Paige Crawford of League Of Their Own talks with players during a community basketball game at Maria Saucedo Scholastic Academy.

Paige Crawford of League Of Their Own talks with players during a community basketball game at Maria Saucedo Scholastic Academy.

Kirsten Stickney/Sun-Times

Paige Crawford couldn’t find the recreational sports space she was looking for, so she created one

Crawford founded League Of Their Own, a community organization connecting women and nonbinary people of all backgrounds through recreational sport and wellness in 2019.

One by one, every person in the gym at Maria Saucedo Scholastic Academy went around the circle that had formed at center court and shared their name and zodiac sign.

“Hi, I’m Paige, and I’m a Virgo,” said Paige Crawford, founder of League Of Their Own and the reason for everyone’s presence.

As each individual in the co-ed group of about 30 who came out to participate in a friendly game of pickup basketball finished sharing those two personal facts about themselves, their shoulders began to relax and an ease set in. It was an ease tethered to sharing community in a space that feels safe and welcoming. When Crawford founded League Of Their Own, a community organization connecting women and nonbinary people of all backgrounds through recreational sport and wellness, that was one of the defining missions.

“I started League Of Their Own at the end of 2019, early 2020,” Crawford said. “I was looking for a community of women athletes who I could play recreational sports with, without being too serious or too competitive. There weren’t really spaces for women and, more specifically, women of color. I said, I’m not going to complain about it. I can just create the space and be the change I want to see.”

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Paige Crawford (center) of League Of Their Own reacts with teammates during a community basketball game at Maria Saucedo Scholastic Academy. | Kirsten Stickney/Sun-Times

Growing up, Crawford’s relationship to sports consisted of signing up for any organized activity she expressed interest in with the help of parents who supported the evolution of athletic goals. Eventually, her love for track and field surpassed all the rest.

She excelled in the sport and had set a goal to compete collegiately. A car accident during her senior year of high school that left her with a broken femur and brain damage threatened to take it all away.

“I had to learn how to walk again,” Crawford said. “At that point, everything I worked for as a youth potentially could have gone away. But sport is what I really enjoyed, so I said I’m not going to let this one thing stop all the goals and everything I worked toward.”

Crawford rehabbed and ended up walking on to UIC’s track-and-field program.

“I was doing so much therapy,” Crawford said. “I spoke to UIC’s coach and said, ‘I was running these times in high school. I had an injury, but I feel like I’m back.’ ”

In her freshman season, she was among the best hurdlers in the Horizon League. She ended up earning a scholarship and running faster times in the 400-meter hurdles than she had before the accident.

Competing professionally was never in Crawford’s life plan. Still, when she graduated from UIC in 2017, she didn’t want to say goodbye to the joys attached to a life in sports. Her post-college pursuits included running the 2018 Chicago Marathon and participating in various run clubs around the city. But a true sense of community was absent.

“In some of the sports organizations, there was a lack of diversity,” Crawford said. “In others, they weren’t open to speaking about issues that Black and brown athletes face. Through League of Their Own, yes, we’re sports, but it’s also important for me to shed light on what’s going on, like Brittney Griner and other pay-gap issues that go on in women’s sports.”

Education is as strong a component of Crawford’s sessions, which rotate to include opportunities in multiple sports, as the recreational aspect. She begins every session with intros and a question. Some are light, like the prompt that began the Tuesday night pickup game; other times she’ll pose a culturally relevant question. A recent gathering began with: “What was your favorite part about the visibility that the women’s NCAA tourney got?”

“By providing that time for an icebreaker moment, it encourages people to start even broader conversations as the session develops or even after,” Crawford said.

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Paige Crawford of League Of Their Own stands among players during a community basketball game at Maria Saucedo Scholastic Academy. | Kirsten Stickney/For the Sun-Times

In the four years since being founded, League Of Their Own has collaborated with Chicago designer Don C, Chicago streetwear and footwear store Saint Alfred, media/commerce company Togethxr and others, including Nike and Reebok. On various occasions, she will host co-ed sessions, like Tuesday’s pick-up game, in partnership with other recreational sports groups that align with League Of Their Own’s mission.

“For us, we lead from the head,” said Paula Hughes, head of digital at Togethxr. “You look at the founders and someone like Paige, and she is — authentic is an overused word, and I’m trying to find a better word to describe her. She is true to this, not new to this. When you look at the community she built, she has found a way to serve people.”

Crawford has other notable collaborations in the works, and while they contribute to League Of Their Own’s growth, what truly sets it apart is the 28-year-old’s execution of her original mission to provide a fun and safe space for people to gather recreationally.

On this warm Tuesday afternoon in April, as everyone regathered at center court to conclude their nearly two-hour session, the smiles were impossible to miss and the deeply joyful laughter was unmistakable. Many attendees like Cai Thomas heard about League Of Their Own from social media. But the organization’s reach is beginning to extend far beyond.

Asha Stegall, who’s from Georgia and only in Chicago for three months to complete her surgery rotation at Mount Sinai Hospital, heard about League Of Their Own from her church. Sport has always been an outlet that has catered to her mental health. As she has gotten older, she has been discouraged by the drop-off of opportunities for women in recreational sport and participation. Crawford’s Tuesday night pickup game provided the sport sanctuary Stegall had been searching for.

“I’m used to being the only girl with a bunch of guys playing pickup,” Stegall said. “This is my coping mechanism. Even though I’m in medicine, basketball is my mental-health break. I love that [Crawford] is providing a space for women to continue playing sports post-college. I want to see this expand all over the country.”

NOTE: Listen to Paige Crawford’s story of founding League Of Their Own on this week’s episode of Equal Play with Annie Costabile.

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