Michelle Dunham is a boss on and off the field. When she is not fighting the good fight in the courtroom, she is on the field, playing professional football for the Women’s Football League Association (WFLA). Michelle Dunham uses her platform to inspire younger generations to strive towards their dreams, particularly in sports. She knows firsthand what it feels like to fight for equity on the field and in the corporate world. She is passionate about the law, football, and women’s rights, often speaking on the inequities and biases within the corporate world. She uses her influence and experiences as a female athlete to mentor and encourages young women and girls with her podcast, “Ladies Ball Too.”
Michelle Dunham currently resides in Chicago, Illinois but is a native of Birmingham, Alabama. As a seasoned attorney, Michelle has held several senior leadership roles, including Director of Legal Affairs and General Counsel, within publicly traded companies. In football, Michelle serves as a wide receiver for the Birmingham Bombshells as a football player. Women athletes, especially black women athletes, have come under fire lately for their outspoken views, forcing the world to address the inequities in all sports. In both the corporate world and athletic world, women are speaking up, finding their voice, and the world is listening.
Originally from Alabama, Michelle Dunham grew up playing sports. Alabama is a football state, so she says everyone played and watched football. She joined her first organized league when she moved to Michigan and then a coed league when she moved to Chicago. From there, she joined an all-female league and began traveling. Five years ago, she reclaimed her love of football and began to play professionally.
Chicago Defender: You are in two male-dominated fields, corporate America and sports. Regarding discrimination and equality, what are the similarities in both spaces that you deal with regularly?
Michelle Dunham: You are constantly trying to prove yourself. Both of these fields are completive. It is something that never ends.
Chicago Defender: It’s interesting. Many of us grew up being told how to “code switch” by our parents, especially when entering corporate America. Do you believe there is a shift in that thinking?
Black women are no longer changing who they are to fit into these spaces. Do you see the same thing with black female athletes?
Michelle Dunham: Black women are bringing their whole selves to the table now in every arena. Our parents warned us about how we would be perceived. You didn’t want to be too much of anything, too vocal, and you definitely didn’t want the “angry black woman” label. What’s happening on the corporate side is trickling over to the sports world. With the chaos of last year, corporations and sports organizations wanted to sit down and tell them what was going on and what was wrong and ask how they could help. The truth is, unless you are in our positions, you don’t understand what that heaviness feels like when you ask us to speak on these things. I don’t think there is a shift in the mindset. We have always spoken up. People are just finally starting to listen.
“We need women at the table of these corporations — in the board room and in the C Suite- opining on corporate initiatives. Female Professional sports will not be accepted by the world as a serious sport until we get this kind of support.”
Chicago Defender: Why do you think black women athletes have faced so much backlash recently? Naomi Osaka, Simone Biles, Sha’Carri Richardson have been slammed in the media lately for pushing to take care of their mental health and putting up boundaries to protect it. The backlash has been swift and severe. Why do you think that is?
Michelle Dunham: It’s the new argument against women athletes. It’s always something. They have said it all. “Women can’t dunk, they aren’t fast enough, or good enough…hey, can’t say that now. Instead, they now say it’s a problem as if mental health and wellness is a “woman thing.” Now we are called difficult because we don’t want to talk to the press. I applaud these women. Black women are trained to grind and work hard. The superhero syndrome is massive in our community.
Chicago Defender: To see these elite athletes put themselves first before money, awards, accolades, etc., is powerful. We often don’t want to be perceived as ungrateful for the opportunities, so we carry those “superwoman” weights much to our detriment.
Michelle Dunham: Women are now comfortable enough to say something about it. But we are often never given grace, empathy, or compassion in those moments. Even we were are at the top of our game and excelling in our fields, our talent and dedication are still questioned. As soon as you don’t live up to their expectations, they began to tear you down and start questioning your abilities.
Chicago Defender: What is the significance of the Women’s Football League Association?
Michelle Dunham: This is a competitive tackle football league where the women get paid to pay.
The WFLA is the only female league doing that. Before the league’s formation, women paid for their equipment, travel, and incidentals. Now, these athletes will be given a salary. That was never done before.
Chicago Defender: Why do you think it’s important for young women and girls to see women like you being bolder, authentic, and comfortable presenting their entire selves? What do you want young girls to know?
Michelle Dunham: I want young women to know they don’t have to limit themselves. They can do whatever they want. I’m a lawyer and a professional football player. There is no specific choice or path. It’s about doing what you love.