Voices for Change is PEOPLE's editorial series committed to elevating and amplifying the stories of celebrities and everyday people alike who are dedicated to making change and uplifting others in the fight for racial justice, gender equality, LGBTQ+ rights, climate action and more.

By People Staff
July 19, 2021 09:30 AM
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A'ja Wilson
Credit: Getty

South Carolina native A'ja Wilson went from being a self-described "late bloomer" to the No. 1 WNBA draft pick and a member of Team USA's women's basketball team at the Tokyo Olympics. Her stats are more than impressive: She holds the record for most career points in the history of women's basketball at her alma mater The University of South Carolina. She led her college team to a national championship victory in 2017. In 2018, she was named the WNBA Rookie of the Year and, in 2020, the WNBA MVP. Now, the 24-year-old Olympian discusses her experience as a Black woman and athlete, opens up about the disparity between women's and men's sports and her hopes of inspiring other little girls "with an apostrophe in [their] name[s]." This is her story, as told to PEOPLE.

I was a late bloomer when it came to basketball. I didn't play on an organized team until I was 13 or 14 years old. Two years later, I was invited to the Junior National Team, and it wasn't until I looked around and realized that I was the youngest on the team that it finally hit me: I was really good at what I did. 

But still, throughout my career, I've had moments where I would think, "If I was a boy, this would be completely different." 

Growing up, I always saw everyone being excited to know where the No. 1 male high school recruit was going, and watching as they picked their hats on Decision Day with their families. But I never saw that on the women's side. 

I'd wonder, "Why can't we get the same? My decision is just as important. People are wondering where I'm going to go, too. Why not broadcast it?" I was very proud when an ESPN crew came to my high school to watch me on Decision Day with my family by my side.

A'ja Wilson
Credit: Getty

The University of South Carolina usually comes first to people's minds for SEC football, but while I was playing for USC's women's basketball, things changed. I could see I was part of a movement. 

The city of Columbia would shut down for our games. My pastor would wrap up church on Sundays and tell the congregation, "All right, we've got to go check out the women downtown!" To know that our team created that and we built that culture, it's major. 

But even then, there was still a difference between the men's basketball team and women's basketball team. In 2017, the women's team was going into the Final Four at the same time that the men's team was, and I would go into the university bookstore and see that it was stocked with merch for just the men's team.

I'd look around and see "Cut the Net" shirts for the men's team when the women's team were the ones that went all the way and actually cut the net! I'm not taking anything away from the men's team — it was a big season for them — but we went on to win it all, and while we had the spectators and support, we still didn't get half of what they got for almost making it to the National Championship game, when it comes to credit for our win. 

A'ja Wilson
Credit: Getty

This year, everyone got to see that inequality when women competing in the NCAA National Championship pointed out the differences between their experiences at the tournament versus the men's teams. 

It was hard for me to watch the videos. I was frustrated because it felt like, why does the NCAA have to be bullied on social media in order for them to realize this is wrong? Why do we have to go through the public to make a change? And that just hurt my soul for the young girls, because I wish I could tell them that it gets better. 

There's still a huge difference in men's and women's sports. I went from flying private to games in college to flying commercial with the WNBA — and then taking a bus back because it's safer for us to take a bus than to sit in an airport. We still get bashed. We still get told to go sit in the kitchen and make sandwiches. But this is our livelihood. We play this game that we love and we should be respected for it.

A'ja Wilson
Credit: Getty

I have had to do a lot of work to educate myself; as a female athlete, and a Black woman, I'm a double minority. The world sees Black women completely differently. One look at social media will tell you that. You'll see comments like, "Oh my gosh, she looks like a man" and "Oh my gosh, she's too masculine." 

The woman playing could have beat a world record, and people will be talking about her appearance because she doesn't fit their standard of beauty. Black women deal with it when it comes to comments about their color hair, their weaves, their nails, their lashes. But that's our culture. We're bringing it to light and we're not backing down. 

A'ja Wilson
Credit: Getty

I am lucky to be in a field where I can wear my hair the way I want, and the apostrophe in my name won't impact my prospects — but that's something that Black women often run into. We have to decide not to wear our natural hair because we don't know if we're going to get that job. Or that young girl that has an apostrophe in her name like myself might get her resume swiped right off the table, even if she is the best qualified. 

My goal is to not just to be the best basketball player that I can be, but to also inspire the next generation that looks like me. It's something that I'm not going to stop until it changes. And I would say to that little girl with an apostrophe in her name: Don't let anyone stop you or say that you're not equipped enough or you're not fit. Who cares? Be you. You're on this earth for a reason, you have a gift. Use it and share it with the world.