Used. Beaten down. Unappreciated. Kind of like an old volleyball stuffed into the dark, forgotten recesses of a seldom-opened closet.
That’s how Kadi Kullerkann was feeling about her post-college playing experience. A disposable cog. No one to look after her well-being. No one to provide support.
That’s how she still feels about the plight of many female athletes. Give what’s demanded until there’s nothing left to give. Receive little in return.
Kullerkann, a 6-foot-4 product of Estonia, was a two-time AVCA honorable-mention All-American, first at Houston and then at Pittsburgh, in 2015. But she was on the verge of giving up volleyball. The joy was gone. The stress was great. And the rewards seemed few.
In the past year-and-a-half, Kullerkann and her game have been reborn. Kullerkann, now 29, is playing a regular role with the Estonian national team, and she returned to the professional ranks after a three-year hiatus, starring for A.O. Markopoulo in Greece.
And now, she is expressing the emotions of her roller-coaster experience in the best way she knows: Through her art. Kullerkann is in the middle of a project she named “She’s Got Balls,” a representation of her struggles — and triumphs — as a female athlete and an ode to female athletes everywhere who have felt undervalued.
Kullerkann hopes to finish the project by the end of the year. She is able to work on smaller pieces during her down time in Greece. When she goes home to Estonia, she works on the larger pieces.
Her ultimate goal is to have a show for the work, but she wants to take it a step further. She doesn’t simply want it to be an art show. She wants to start a dialogue about the treatment of female athletes.
She is considering adding other elements to the display, such as clippings from contracts — hers and those of friends who have played pro sports.
For example, one of her former teammates had a clause in her contract that said she would be docked a percentage of her pay if she gained more than 5 kilos (about 11 pounds) during the season. Another clause, Kullerkann said, that is pretty standard in the contracts of many female athletes she knows relates to pregnancy.
Basically, if the player becomes pregnant, the club no longer will pay her salary.
“Against human rights in Europe,” Kullerkann said. “Literally, it’s in European law. Can you imagine another workplace where you get fired when they hear you’re pregnant?”
And then there’s this:
“If the club says we’re going to have a calendar shoot, and it’s going to be a nude calendar shoot for the team, you have to be a part of that,” she said. “Even if it goes against your beliefs or what you want to do.
“Sometimes they are classy, and sometimes it’s, ‘What the heck is this?’ But the fact that we as players don’t have a choice whether we want to take part or not, that’s where the problem is.
“We already put our bodies on the line, our mental health on the line every single day.… That already is us giving all of us, and then they ask for more and more and more. That’s not how they would treat any guy who is playing or allow that. No men would sign those contracts.”