There are nights when Aleshia Ocasio has no words to offer. Nights spent on the phone with her fiancée when she no longer knows what to say about the world around them. Nights when she feels the weight of the world on her shoulders as a Black woman in 2020.
But there are also times in 2020 when she doesn’t need to say anything to make a point. There are times when playing a game of softball speaks volumes.
As Athletes Unlimited’s first season comes to a close on Monday, Ocasio is a vocal presence on issues of social justice. She works on voting rights issues with fiancée Natasha Cloud, the Washington Mystics guard who opted out of the WNBA season to focus on social justice. Ocasio tries to help her own professional league play a constructive role as a member of its diversity and inclusion committee. Plus, in a sport that historically struggles with minority participation at all levels, it is a chance for people to see her play.
“One of the things we talked about was being visible,” Ocasio said of the women of color in Athletes Unlimited. “We talked about the little girls not being able to watch us on TV. Now they’re able to. Now they’re able to see me. Now they’re able to see Jazmyn Jackson, Nerissa Myers, Kelsey Stewart, Nadia Taylor, people who look like them.”
With a novel scoring system in which players earn points for individual and team performance and one person is crowned champion, Athletes Unlimited had the potential for final-week mayhem, with a dozen or more players spread across all four teams in contention for the title. Instead, barring something calamitous, Cat Osterman’s 410-point lead should be insurmountable.
Yet for all of Osterman’s familiar dominance, Ocasio enters as arguably the season’s breakout star when their teams meet Sunday (ESPN2, 4 p.m. ET). Currently fourth in the standings, despite leaving the league’s bubble for a week because of a family emergency, Ocasio is the only player averaging more points per week than Osterman.
Ocasio enters the final weekend with a 1.73 ERA in 32 1/3 innings, second only to Osterman’s mark. Ocasio also has a .476 on-base percentage and .611 slugging percentage as a hitter. After her versatility as a starting pitcher, reliever, infielder and hitter at times obscured her brilliance as part of ensemble casts with the University of Florida and the Puerto Rican national team, Athletes Unlimited made it impossible to overlook Ocasio’s value.
One of the first players to sign with the new league, which offered more financial security than predecessors and has earned positive reviews from players for how it navigated its launch amid the health and safety demands of a pandemic, Ocasio embodies what Athletes Unlimited is banking on for success. She is talented, versatile and charismatic, the sort of figure league founders Jon Patricof and Jonathan Soros believe will bring fans who aren’t tied to traditional notions of rooting for jerseys.
Whether that is a viable model remains to be seen, but it is the sort of spotlight players usually lack once they leave college. It’s the sort of spotlight Ocasio feels compelled to use to raise awareness of inequality — be it based on race, gender, sexuality or anything else.
“I’m grateful for the opportunity that I’ve been given,” she said. “So I feel an obligation to use my platform in order to educate and to be visible and to make sure that people know that I’m here, and I’m a voice for people who look like me.”
The national reckoning that long predated but gained prominence in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death in police custody in May is about much more than sports in general, let alone softball. Racism, prejudice and lack of opportunity in softball matter precisely because the setting seems so otherwise ordinary. Understanding that these blights plague softball, in which, for example, only 8% of NCAA Division I players and fewer than 5% of head coaches were Black in 2019, underscores the degree to which those issues affect every aspect of life.
“No matter where I’ve gone, I’ve experienced microaggressions, I’ve experienced subtle racism, I’ve experienced bias,” Ocasio said. “Yes, that’s a reflection of the wider world and the United States and where we are as a country. We have to — and I’ve talked to the group about this — we almost have to be immortal to be average. That’s a problem.
“We talk about being an athlete, being a high school athlete and a young travel ballplayer, and we’re looked at as raw. We’re looked at as unpolished. But why can’t we just be a good softball player? You know what I mean? I can’t say that I haven’t experienced it because I have. I think I can speak for the rest of the group as well, not feeling as appreciated as we think we should because we bring so much value, whether people see it or not.”
In its own small way, Athletes Unlimited offers a means for change.
The league played its first games the weekend after players in the WNBA, NBA and other professional sports sat out games in direct response to the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin, and as an extension of the summer of protests of police brutality and racial injustice. Although Jackson, who along with Ocasio and Erika Piancastelli chairs the softball league’s diversity and inclusion committee, said at the time that there was some discussion among players about what they should do, they played on, with many players wearing Black Lives Matter face masks along with other expressions of support during nationally televised broadcasts.
“Being a softball player, we don’t have the same viewership or visibility as, say, LeBron James might have or another NBA or MLB player. But we can change the world around us.”
“Being a softball player, we don’t have the same viewership or visibility as, say, LeBron James might have or another NBA or MLB player,” Ocasio said. “But we can change the world around us.”
For Ocasio, that change includes her work with Cloud for More Than A Vote, an organization that identifies combating voter suppression as its mission. Athletes Unlimited is also involved. The pandemic has limited the physical outreach and youth engagement that have been possible in the league’s first season. Games go on without fans in the stands. Players can’t hold clinics and can’t meet and talk with fans at social functions. But players can meet. The diversity and inclusion committee holds weekly gatherings to give players a space for open discussions about issues affecting the world around them. Ocasio, Jackson and Piancastelli also came up with a list of recommendations for the league’s policies and procedures moving forward.
And they play. They play, as Ocasio said, so that the girls who look like them know that it’s possible. They play in hopes that this is the league that provides the sport with professional stability. They play, as Ocasio put it, to change the smaller world around them.
“I say that I want to talk about something else other than what’s going on,” Ocasio said of her conversations with Cloud. “But then we end up just being quiet because we can’t talk about anything else because this directly affects us. This will affect our children. This affects my older brother. This affects my whole community. We could be George Floyd.”
Such realities should leave us speechless. But whether with words or with pitches, Ocasio won’t be silent with the opportunity afforded by this new league.