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How The Burden On Black Athletes Reflects The Experience Of Black America

(Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
(Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

Olympic gymnast Simone Biles and tennis star Naomi Osaka have recently dropped out of the world’s top competitions. They’ve cited concerns about their mental health. Harry Edwards and Akilah Carter-Francique say, as Black athletes, those women bear a special burden.

“We’re in a space where as Black people, either you are invisible and you are silenced in a space, or you are rendered superhuman, which also gives this notion of invincibility, that we don’t have pain, we don’t have emotion,” Carter-Francique says. “It’s a devaluation of their humanity.”

“Between the economic demands of a sport, the fear of Black advancement in the white mainstream, the aspiration of Black society that are placed upon the shoulders of athletes, that’s a lot that the white athlete doesn’t have to deal with,” Edwards adds.

Today, On Point: the unique burden on Black athletes.


Akilah Carter-Francique, executive director at the Institute for the Study of Sport, Society and Social Change and associate professor in the Department of African American Studies at San Jose State University. Former track and field athlete at the University of Houston. (@doctafrancique)

Stephany Coakley, senior associate athletic director for Mental Health, Wellness and Performance at Temple University Athletics. She’s worked with college, professional and Olympic athletes. (@BAForceofNature)

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Harry Edwards, sociologist, activist, professor emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley.

Interview Highlights

On the initial response to Simone Biles’ decision to pull out of competition

Stephany Coakley: “My initial response was also that of concern. And as she continued to reveal her rationale and her reason behind withdrawing from competition, I was extremely proud. I said, good for her. Good for her. She doesn’t have to sacrifice her well-being to perform so that other people can have their joy, and she can feel ill and unwell. So, you know, I thought, good for her. She doesn’t have to prove anything to anyone. She’s good enough just the way she is. And after, as things continue to evolve, I continue to feel very proud of her for her actions that she’s taken. Because she’s taken a huge step. And not just taking care of herself, but showing others that this is an important trait that we all need to develop.”

On the unique burdens Black athletes experience 

Akilah Carter-Francique: “The survival extends into their lived experiences in sport. And in a context in which sport, despite negative treatment, Black women as individuals like Althea Gibson. As pairs, when I think of Louis Stokes and Tidye Pickett in track and field. Or Margaret and Matilda Peters in tennis. Or in groups, when I think of the Tennessee Tigerbelles, which in many ways were … the U.S. women’s track and field team for about 28 years under the leadership of Ed Temple, and the collective traditions of the Black community and HBCU’s.

“So ultimately, you know, this is a culture that has nurtured Black people, but also understood and recognized that we have been limited in these spaces as entertainment, as musicians, as athletes for the benefit of white audiences. And not only in America, but around the world. But at the same time, they had the wherewithal, as Edwards said, to be a force to reckon with, to persevere, demonstrating excellence at all times and having that mental fortitude.”

Stephany Coakley: “There are so many expectations that are placed on Black athletes, and when those expectations are unmet, the criticism is harsh. That in and of itself, is traumatic to the athlete’s well-being. And can interfere with what it is that they have to do on a daily basis. Where they show up, they have to show up 100%. And if they don’t show up 100% and perform to the top of their ability, they are dismissed, discarded. As you mentioned earlier, the vitriol that we saw on Twitter and across the media in the last three weeks, it’s been sad, it’s also been frustrating.

“It’s been maddening and it continues to show up. And, you know, health, when somebody is mentally unwell, it affects their physical health and vice versa, failed to take into consideration that mental health is health. And I think that one of the things that will be important is Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka, they are leading the charge of this as it pertains to sport and athletics. Is that we need to change this narrative of mental health being separate and apart from physical health.

“What Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka were experiencing were health issues associated with their mind, their brain, which is part of their body, and it controls the whole system. If you think about it, the brain controls the body. And they had to step away, but to … somebody else’s point earlier, in previous Olympic Games and previous competitions, they would have risked life and death to continue to perform. And I’m so glad that they’re no longer doing that.”

On the historical experiences of Black athletes

Akilah Carter-Francique: “There are these barriers, there are these spaces and places in which were only sort of crafted to allow Black athletes through. And other people of color in these spaces to have an opportunity. If we take in the research of even Dr. Richard Lapchick at the University of Central Florida looking at that racial and gender report card, we begin to see who’s in those positions of leadership, who’s in those positions of ownership, who are those individuals, what is their race?

“What is their gender? That are governing, or creating the laws, or the policies or advising the best practices for these respective organizations and sports. And what we find that it’s often white, it’s often male. And so there’s very little opportunity for Blacks historically, and even contemporarily to rise to the occasion. So one or two are getting through.

“And with that, there is that overwhelming burden of I am representing for all and I need to perform with excellence. I need to serve with excellence. I need to lead with excellence so that I can provide an opportunity for another Black person to come through, another woman to come through into these spaces. Because if I don’t do well, then the assumption is that this is what we thought, that she wouldn’t succeed, that you couldn’t lead, that she didn’t have the fortitude, the intelligence, the mindset to be able to be that leader, to be able to come into these spaces and navigate. And so there is that overwhelming burden.”

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

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