Mar 14, 2024

Candace Parker is Shaping Sports Equity Just Like Her Past Predecessors

The WNBA All-Star makes no bones about the role of the 3-Stripes in the fight for equity and women’s basketball. “I think there has to be an investment from a brand, which I hope is our brand.”
by Justin KornEditor

Candace Parker’s most recent visit to the adidas global HQ in Herzogenaurach, Germany, included spending time in our 3-Stripes archive brimming with a museum’s worth of adidas pop culture and sports memorabilia. Already setting the mood for us to talk about sports equity, she doesn’t stutter step when I ask her what stood out in her mind. 

She tells me Billie Jean King’s original blue track jacket. 

Candace’s wife chimes in about a rare sneaker she saw from Latvia’s much beloved basketball center, Uljana Semjonova. She asks, “Do you think [Uljana] could just walk into a store and try on a size 21 (men’s) sneaker?”  

We’re all a little skeptical.  

While Candace has had a long day on campus and the daylight savings darkness isn’t helping any, she doesn’t need any caffeine enhancers when talking about equity, women’s sports, and the women that came before her and inspired her.  

 

Equity in sports has been a long work in progress 

Uljana and Billie are two towering sports figures beyond just their physical stature and accomplishments. Even in retirement, these two women continue to move the needle for women athletes. Their passion for sport, timeless highlight reels, and efforts forging a path for future generations of women to get involved in sports keeps them fresh and topical.  

Despite being on opposite sides of the globe and making a living in two different but equally demanding sports – basketball for Uljuana and tennis for Billie – their kindness is at the foreground of their legend.  

It’s only fitting that I have the opportunity to talk to another prominent woman who has a keen awareness of where we’re at in our journey of making sports more equitable for all: Candace Parker.  

 

Candace has also been a towering presence with adidas for quite some time 

Candace partnered with adidas over 16 years ago. Recently, her inspirational storytelling and triumphs in the sports arena set the stage for a women’s basketball shoe designed specifically for woman. But for the 6-foot-4-inch versatile baller, she partnered up with the cause of closing the gender gap in professional sports much earlier; and it started with a school project, which touched upon Billie’s work. 

“I did a project on Title IX and of course Billie Jean King is at the center of that,” she says, wondering if her mom still has the project. Title IX was a landmark legal step for the US back in the 70s, ultimately taking strides to level the playing field for women in publicly funded programs. Candace recalled that the school project held gender inequities to the flame, which cast a flicker into world of women’s tennis. 

And Billie is to equity in women’s tennis as laces are to a sneaker, so it wasn’t just a coincidence that Candace would find herself studying Billie’s contributions for the project. It also wasn’t a coincidence that, years later, Billie and Candace would attend events and ceremonies together as athletic peers.  

When Candace met one of her idols for the first time 

The first time Candace and Billie met was at an awards gathering. Candace breaks down the play-by-play for how the encounter went down. It was a surreal night to say the least for Candace.  

“It's crazy,” she says of meeting Billie at the Women’s Sports Foundation. “I had just had surgery on my knee in college and I went there to receive an award for what I had won in high school. And I’m on crutches, I’m in a gown; my mom and my assistant coach Nikki Caldwell, from Tennessee, went with me – and Billie Jean King was there to present a lot of the awards. It was unbelievable.” 

After their first meeting, Candace was taken aback by Billie’s unwavering, steadfast presence when it comes to equity in sports.  

“And I think what surprised me the most about meeting her [for the first time] was not only how intentional she is, but also how passionate she still is years removed from playing tennis,” says Candace, pausing for a few seconds to emphasize her longevity as a sports pioneer. “Like, she’s still passionate to move the needle forward.” 

Another time Candace came into contact with Billie wasn’t with her directly, but with her past. And it still gives Candace chills to think about. Candace received a package from adidas containing her new knit, a replica of Billie’s signature blue track jacket, and a US dollar bill. A note inside explained the significance of the dollar bill.  

“[The note] was just talking about how that was the pay that [Billie] was receiving in tennis and then now you fast forward years later, you see that women’s tennis prizes are equal to men’s – and some women’s tennis players are making an amazing living,” Candace tells me.  

Another idol also role modeled to Candace how to stand up as a woman 

Before she was drafted first by the WNBA’s Los Angeles Sparks in 2008, Candace played college ball at Tennessee. It was during the time of Pat Summitt’s fairytale 38-year coaching run with the Lady Vols. And for Candace, graduating college with a sports management degree and two national championships with Pat as the head coach are just the cliff notes. 

If you dig deeper, Candace will tell you about how Pat and Tennessee shaped her development as a person:

"I think I went to Tennessee to be a great basketball player and I think Tennessee provided me with more tools off the court than I thought—like how to live in the world and to operate in my power as a woman."

Candace ParkerPro Basketballer

Making sports more accessible  

Candace is also finding her place atop a Mt. Rushmore of women pledging to leave sports in a better state than when they found it for future generations to come. And not just for women, but for everyone. 

When adidas posted up in Chicago over the 2020 NBA All-Star Weekend with a Legacy Program event, Candace was one of the high-profile stars in attendance paying it forward. The program aims to broaden the professional horizons of kids coming from underrepresented neighborhoods. 

To demonstrate that you don’t have to necessarily have a stellar cross-over inside the paint to have a career in basketball, Candace introduced the kids to the Broadcasting Lab, which presented the production side of basketball as a potential professional avenue for kids.  

Candace would continue her adidas Legacy Program participation in game three of the WNBA Finals in 2021, where Candace’s Chicago Sky were in the midst of their championship-winning season. Except this time, the 3-Stripes brought 150 kids inside the arena to see Candace lighting it up on the court.  

The Legacy Program thrives on kickstarting passions and interests for kids where accessibility stands in the way. At the program’s core, Candace says, “You put a ball in somebody’s hand and basically see what it does and see where it takes them.”     

And Candace is also working the equity ball up the court on the big screen  

She also produced a documentary called “Title IX: 37 Words That Changed America," calling everyone’s attention to legislation that provides everyone, regardless of gender, the right to participate and benefit from publicly funded education programs. The documentary features many pioneering faces – including a 1-on-1 sit-down between Candace and Billie – as well as other allies in earnest discussions about the state of affairs of equity in sport.  

Equity in sports has been a battle waging for the ages. Historically, sports had been rife with hair-raising forms of gender discrimination. In one such story that’s featured in the documentary, Billie shares her struggle to get a college scholarship to play tennis in school after competing in the Olympics. After reiterating this bit of the documentary to me, Candace slouches back in her seat and says in disbelief, “Billie can win at the highest level, but she can’t even get a scholarship to even attend a school.” 

The documentary taps into other gripping stories such as Billie’s and asks other gender barrier breakers and allies to revisit their past. Talking with Candace, it’s clear that equity is recurring theme on her mind — especially with a 14-year-old daughter at home showing an interest in playing volleyball.  

Equity in sports still needs the Billie Jean Kings, the Pat Summitts, the Candace Parkers, and all of us to join hands to move the needle 

Candace understands what Title IX set in motion for her: “If I was born a generation before, like when my mom was born; she didn’t have the opportunity to play in high school, in college, in the pros. There was no pro league.”  

Yet despite all the progress, there’s still more work to be done. And Candace is doing her part. 

Earlier in the day, Candace made a surprise appearance at our company’s global Brands team huddle to talk about her accomplishments in basketball and her longstanding relationship with the 3-Stripes. Candace also took questions from the audience. One father in attendance made it a point to share his thanks for an incident that took place the day before that would’ve flown under the radar. 

He went on, “Maybe not so much of a question, but a big thank you for coming to our basketball practice the other day at the local club here in Herzo. As a father, my daughter was there as well; and to see tall and talented women as role-models has been amazing and she’s been all over the moon yesterday – so thank you.”  

There isn’t a one size fits all solution for gender equity. 

Athletes and Coaches, like Billie, Pat, Uljuana, and Candace, are demonstrating through their actions how everyone can pitch in with a solution just by showing up, speaking up, and not shying away. Dating back to the days of Candace’s grade school Title IX project, she came to an early understanding of how a single person can drive tangible change.  

“Look at where tennis is now and how many years ago was that. There’s the commitment and the sacrifice that Billie made for that sport to grow; and I think people in their minds didn’t see tennis, especially women’s tennis, being able to be where it’s at today,” says Candace while also pointing out the importance of having a strong supporting cast. “And I think it took brand investment, it took individuals pushing the game forward; and I see similarities in that in so many other women’s sports.” 

What’s next for Candace and sport equity? 

The question of whether Candace signs on for one or two more years of professional basketball remains uncertain. There is one certainty that Candace has already come to terms with: She’s cut from the same cloth as Billie’s trademark blue track jacket.  

Hinting at what Candace’s future could look like moving the sports equity needle even further with adidas, she adds, “Up until this point, I think there have been moments that have been taken advantage of [making sports accessible], but not in its entirety. And I think that there’s a huge opportunity; it’s a huge investment, but there’s a huge upside in what that could look like.” 

Following in her mentors and idols footsteps, Candace is also a do’er who is intentional in her actions. And just like when she’s on the court, her words cut through the thickest and most intimidating of defenses with a sense of urgency to win; and despite this urgency, she still carries a lightness that brings promise and an endless supply of upside. Fortunately for the future generations of athletes to come, sports equity has Candace on its team as a vocal and active supporter. 

 

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