Talking About Black Women in Sports

by Abrielle De Veaux, The Opportunity Agenda

As a Black woman, I’ve always had a complicated relationship with the Olympics. Institutional racism and other structural barriers that have long undermined Black Americans and other marginalized groups intentionally bar us from opportunity and success in the United States. However, I feel immense pride watching my fellow Black Americans succeed at their sport, create space for future Black athletes, and represent the strength, work-ethic, and beauty of our community.

As I join millions of Americans preparing ourselves for the Opening Ceremony of the Tokyo Olympics, we will undoubtedly notice Sha’Carri Richardson’s absence. The nationwide favorite track star and projected gold-medalist for the women’s 100-meter race was sidelined after the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency announced her month-long suspension after testing positive for THC. During an interview on the TODAY Show, Sha’Carri revealed that she used marijuana after finding out about the death of her mother. To add to the intensity and distress, Sha’Carri learned about her mother’s death through a reporter who was interviewing her in Oregon after the Olympic trials. Richardson reflected on the moment, stating “I was just thinking it would be a normal interview. And then…to hear that information from a complete stranger, it was definitely triggering, it was nerve-shocking.”

Upon hearing the news of her suspension, I was extremely frustrated with the way people spoke about Sha’Carri and disappointed I would not be able to watch her — acrylic nails and all — cross the finish line during the Olympic games. My frustration was mirrored by other folks who recognized the necessary social and systemic context of her suspension, such as marijuana legalization and the disproportionate impact mass incarceration has on Black Americans. Furthermore, I was appalled by the lack of empathy some had despite knowing the context in which she used marijuana. The harsh criticism towards Sha’Carri serves as yet another example of how Black athletes are seldom treated with compassion and dignity.

Naomi Osaka’s decision to withdraw from the French Open similarly shocked the athletic world. As the highest-paid female athlete to date, many fans, supporters, and spectators were looking forward to seeing one of the best tennis players of our time continue to shine. What started off as a desire to see a beloved athlete do her best soon turned into a demand. Overnight, it became clear that, to some, Naomi was purely a performer and machine, not a Black woman, not a human being. The French Open precipitated this notion by fining her $15,000 for not speaking to the media after her first-round win. In an effort to reinstate her humanity and perhaps justify her decision, she was put in a position where she felt inclined to share the details of her mental health journey with the world; a selfless and vulnerable act that was provoked by a lack of empathy from the media and The French Open.

Both Naomi Osaka and Sha’Carri Richardson, in each of their individual cases, were not treated like human beings by “supporters.” They were met with ignorance and scrutiny despite both women’s transparency about their personal lives, decisions, and mental health struggles. Unproductive conversations that seek to criticize both women’s characters and athletic careers continue to swarm the media. To highlight the importance of intersectionality and humanity in our conversations about Black women especially, I’ve put together some beginning guidance for talking about Black women in sports.

1. Remember — it’s about us.

Black women’s careers are not for or about you. The interweaving of consumerism and athletics in our society has led people to falsely believe that athletes, particularly Black athletes, only “perform” for their entertainment. In reality, an athlete’s career choices, accomplishments, and faults are not about you; it’s about them, their lives, family, and friends.

2. Center your conversations with understanding and empathy.

We all make mistakes, which is why redemption is such an important value we should all share. The only difference between your mistakes and Black female athlete’s mistakes is that yours are not on public display. When you talk about the missteps of Black female athletes, center understanding for their circumstances and empathy for their experiences, as opposed to being harsh and judgmental.

3. Question the rules.

The argument that “rules are rules” defaults to the idea that just because a rule was made, the rule is right – but we know that’s not always true. Think about the implications of the rules in question and if they disproportionately affect some athletes more than others. Does the rule in question mirror any inequitable laws or social issues? Is the rule just? Is it forward-thinking? What is the rules’ purpose?

4. Lift up our stories, but don’t make us your poster-children.

When something unjust happens to a Black female athlete, there is a tendency to tokenize the athlete or use their struggles as the face for advocacy. Expand your activism beyond individual stories. Use a wider lens to talk about the issue at hand — adding historical and social context is helpful.

5. Acknowledge our autonomy with our womanhood.

Black women especially endure enormous obstacles placed by systematic racism and misogyny. Despite numerous studies and reports documenting this, social and governmental institutions continue to police Black womanhood. Being a woman has nothing to do with the gender binary we so often rely on to define others. Black womanhood is not defined by the amount of estrogen or testosterone in one’s body, it is about lived experiences and identity.

We all have our different struggles. We all have our different things we’re dealing with. But to put on a face, to have to go in front of the world and put on a face and hide my pain. I don’t know, who are you or who am I to tell you how to cope when you’re dealing with a pain or you’re dealing with a struggle you never experienced before. Who am I to tell you how to cope?

– Sha’Carri Richardson


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