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‘Hoop is hoop’: Chiney Ogwumike on breaking gender barriers in sports

Yahoo Finance’s Kristin Myers sits down with two-time WNBA all-star Chiney Ogwumike to discuss the WNBA, female athletes as groundbreakers in gender diversity, and her successes throughout her long career.

Video Transcript

KRISTIN MYERS: Welcome to "A Time for Change." I'm Kristin Myers. Jen Rogers and Sibile Marcellus are both out today. Now, it's been said that if you can see it, you can be it. And it's a motto that motivates and propels many women in sports. And this year, even as the world felt like it was crumbling, we saw countless women show up, give their all, and break barriers.

Our first guest, Chiney Ogwumike, is one of those change makers. She's a WNBA star and now the first Black woman to host a national sports radio show. I talked to her about the business of the WNBA, female athletes as groundbreakers, and just how surprised she is about her own success.

CHINEY OGWUMIKE: I grew up not thinking that there would be positions for me to just go out there and live out all of my dreams. And it's funny because being a women's basketball player, you sort of understand this notion and you get educated to this notion. Because a couple of years ago, maybe a decade or two ago, young girls didn't really have a league to look to when it came to professional basketball.

And now we're almost 25 years strong, which is super amazing. And then when it came to outside of the scope of sports, just growing up I never thought I could be a radio host-- just because I didn't see it happening on this grand of a scale when it comes to a Black woman doing that position. And so a lot of times, I always tell people that you cannot be what you cannot see. Because once you see it, then you start realizing that this is normal. This is something that can be expected.

So I feel really lucky myself because I have been able to be in a position where I can share the mic and broaden that scope and that perspective for young girls. So now they see, oh, there's a young girl that sort of talks like me out there talking sports just like the guys, you know, in the sense that it's no longer being distinguished basketball for women and basketball for men.

Hoop is hoop. And anybody that brings value should be able to have a voice in the space. So I'm someone that has been in a space that has not necessarily been built for me. But now I'm finding myself having the time of my life sharing my perspective and hopefully allowing people to understand that that perspective is also valid.

KRISTIN MYERS: So sadly, it's not just hoop is hoop, at least when it comes to pay. Because there's huge pay disparities. We were talking about it earlier as a gap, and I said it's really more of a canyon than a gap between the NBA and the WNBA. Just for everyone at home, average 2020 WNBA salaries are just over $100,000.

And let's compare that to what the men are earning in the NBA, the average salary there, $7.7 million. And it's forced a lot of women to have to take a side gig, like playing internationally. That's something that you have also done. What do you think it's going to take to really close that gap?

CHINEY OGWUMIKE: It'll take investment, honestly. And I think a lot of people have this notion that WNBA players demand right now LeBron James money or Steph Curry money. No, that's not it. What people are starting to realize, and for a long time, it's been socially acceptable to make fun of or just speak poorly on the WNBA just because it's the butt of a lot of people's jokes.

People are starting to see the league for what it actually is. It's a collective of the best women's basketball players in the world. And when you see the products and you see the metrics of our streaming numbers and our merchandising numbers, people are starting to see what the truth actually is when it comes to our game.

And we've had a lot of allies that helped move us forward in this fight. You know, people like the late great Kobe Bryant, who really sort of changed the perception of a lot of people just by showing up and seeing us for the top-notch athletes that we are. And so for us, I think the idea is that you really need to just bet on women and invest in women, understanding that we are the best at what we do.

Only 144 women get the opportunity to play in the WNBA, the best women's basketball league in the world. We need a business that reflects that same standard, that same distinguishment. And so that's what we've been fighting for. And I think for a while, you know, a lot of us just sort of were like, will anyone ever understand that we are the best of what we do?

And I think now the public is fighting hand in hand with us, side by side and saying, "Yo, I've come to a game. Yo, I see your moves. I see the social media. What you're doing is dope. It's real. It's awesome. It's authentic to you." And also, most importantly, by nature of having this thick skin we've been able to show people that we can handle whatever our communities need so that we can be the voice of change as well.

And so now seeing us for what we truly are, not only ambassadors of the game and growing the game and respecting the game, but also ambassadors for our communities-- a lot of people are now seeing us with a fresh set of eyes. And now they're choosing to invest in us in a way that actually we feel like we are making strides towards that closing that canyon, hopefully making it, like, a little, just-- a little thing you just got to jump across of.

So it's been a slow progression. But the last few years, I think we've made some key changes where people are perceiving us the way we actually are in reality.

KRISTIN MYERS: Now, you've teamed up with AT&T for a campaign in support of women athletes and small businesses. Why was it important for you to share your story through this campaign?

CHINEY OGWUMIKE: Well, it's really cool. It's not just my story, it's the story of other female athletes in particular. We've got Maria Fassi, Sue Bird, Alex Morgan that are all tag teaming to sort of just push this narrative that, you know, we can achieve anything by ourselves. Like, we all need to stay connected to one another.

And I think the WNBA and just being a female athlete, we realize that we can't command attention by ourselves just because we are sort of dealt with having to constantly defy the odds. And now we're creating change, whether that's the US Women's National Team when it comes to soccer, winning the gold, whether it's a WNBA crowning another champion and also advocating for social justice, whether it's US women's hockey that are fighting for the viability of one sustainable league while also winning in the Winter Olympics.

We are all comparing and sharing notes and doing it together, and we're staying connected together. And so now for people to understand sort of my story, I feel like everyone understands simultaneously that these are all things that we are all doing at the same time. We are all, you know, helping one another and no longer living in isolation because what's the point?

Like, what's the point of achieving success if you can't help someone else achieve that as well? And I think as women, we totally understand that at a different level. For so long we've been fighting for one seat at the table. Why not just work together and own the room and have a place for all of us, not just one of us? Because one person can't do it all. And so now, like, you know, working with AT&T has been fabulous because they're telling the stories of us, how we want our stories to be told. And it's all connected.

KRISTIN MYERS: Shifting now to politics, I don't know if too many people know, but you worked as a poll worker, actually, in Texas. And we've seen a lot of athletes, especially in the WNBA, being very vocal throughout this entire election cycle. What role and responsibility do you think athletes have in politics? And at least when it comes to this upcoming election that we have, which is that runoff Senate election in Georgia, wondering what some of your thoughts are there, especially as Senator Loeffler is part owner of the WNBA team, the Atlanta Dream?

CHINEY OGWUMIKE: You know, I grew up in Houston, Texas. Then I go out to Stanford, California, get my education. And then I go and played at Connecticut. And my family is from Nigeria. And I'm currently living in Los Angeles. So I say all that to say, I understand and respect a variety of perspectives.

I think what we've seen, especially with athletes, and I've been a part of More Than a Vote, was this notion that, hey, we're not telling you exactly what to do, but we're telling you that your voice matters. And there are certain things that-- for me, I try to practice educating myself. Because I am fortunate, I am gifted, I'm lucky to have a platform.

And that, to me, is a responsibility based on what I look like and who I represent. I can't take that for granted. And so using that platform to create possibilities where people can actually transform their lives my parents have taught me happen one of two ways. It's through education and then empowering your voice to be heard.

And the best way for your voice to be heard is voting. And so anything that makes voting or just education easier for everyone, to me, is extremely important. And so the last few months, being able to collaborate with people who have that same mission of empowering each other to become more educated, and then more importantly, to make sure our voices are heard so that our communities can see that change.

To me, that's the energy that we are on as long as it's positive. And so, you know, it's something big picture that athletes are not expected to do. But based on our representation, based on the communities we come from, based on the fact that our success is typically the exception and not the norm, we have to do it. That's just basically been our calling the last few months.

KRISTIN MYERS: You know, we're talking throughout this show about women breaking barriers in sports. And just lately, we've had the news about the college football player, Sarah Fuller, from Vanderbilt, and even your coach from Stanford, Tara VanDerveer, breaking that record for the number of wins for a Division I women's basketball coach. How do you see women continuing to break those barriers in the years to come?

CHINEY OGWUMIKE: Well, we're just getting started. We are just getting started. And I loved it. I just saw coach, talked very safely with my mask on. And, you know, both of us, we've all been through the testing protocol so that I was fortunate to see them right after she made history. And then I watched, as now a sports generalist talking all sports on my radio show with Mike Golic, Jr.-- one of the big storylines has been college football and their handling of the last few months.

But more importantly, their season as it progresses-- considering the coach at Vandy who made the decision was Derek Mason, who was actually our defensive coordinator when I was at Stanford. So I felt really tied to that whole Sarah Fuller making history. And it was amazing because by going out there-- first of all, people forget she's a badass of what she does when it comes to the SEC title and being the goalie and leading her team to that title.

And then she steps into a role where she could go home for break. But instead, her team needs her-- and her team being Vandy and that's the commitment she's made. So seeing history made both on the sidelines as a coach and then seeing history being made on the field where a young girl can literally say-- "Look, I love football. And maybe I'm not gonna go out there and tackle." If that's not your portion, that's fine. "But maybe I can provide by kicking or just creating that realm of possibility."

Seeing Coach Tara coach her umpteenth year and now have the number one team, who-- game prior, before she breaks the record, Fran Belibi is dunking. So many things are being shattered. And I think now a lot of the achievements are being normalized. And that's what I hope happens forward.

Like, gender will no longer be a thing when it comes to success. It's like, "Are you good enough to do the job? Bam, you're out there. OK, Sarah, thank you. Are you good enough to do that job"? Like, that's the energy we should be on.

Because I always tell people, sports is the greatest version of a meritocracy. If you can get the job done, you go out there and you play. It doesn't matter what you look like. That's what I love about it. It's the great equalizer. And as much as we keep pushing those goalposts towards us all having opportunities to succeed, I feel like that's what matters most.

KRISTIN MYERS: Chiney Ogwumike is the host of "Chiney & Golic, Jr." on ESPN Radio.