Madison Hammond is the first Native American woman to play in the NWSL. She’s working hard to make sure she’s just the first in a long line.
A 22-year culmination of hard work and passion came to a head for Madison Hammond on Sept. 26, 2020. She took to the field as a second-half substitute for OL Reign and became the first Native American female soccer player to play in the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL).
Family, coaches, friends and culture all influenced Hammond’s rise from playing for a boys soccer team in Albuquerque, New Mexico, to representing OL Reign at the Rio Tinto Stadium in 2020 and her debut led to immense personal pride following a life of commitment to soccer from a young age.
Hammond has received a lot of media attention since signing for OL Reign as intrigue about her story as a Native American female soccer player has grown. She has earned plaudits for her professionalism and drive, which helped her to achieve a lifelong dream of playing professional soccer.
But establishing herself as an elite soccer player is not her only goal. Hammond is aware of the inequalities that still exist in elite soccer in the U.S.
As someone who experienced casual stereotyping growing up, Hammond is determined to use her platform as a professional soccer player to inspire others to pursue their passion and she wants to challenge perceptions towards Native American people.
Hammond grew up around sports in Albuquerque; she regularly attended her sister’s track meets and her uncle is former PGA golfer Notah Begay III.
But Hammond’s passion was always soccer. She grew up playing on a local boys’ team in Albuquerque, an experience that drove her enjoyment of the game and developed her competitive streak.
“For me, it was always about beating the boys, being competitive and having a really fun environment to be in,” she told FanSided. “I wasn’t as good as the boys but I knew I was just as competitive as them and I always did my best.”
When Hammond started to play more frequently at the youth level, a former coach noticed her potential and encouraged her to keep playing. This was a seminal moment for Hammond; a realization that soccer could be a vocation rather than a hobby.
“It was almost a sense of validation that you’ve arrived in something that you really enjoy. I was six or seven when he said that to me and I still remember it very vividly. To me, it was like I really like this sport and I’ll keep playing it.”
Hammond didn’t rest on her laurels. The drive to succeed in soccer was a natural course for her and something she saw as a “tangible” dream. Her aspirations were helped by her family and their experience of competitive sport, which kept Hammond focused and grounded.
Hammond’s closeness to Begay played a particularly big part in developing the right mentality.
“Him having that experience now is really helping me to adjust to being a professional athlete and approaching it, not only as a passion, but it is also a job. I think having him and all of those outlets to know what it’s like to be competitive continued to push me to be competitive as I grew up.”
Begay recalls his advice for Hammond about the responsibility of being a professional athlete, telling FanSided: “My philosophy is that you can never stop working, you can never stop trying to improve and never take your skill or opportunity for granted.
“When you wake up every day just know there’s someone always trying to take your job or displace you or challenge you to be better and as athletes, regardless of sport, we have to rise up to that challenge on a daily basis.”
Although Hammond has fond memories of playing soccer in Albuquerque, she grew up in a military family and moved to Alexandria, Virginia, at the age of 12. It was a big change, but she recognized how it accelerated her development.
“If I had stayed in Albuquerque, I would have stayed on the boys’ team that I played on, but, when I moved to the East Coast, it was shocking to me that there were girls’ teams that were good enough. They played at a high level.
“There were clubs that had a lot of money, a lot of infrastructure, good coaching. The infrastructure we had in New Mexico was so different to the East Coast. We had training gear, matching water bottles, matching backpacks that make you feel so put together and so professional.”
When considering Native American people’s experiences with soccer more widely, Hammond acknowledges that regional differences play a role in shaping perceptions and exposure to the sport.
“There are so many different tribes in the U.S, not even including Canada. Because of that, there’s a big disparity between what kinds of tribes have what kind of resources. I think from kids, there is a general interest to play soccer.
“There are people who really care about the game and who really care about playing. I think to say I’m the first, no one can take that away from me but I know there are so many others who have the passion and want to play, but I was given the opportunity to play college soccer. For some Native American kids, living on reservations is hard.”
Access to elite soccer, and competitive sport, in the U.S, requires financial commitments. The cost of equipment, travel and club fees all culminate, which makes playing sport at any level a challenge for many.
A 2018 survey from the Aspen Institute asked parents about the cost of including their children in sporting activities in the U.S. Of those who responded, only seven percent of parents spent nothing on registration, equipment, travel, lessons and camp fees. Furthermore, parents reportedly spent an average of $537 per year to include children in soccer, with registration fees alone costing over $150. Youth sports can be expensive and the costs only increase as kids age and move into more elite programs.
Hammond has had a variety of experiences but saw how barriers in funding and education prevent Native American children from pursuing their interest in soccer. The “linear trajectory” to reach pro soccer in the U.S is a challenge. Finding a good local team, leading to a college scholarship, which then provides access to a professional soccer team is a closed dream for many Native American children to achieve.
“That’s so many steps outside of soccer, it’s asking Native American kids to find a good youth team when they might not have access to those resources then to find a good college that have a good team. It’s so many things that are compounded with soccer, so soccer falls lower on the totem pole.
“The narrative is always, why aren’t black and brown kids not playing soccer? That’s not true – they are playing soccer, they want to play soccer, but there are certain barriers that prevent access to entry to continue playing soccer at the highest level.”
Begay feels the same problem exists with access to golf. When he was a young, Native American man with more than just a casual interest in golf, Begay had to create his “own access” to a sport with “historical precedent of exclusionary practices” by working for free at a local golf club.
Hammond recalls a real-life example of a childhood family friend, Martina, who she played soccer with in Albuquerque. Both shared a passion for soccer and they played on the same boys’ team but regional differences, in terms of having good soccer resources, may have played a part in the two experiencing different pathways in life.
“She was very good when we were young. She played forward and would just put her head down and dribble through everybody. I think she really loved the game and she decided to go on to college. I’m not sure if she decided to play college soccer, but she’s an example of someone who was really good.”
New Mexico is one of few states that offers an after-school soccer program for Native American youth; an activity organized by the Notah Begay III Foundation for the Native American community of San Felipe Pueblo. However, the Aspen Institute also found that only 250 of the 1,500 eligible children actively take part in the program.
Native American involvement in soccer, and sport, remains low, despite other ethnic minority groups showing an increasing involvement in sport across the U.S.
According to data from Anaka Allen’s study on Native American youth’s participation in sport, only 37 male and 73 female Native American players were involved in college soccer at the Division I, Division II and Division III levels in the 2009-10 season. Overall, 21,770 male players and 23,650 female players featured in these divisions, while numbers for other ethnic groups show players in the thousands, and tens of thousands for white players, by comparison.
Allen argues that positive role models play a significant role in influencing young Native people to take up sport, something she believes is more applicable to Native communities, who feel marginalized from society. Hammond agrees that representation is an important factor, which can inspire more Native American children to get involved in soccer.
“When you have all of the resources, it gives you a support system to continue believing in yourself and believing in your dream. It’s unfortunate that lots of stories like that get untold. That’s why representation is so important – seeing people who look like you, doing what you want to do.”
With issues of access and exposure to soccer, Hammond’s vision off the field is to inspire others to follow their passion. She is also determined to use her platform in the public eye to challenge cultural misconceptions.
In her childhood, Hammond experienced the casual nature of Native American stereotyping, even from a former school teacher. It is an element of cultural disconnect in society that she wants to break down.
“I would put my hair in two braids and when I was younger, my hair was pin-straight and I think that’s a typically Native American feature. At the time, I would have teachers and people I really look up to say, ‘You look like Sacagawea’ and at the time I would just say thank you and then looking back that’s so messed up. It’s so casual.”
Hammond went on to explain that those kinds of experiences didn’t stop when she became an adult.
“When I transfer it to soccer, it’s again, people ask, ‘what are you?’ and it turns into a whole conversation about having to explain my racial ambiguity and, being a bi-racial woman, you explain, and you have to continue explaining because the picture they have in their head of a person with probably depicted red skin, a loincloth and a headdress is not what they see in front of them.
“That disconnect is huge, but also puts a lot of pressure on Native American athletes to represent their communities and represent their cultures and beliefs but also break down these stereotypes and break down these perceptions people have of them while also trying to maximize their level at a sport.”
Challenging the narrative of cultures and identities is key to changing perceptions of Native Americans in the United States for Hammond. Temryss Lane, a former soccer player and professional broadcaster, wrote her Master’s thesis on the visibility of Native American identity through soccer. She highlights how things can change with players like Hammond reaching a professional level:
“It’s a pathway that’s now in the consciousness of young girls, young native boys and even the adults that can be so proud of her success,” Lane told FanSided. “It’s a positive story that’s needed when so much of the narrative is deficit. There are so many positive stories that need to be elevated. She is not only blazing this trail for the generation now but for the next generations to come.”
Lane compared Hammond’s recent media coverage to men’s professional soccer player Chris Wondolowski. ‘Wondo’ comes from a Native background and was the first Native American man to play for the U.S soccer team. Yet, even 10 years ago, there was little to no coverage of his landmark achievement.
Despite the lack of recognition for Wondo’s achievement, Lane is adamant that the likes of Wondolowski and Hammond will influence more people from Native communities to become, not just soccer players, but trailblazers in all facets of society.
“People are shocked that this is the first Native American woman to play at the elite level in the United States and then I can’t wait for the first Native woman to represent the United States. I can’t wait for that day.
“Now we need more. We need more people so they’re not outliers, the trails have been blazed.”
Begay also recognizes the opportunity his niece has to make a difference with her platform, something that wasn’t available when he was a professional golfer. “Now with social media, with thousands of television channels across the world, streaming platforms, Madison has a chance to have a much bigger impact than I ever had as an athlete because she has a much bigger platform to access to reach.
“She’s much more aware of the world, she’s very intelligent, which is going to help her on and off the field.”
Although Hammond is the first Native American player to feature in the NWSL, she feels the future of bringing in more players from ethnic minority backgrounds hinges on the U.S developing more academy teams, where scholarships and funding can help players from different walks of life break into elite soccer.
OL Reign has adopted this model. The club has links with Olympique Lyonnais, the most successful women’s team in France, and players are loaned between the two clubs to improve quality and competition.
The club also set up a recent scholarship program with Boeing to recruit players of color who want to play in the OL Reign academy. Some of the scholarships were awarded in early October and Hammond was delighted to meet one of the applicants, a full-blooded Native American player.
“She asked, ‘What’s it like to be the first Native American?’ and my heart just shattered in happiness, this is unreal! Hopefully, I can just see more of those moments. For her to even just see that this is attainable, I mean that’s my job, that’s what I want to use my platform for.”