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Deborah Antoine: CEO, Women’s Sport Foundation

Did you know 40% of teen girls are not actively participating in sport? (Source: WSF Teen Sport Report, 2018) Did you know that annually, boys get 1.13 million more sport opportunities than girls? (National Federation of State High School Associations 2018-2019) These statistics demonstrate gaps in access and opportunities and the Women’s Sports Foundation aims to change them by advocating for equality in sports for every girl and woman. Their programs include We Play Interactive, which aims to keep girls in elementary, middle and high school involved in physical activity, and the Athlete Ambassador Program, which matches collegiate and professional women athletes with local organizations in order to motivate and engage girls. We had the opportunity to speak with the CEO, Deborah Antoine, about the Foundation and what drove her to build it into what it is today.

How did you get involved in WSF?

I first met Billie Jean King in my former role as CEO of NYJTL (New York Junior Tennis and Learning). When I saw the world champion and icon of social justice standing by herself, in between sets, at a World Team Tennis match, I went over to say hello. It was unforgettable. She was so interested in me and my work running tennis and education after school programs throughout New York City. Billie asked me a question: “Are the kids having fun?” And that question has become a lens through which I look every time I visit our girl-serving programs at the Women’s Sports Foundation. Are they having fun? Are they experiencing the joy of participation in sport and physical activity?

Billie accepted my invitation to visit Crotona Park in the South Bronx, where we were proudly building a $26 million world class tennis and education center where many thousands of children lived within walking distance. Who could have imagined that the champion after whom the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center was named, would agree to name the WSF Billie Jean King Clubhouse—in the poorest Congressional District of the United States?

After the Center was built, fully funded, and thriving, I set my eyes on new challenges—and then came the call from Billie Jean King. The Women’s Sports Foundation was seeking a CEO and I was invited to put my name in the hat.

To this day I am inspired by Billie Jean’s book, Pressure is a Privilege, which has been my mantra in my work and on the court (propelling me to a top-ten national ranking in my age group).

What does the education arm of your Foundation look like?

The Women’s Sports Foundation is a thought leader in supporting equitable access and opportunity for girls and women through sport and physical activity. Education is a key aspect of our work, integrated into everything that we do including research, advocacy and community impact.

We research the impact of physical activity and sport on girls and women and regularly publish reports that help inform those in the sport sector as well as the general public about the vital role that sport plays in helping girls and women thrive.

We are advocates and educate communities, parents, coaches, program leaders, elected officials and policymakers to advance sports opportunities for girls and women.

We impact communities and girl-serving organizations through our programs, grants and resources. This month, WSF will be launching We Play Interactive, a new groundbreaking digital resource and community empowering coaches and mentors to integrate physical activity with social and emotional learning to support girls.

Who are some of the incredible athletes you’ve partnered with?

WSF works with amateur, collegiate, professional, Olympic and Paralympic female athletes across our family of athlete ambassadors, grant recipients, trustees and athlete advisory panel. Angela Hucles, Aja Evans, Tatyana McFadden, Ashleigh Johnson, Naya Tapper, Rachel Garcia, Michelle Kwan, Claressa Shields, Laila Ali and Tamika Catchings are just a few of the incredible athletes we have partnered with.

What is the criteria for selecting these athletes to partner with?

WSF connects with athletes across many channels. We seek to work with athletes who want to help other girls and women reach their full potential through sports. Many of the athletes in our athlete ambassador program have attended and been inspired by our Annual to Salute to Women in Sports signature event and others were recipients of our grant programs.

What does it mean to be the ally, advocate AND catalyst for the women in your program?

First, WSF is the ally—the friend who seeks to understand the struggles and the inspiration of girls and women; providing educational tools and financial assistance to get and keep them in the game.

Second, we are the advocate—derived from the Latin word, vocis, meaning “the voice.” With our collective voice, we stand up for the rights, needs, and interests of girls at the local, state, federal, and global level, influencing programs, policy and legislation based on research, scholarship, and experience.

Third, we are the catalyst to empower girls and women to advocate for themselves and others, to speak up in their own voices wherever they find injustice, inequality, or lack of access to opportunity.

What is some of the groundbreaking research you’ve discovered from your program?

WSF is a leader in examining the impact of physical activity and sport on girls and women, the gaps in access and opportunity, gender equity and strategies to boost engagement.

Last year, we released the national report “Chasing Equity: The Triumphs, Challenges and Opportunities in Sports for Girls and Women”. The report examines the current landscape including challenges, barriers, progress and opportunities for girls and women and focuses on on five core spheres of impact including: Girls’ Sports: Access and Opportunity; Title IX: Awareness, Education and Compliance; Mental and Physical Health, and Safety; Leadership, Pay Equity and Workplace Bias; and Media Coverage.

Another example is WSF’s 2020 report, “Keeping Girls in the Game: Factors that Influence Sports Participation.” This report examines youth access to sport, with a focus on factors that influence entry, retention and drop-out, particularly as it relates to girls and those from marginalized communities.

What is the most rewarding thing about the WSF?

I am rewarded in two ways. First, by the stories of our impact on girls from underserved communities. We partner with hundreds of girl-serving organizations around the country with educational tools and grants, informed by their experience and our research.The numbers we reach tell us levels of engagement, participation, and retention. And even more rewarding are the letters, videos, and social posts which highlight the inspirational stories of the girls themselves, in their own voices.

I am also richly rewarded by the success of our WSF team.The mentors in my life have sparked the trajectory of my career, and it enriches my life to ignite the inspiration, motivation, and confidence of those I have the privilege to lead, and to see their careers blossom with expertise, courage, passion and joy.

Have any athletes of today come out of your program?

We have had many world class athletes come out of our programs, including Gabby Douglas, Gwen Berry, Aja Evans, Scout Bassett and Phaidra Knight.

Michelle Kwan was one of our past Travel & Training Fund recipients. This program supports women athletes with elite potential who have financial need and would otherwise be unable to afford basic necessities such as coaching, travel and equipment – vital to achieve even higher performance levels and rankings. Just this past year, the Travel & Training Fund awarded $75,000 to athletes, many of whom competed in the 2021 Tokyo Summer Olympics/Paralympics or are training for the 2022 Beijing Winter Games.

Elana Meyers Taylor was a grant recipient of our new Child Care Grant, which enables mom-athletes to compete without barriers and helps relieve some of the financial burden that they face, allowing them to focus on excelling in their careers – training and competing professionally in sport. Nine mom-athletes each received the $10,000 grant, seven of whom competed in the Tokyo 2021 Summer Olympic and Paralympic Games.

How many women are currently in your program?

There are currently more than 100 athletes within the WSF ambassador network.

What is one thing you would tell all parents of young women when it comes to sports and physical activity?

Get in the Game! We have a collective obligation to invite every girl into the game--to experience all the benefits that we know accrue from participation in physical activity and sports. This is the BEST investment we can make in their lives. For every girl who sits on the sidelines, each of us can play a life-changing role by inviting them to play.

And Keep Playing! Girls drop out of sports—particularly in the middle years, at twice the rate of boys. We need to encourage girls to Keep Playing and to advocate for a wide range of affordable recreation through elite experiences to play.

What is one thing the people reading this can do to help lift up the women of the WSF?

It is very simple to get involved and help us lift up the girls and women that we serve at WSF. I would encourage everyone to sign The Equity Project Pledge that supports The Equity Project™, powered by WSF, a movement of individuals and organizations that aims to impact participation, policy, representation and leadership in sports in sustainable and measurable ways. Please join us by taking the pledge and sharing with your friends and family to also join the movement. You will also be the first to know about The Equity Project news and WSF updates. Sign up for the pledge here.

Additionally, you can support the Foundation with a donation of any amount. Your gift will make a difference in supporting WSF programs and advocacy dedicated to strengthening and expanding access to sport for all girls and women. You can visit us here to make a contribution today.

What is your superpower?

I am super driven!

I imagine what can be. And I collaborate, strategize, prioritize, and motivate teams to reach our noble, achievable goals. I am not deterred by obstacles, nor fatigue, and I never lose the heart and the joy of the work we do together.

Maybe I have the genes of my great grandfather, the Rev Thomas Cross, who for example, brought his church choir in Lancashire, to sing classical music to those imprisoned in the local poorhouse. Like him I believe we are all called ”to do all the good we can, for as many as we can, for as long as we can.“

Anything else you’d like to share?

The global pandemic has exposed and exacerbated key societal and humanitarian needs. And the work of volunteers—each and every one of us—is more critical than ever to meet those needs to further inclusion, equality, and social responsibility.

Join the WSF community and learn more at www.WomensSportsFoundation.org. You can also follow them on social on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and YouTube accounts.

“ I am not deterred by obstacles, nor fatigue, and I never lose the heart and the joy of the work we do together.” —Deborah Antoine