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The Power of My Voice

Aug 12, 2022

STANFORD, Calif. - Cassidy Lichtman is a former Cardinal All-American and member of the U.S. National Team, and the founder of P/ATH, a nonprofit focused on empathy and empowerment in athletics. She now plays professionally with Athletes Unlimited, serving on the Volleyball Player's Executive Committee. Lichtman isn't just a standout in her sport, she's a pioneer, paving new pathways for how sports can make a difference in young people's lives.  
Lichtman will be presenting at an All Vote No Play: The Engaged Athlete All-Star Meeting on September 13, 2022, featuring Stanford women's basketball head coach Tara VanDerveer and former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice. The pair will speak about the parallels between being a good teammate and a good citizen, and show you the imact you can have on your community as an engaged athlete.
She recently sat down with Lisa Kay Solomon, a Designer in Residence at the Stanford, and creator of All Vote No Play.
Lisa Kay Solomon: What is Athletes Unlimited? What makes it a unique new model of professional sports?
Cassidy Lichtman: Athletes Unlimited is an incredible organization. It's a network of professional women's sports leagues that is designed to support the athletes, the teams, the communities we play in, and the sport itself in a regenerative, sustainable, and purposeful way.
There are no set teams or owners in Athletes Unlimited. The format is five-week seasons of play, where teams are redrafted every week. There's an individual points scoring system based on how much your team is winning and your own performance. 
What's remarkable and revolutionary is how Athletes Unlimited centers their decisions and the core business model on the athletes' voices. Each sport has an executive committee of players who are involved in most of the decision making, especially the issues that will impact us and our athletes. We meet weekly throughout the entire year with our co-founders and senior staff to talk about all of the key decisions – where we're going to play, what the venues are going to look like, our uniforms, who will officiate the games, compensation models, sponsorship, and more.
Additionally, we have working groups that include athletes to address issues such as equity, representation, inclusion, and community engagement. Each athlete is also asked to choose a cause that they are playing for throughout the season, and part of their bonus will go to that cause and will be matched by the organization.  
As an athlete in the league, even if you're not involved with the day-to-day operations, you're being asked what you care about beyond just playing the sport. 
The vision of our co-founders is that athletes should have a say in how they're being treated as opposed to the top-down ownership model of traditional professional leagues. The founders fundamentally believe that the league itself is going to work better if you actually ask the athletes what they want, because they are experts in their sport.  
The decisions we've made about the league, from policies around pregnancy, childcare, and gender, to statements we make about issues of the moment, lead to a collaborative and equitable organization that has never existed in sports before. 
It's been an incredible process to be a part of.
LKS: Can you share a little bit more about the history of Athletes Unlimited and the impact it's had to date?
CL:Athletes Unlimited first launched just before the pandemic in 2020. It started with softball, with volleyball next in the spring of 2021. Lacrosse and basketball just finished their first seasons earlier this year. 
From an impact standpoint, it's incredible to offer more professional opportunities for women's sports that didn't have that option previously. Women's softball and lacrosse players, for example, have very few professional options. The idea of giving athletes a chance to get paid to play their sport is creating a positive impact that will have significant implications for the sports and for younger players who look to these athletes for inspiration. 
Athletes Unlimited has already given nearly $900,000 across all the causes that athletes have chosen for their sport. I think we'll likely hit a million dollars this summer with upcoming softball and lacrosse seasons. 
We are also the first professional league to organize as a public benefit corporation. We just announced our public benefit report a month ago, which captures the impact we've had through the equity work and "activations" we focused on in 2021. We've had even more initiatives in 2022 around areas like voting, especially during our recent season in Texas.
LKS: Let's talk more about your past season in Dallas. Can you share more details on your decision to play there and what happened?
CL: We played in Dallas for our first season in 2021 and had made plans to come back to the same venue in 2022. 
In the fall of 2021, when we had to make the decision whether to return to Dallas, the Texas legislative session passed a lot of restrictive bills on abortion, voter suppression, education and what can be taught in schools. There were many things that were fundamentally against the values we stood for and have spoken out about. Our senior staff asked us in one of our weekly meetings what we wanted to do.
We could have boycotted and not played there. The hotels and venues were already booked, so this would not have been a financially easy decision to go somewhere else, but I genuinely think that if we said "we're out," the staff would have said, "Okay, we'll find you another place to play."
Instinctively some of us were probably thinking, "I don't want to go there and play," in part because we were worried about our safety. They had just passed new open carry gun legislation, so we had to wonder: Would people be able to enter the venue with guns? Also, can we ensure that if something happens to our athletes and staff they can get medical attention even if they have to go out of state because of SB8, [the bill banning abortion after detection of a fetal heartbeat, enforceable by private civil action]? We had to ensure the fundamental safety of our athletes before we talked about anything else. 
Once we got reassurance and confirmation about those issues, we were able to explore in earnest: What is the benefit of a boycott versus going there and using our platform to show up in ways that reflect our values and what we stand for?
One aspect that really shaped our thinking was reading about Major League Baseball's decision to pull out of Atlanta in 2021 in response to Georgia's new legislation restricting voting rights. I read a powerful OpEd by Stacey Abrams and a few others talking about how boycotts can be effective, but they can also hurt the very people that you're trying to stand up for and protect. 
We were very aware that we're not a household name (yet), so announcing a boycott might not realistically have a big effect. We wanted to explore how we could use our season there for good. We talked to community members on the ground to ask what they wanted us to do.  And they came back and said, "We think it'd be effective if you can use your platform to speak out on behalf of voting rights and some of these other issues."
We formed a Texas working group that had athletes from volleyball, softball, and lacrosse, and staff members to explore how we wanted to show up, and what we wanted to do once we got there.

LKS:You not only spoke out; you also amplified your voices and engaged the public in other ways. What did this involve? 
Athletes Unlimited agreed that our athletes would have the freedom to say what we wanted to say while we were there and helped us design our venue to celebrate things we cared about. Instead of showing up in protest, we decided to create a celebration of our values and everything the league stands for. We wanted to create a safe and inclusive place where everyone could feel welcome, especially with regards to voices and perspectives that we thought were being oppressed in other places. 
We also created "activations" in the arena around specific issues that were important to us. For example, we formed a partnership with and had registration tables onsite, which we promoted throughout our games. We had a bookstore onsite with books athletes had recommended that elevated viewpoints that we thought weren't going to be taught in local schools. We featured both adult and kids books, such as Amanda Gorman's "Call Us What We Carry: Poems;" America Ferrara's "American Like me: Reflections on Life Between Cultures," recommended by one of our Puerto Rican athletes, and an anthology on transgender voices. We also sold T-shirts and other inclusive merchandise.   
We created a wall mural celebrating some incredible women from history. Our season was in the middle of Women's History Month, so that was a natural tie-in to our work. We highlighted voices and quotes selected by our athletes of women who are typically marginalized or overlooked, like Ida Wells, a civic rights activist and journalist, and Patsy Mink, one of the primary architects of Title IX.  
One of my favorite women featured in the mural was Juanita Craft, the first black woman to vote in Dallas. She was involved in desegregation, including protesting the segregation of the Texas State Fair. And here we were playing in Fair Park, where the fair was held. She protested the fact that black people were only allowed one day at the state fair. Now her picture is up on a wall within the very venue that she probably wouldn't have been allowed to enter. Now there are women of all colors playing on the court together. 
It was our way of celebrating the women who fought for our ability to do what we're doing today. 
At one point, I was signing autographs and watching little girls go up and read the board and look at these women, and I thought, "Yeah, it's just an incredible thing to see this in the middle of Texas."
LKS: What have been some of the lasting impacts of your time in Dallas?
CL: One innovation that emerged ended up becoming a year-long campaign called "Power in My Voice." Power in My Voice started with our voting initiative in partnership with, and became a much broader initiative around all of the different ways that we can use the power in our voices and uplift the voices that haven't been given the space, but are just as powerful.
Our lacrosse season will be in Maryland and our softball league will be in Chicago. They're also  going to have bookstores and walls based on what their athletes care about. These decisions came out of the working group that was formed once we decided to go to Texas, and have  now become a universal campaign across all sports and geographies.
We just held a TEDx event in Boston, co-sponsored by Athletes Unlimited, where women could come speak about sports-related topics, the Power in My Voice, and the progress of Title IX. We invited women and athletes to talk about their careers, their identity, issues related to media and representation, and health and wellness, including the health research disparities related to women, especially intersectional athletes. 


LKS: What do you hope student-athletes and upcoming Athletes Unlimited players discover about how to use your voice and influence to create positive impact beyond your sport?
CL: I loved my coaches from college and my athletic department, and I learned a lot about being part of a team and being a high-performing athlete. But, I don't remember being asked what I cared about beyond volleyball very often. Being a part of the decision making for the league has given me much more insight into how league business works, which is also going to prepare me for life after sports and to influence positive change in an ongoing way.  
I think it will be powerful for a coach to say to a team, "We're gonna have a conversation about anything that you care about. What would you like to use your voice for?"
It's not about judgment or debate. It's about allowing space to talk about topics we care about. Let's just talk as human beings. 
There's something incredibly enduring and special about that, which will have ripple effects. There's something powerful about an athlete saying, "This matters to me and I don't need to compartmentalize who I am. I can bring my full self forward to further what I care about." 

 Curious about more stories of athletes like Cassidy who are creating positive change beyond their sport? Join Cassidy, Stanford Women's Basketball Coach Tara VanDerveer, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Warriors NBA Champion Stephen Curry, and NFL New Orleans Saints Demario Davis for an Engaged Athlete All-Star meeting on September 13th at 5pm PST/ 8pm EST. Register here.  Pizza to the Polls is sponsoring pizza for team watch parties!

Inspiration beyond Athletes Unlimited Power of my Voice Campaign: