

The spot ends with the tagline, “Chevrolet celebrates Mo’ne Davis, and those who remind us that anything is possible.”

Davis’ commercial not only keeps her as a mainstay symbol of empowerment for female athletes, but it could also prove to open up doors for college athletes in the future.

Following the release of Chevy’s commercial, the NCAA announced that Davis could profit on her likeness and still be eligible for future participation in college athletics.

NCAA spokeswoman Emily James said in a statement, “This waiver narrowly extends the rules — which allow Davis to accept the payment and still be eligible in any other sport — to include baseball.” James continued, “The NCAA staff also considered the historically limited opportunities for women to participate in professional baseball. In addition, Davis is much younger than when the vast majority of the prospect rules apply.”

While Mo’ne Davis is not yet, and may never be a college athlete, she has cracked open the door for certain unique circumstances to be considered by the NCAA as reason enough to grant compensation to amateur athletes. With the NCAA’s decision, the eighth-grader has inadvertently added to her list of ground-breaking influences on the sports world, in just a matter of months.

For Davis, Chevy’s commercial isn’t just a feel-good ploy to sensationalize her success and stir up some controversy within the NCAA; it is her reality, and it reveals why the pitching star may just emerge as the Billie Jean King of our time. An avant-garde female athlete, if you will.

Sure, there have been several other pioneering female athletes who have come before her, but none have been quite like Mo’ne Davis.

Courtesy of Teen Vogue

(Courtesy of Teen Vogue)

She is talented, poised, and self-assured. She knows what she wants, and she’s not afraid to go get it. She is wise beyond her years, and she has set a trailblazing precedent for other young women to follow.

The combination of these qualities is what has kept, and will continue to keep, Mo’ne Davis relevant long after her team’s elimination from the Little League World Series.

Because, even if Davis doesn’t make the successful transition to a regulation-sized baseball field, or if she is never the point guard for Geno Auriemma’s UCONN Huskies like she hopes to be someday, or if she soon finds another passion that takes her away from sports altogether, her influence on young women will remain revolutionary.

During the Little League World Series, Davis said, “Probably like a couple of years from now, there’ll be a lot of girls here, and then it won’t be just like all boys, so they’ll have to build like another dorm for girls, so it’ll be a huge impact if more girls start playing.”

With Davis as the budding spokeswoman of a new generation of American daughters, young females will follow her lead to defy society’s sports norms and emerge from the shadows of their male counterparts.

And pretty soon, the Mo’ne Davises of the world will be the rule, not the exception.