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A whole new ballgame: Jazmyn Jackson enjoying softball with a twist

Howard’s former assistant softball coach is participating in Athletes Unlimited, a new league with a fantasylike scoring system

When Jazmyn Jackson first heard about Athletes Unlimited, the new professional softball league with a twist — six-week season, weekly drafts and a scoring system in which an individual would be anointed the champion in lieu of a team — she wanted no part of it.

“Whenever I’ve played, it’s never been about self, and always about how I can help my team,” said Jackson, a former All-Pac-12 First Team utility player at the University of California, Berkeley who has played with Team USA. “I thought, absolutely not.”

But Jackson, who was an assistant softball coach at Howard University in 2019, changed her mind when she learned that players would have a lot of control, including being stakeholders in the league and being able to make charitable donations.

The San Jose, California, native is gearing up for her fourth week in the league, which began on Aug. 24 within a bubble environment outside of Chicago (players call the controlled surroundings a shield) and will conclude on Sept. 28 with the naming of an individual champion.

Softball enthusiasts will recognize the format: seven-inning games resulting in a winning team. But there are major differences:

  • There’s a draft each week, and those “teams” play together for three games, after which players re-enter the draft pool.
  • Players earn individual points on offense for singles (10 points), doubles (20 points), triples (30 points), home runs (40 points), walks (10 points), stolen bases (20 points). There’s a 10-point deduction for being caught stealing.
  • Pitchers earn four points for each recorded out, while 10 points are deducted for each earned run allowed.
  • When a team wins a game, each player gets 50 points. When a team wins an inning, each player gets 10 points. If an inning ends up tied, those points roll over to the next inning.
  • MVP votes are awarded after each game, with players from both teams voting for the top three performers. The MVP earns 60 points, with 40 going to the runner-up and 20 going to the second runner-up.
  • The four players with the most points each week are named captains the following week, allowing them to construct a team for the ensuing week.

If Athletes Unlimited sounds more like fantasy sports, which gets participants excited about every aspect of the game, that’s the goal.

“It puts more pressure on you when you play, because if your opponent scores a run at the top of the inning, you try to find a way to score and earn points,” Jackson, 24, said. “We were crushing an opponent by 10 runs in one game, and even as they cut into our lead, we had to play every inning like it was a new game.

“In the dugout, everyone’s more into the game,” Jackson added. “It’s crazy that for every single at-bat you’re thinking, ‘What can I do?’ But I love it.”

Jackson hit a grand slam in her second game, crushing a shot over the right-field fence to give her team a huge lead in a game they eventually won. She ended that week 13th overall in points and sixth in MVP points. Jackson, who will play for Team Reed on Saturday (ESPN3, 1 p.m. ET) and Sunday (ESPN2, 1 p.m. ET), currently ranks 30th out of 56 players with 660 points.

“I really don’t know how everything works with the points and, really, I don’t care,” Jackson said. “I just like being competitive, and the moment I start looking at cash and points, that will just put more pressure on me. I just worry about being on the winning team.”

The guaranteed pay for players — between $8,000 and $10,000 for the six-week season — is a big improvement for the estimated $5,000 players receive in the National Pro Fastpitch league for an entire season. The formation of the league, where players are stakeholders (there are no owners), is a step forward for players to find a sustainable way to play softball.

“WNBA players can make $60,000 a season, and we can never make that in the lifetime of a softball career,” Jackson said. “I don’t need to make a million dollars like male athletes. At the least, let me get paid enough to pay my phone bill and live in a place with a roof over my head. Maybe we can attract enough sponsors in the future to help us do that.”

It helps that the Athletes Unlimited players can live in the apartments used by the members of the Chicago Bandits softball team, which plays at the Rosemont, Illinois, athletic complex. That’s also where Athletes Unlimited games are played. Players must remain in the “shield” for the duration of the season, which means they’re limited to the stadium, the apartments and the practice facility. The players get tested for COVID-19 twice per week.

There is no word yet on a second season, but Jon Patricof, CEO and co-founder of Athletes Unlimited, said the league has received good feedback.

“In terms of fan engagement,” Patricof said, “we have been overwhelmed by the positive response from both traditional fans of softball as well as people who are new to the sport and have taken an interest because of the new model of team sports we are introducing.”

For Jackson, she’s enjoying the moment while also looking ahead. She said she’s considering coaching at a historically Black college or university (HBCU) in the future. Jackson left Howard last year to commit time to Team USA’s softball team.

“Howard was one of the best experiences I ever had and made me wish I had gone to an HBCU,” she said. “Just being surrounded by people that look like you and accept you for who you are was incredible. I felt so at home.”

In the meantime, she still has two weeks remaining with Athletes Unlimited.

“I didn’t think much about this league when I heard about it, but I’m glad I made the decision to play,” Jackson said. “It’s been really nice to build some camaraderie off the field. I’m excited to see this keep growing, and to give women another option to play.”

Jerry Bembry is a senior writer at The Undefeated. His bucket list items include being serenaded by Lizz Wright, and watching the Knicks play an NBA game in June.