In the heart of SEC country, boys across the state grow up playing America’s pastime. They dream of one day donning the uniform of their favorite team and chasing a World Series title. But for girls, the cold, hard truth is that a viable future in softball is virtually non-existent.
Currently, there are only two legitimate outlets for females pursuing careers in professional softball. The first is the National Pro Fastpitch League, which operates in six cities and employs only 120 players league-wide. The NPFL technically serves as the de facto “Major League” of women’s softball, even though the salaries are low compared to those of Major League Baseball players.
As of the 2017 season, the NPFL has five teams that are limited to a total salary cap of $150,000 each. Split among 18 players, each player’s salary is, on average, $8,000 per season. In contrast, the mandated league minimum salary in the MLB is $507,500, and teams have an infinite salary cap for 25 roster spots.
Mackenzie Guin is a freshman exercise science major in the Honors College. Growing up in the greater Tupelo area said she loved softball and received several junior college offers out of high school, but eventually, she reached a point at which the game had nothing more to offer her.
“My dream growing up was to play softball, and I put everything I had into the game,” Guin said. “But eventually I decided I needed to leave the game I loved to focus on education, because as I got older, I realized the game of softball just couldn’t take me very far.”
According to Guin, she started to understand this bitter truth about softball during her senior year of high school. Because she was an honor student, she was able to rely on academic scholarships to fund her education. Some athletes, in contrast, require the financial aid that traditionally accompanies collegiate athletes.
Ole Miss head softball coach Mike Smith said when he and his staff go into recruiting, they understand that most girls need the education because professional softball opportunities are few and far between.
“We try to sell the collegiate experience that Ole Miss and our Top 25 softball program can offer,” Smith said. “Obviously, the goal is for our players to wear USA across their chest, but many won’t get that chance, so we really try to market playing in the SEC on national television against the best competition in the country.”
Wearing “USA across their chest,” as Smith mentioned, refers to the only other nationally recognized outlet for women’s professional softball: the United States national team. Due to its general lack of popularity on the international scale, softball was removed from the Olympics, but it was recently announced that softball would return for the 2020 Tokyo games. Still, this professional outlet will only employ around 25 female athletes.
McKinley Montgomery is a high school sophomore from nearby Saltillo, and she attended last weekend’s Ole Miss Softball Prospect Camp. Organized annually by Smith, the event is invite-only for the area’s elite high school prospects.
At 16, Montgomery said she has already fielded offers from 10 colleges that would allow her to continue her softball career. Even though she still dreams of playing professionally, Montgomery has already started placing more importance on her education, just in case.
“I really want to play college softball so, of course, I check out the program history and the coaches,” she began. “But at the same time, my education plays a huge role in my decision, because when it comes down to it, I know that means the most.”
Montgomery’s dream of playing in the big leagues still has fuel, but she’s already started looking into coaching with the understanding that playing eventually must end.
“The love I have for this game is unending, and it has been my whole life since I was three years old,” she explained. “I’ve been blessed by God with the talents I have, and I’m never going to give up my dream of playing at the next level, but, still, I realize that the lights of professional softball are not as bright as the ones in the MLB.”
Presently, college athletes are not paid for play. According to coach Smith, despite the lack of receiving a salary, winning a NCAA Championship has become the overarching goal for young softball players.
“A lot of these kids grow up watching college softball players on TV, and then they come to these camps and meet them,” Smith explained. “That experience gives them that ‘wow’ moment and motivates them to make it to this level and strive for a trip to (the national championship). Winning a national championship is becoming a lot of kid’s dream, especially in softball.”
Former athletes like Guin who retired from the game early are not “quitters,” but, rather, they are prisoners to an athletic culture still overwhelmingly limited by gender. Guin said she would have given anything to keep going, but it just was not feasible.
“I love the game of softball. It has made me who I am, and I wish I could have played forever,” Guin said. “But when you know that in the end you don’t have the same opportunity to make a career out of it, well, it definitely makes a difference when deciding to continue playing or to walk away.”
Until a viable professional alternative arises, there will be thousands of young female athletes who make the same call as Guin. A few like Montgomery might have chances to continue playing, but the vast majority will eventually stand face-to-face with the heartbreaking epiphany that the game they have loved forever may not always love them back.