On the Business of Being A Black Athlete

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If Black athletes do not endure the unfairness and racism they encounter, and instead stand up for themselves, they are deemed uncooperative, lazy, or selfish.

By Amelia Ali

As a Division 1 athlete, I have never wanted sports to define me. As much as I loved my team, and the privilege of being able to compete at the D1 level, I cannot ignore the incongruity of sports as a Black female athlete. Upon entering my primarily white institution (PWI), my body and my presence were already political. The NCAA-approved image on display simultaneously took for granted and exaggerated Black athletic strength and endurance, assuming we remained unperturbed by it. The sports world can no longer ignore the socioeconomic gains that are made possible by athletic labor, particularly Black athlete contributions to the marketplace. 

Athletics has never really been a “great equalizer” since the playing field was built on Indigenous land, gerrymandering, and rich people getting richer. Following racial integration in the U.S., segregation unofficially continued, maintained through private resorts, clubs, and leisure facilities instituting discriminatory financially prohibitive measures that prevented Black inclusion and accessibility, such as outdoor fees and memberships. Race and class discrimination especially plague the history of aquatics in America. Now, Black and brown communities have​ a greater likelihood of not knowing how to swim and drown at​ rates higher than whites. Municipal planning intentionally kept pools out of Black and brown neighborhoods, as well as prohibited these communities from leisurely enjoying public spaces with their white counterparts. This privatization catalyzed white flight, gentrification, and facility underfunding or closures to prevent true integration.

Concurrently, historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) established themselves as pedagogical institutions of cultural refuge and humanity in an anti-Black society. Associate Professor of History and African American and Africana Studies at the University of Kentucky Derrick E. White contends that these sporting congregations at HBCUs used sports to promote racial uplift and to support democratic ethos. White reasons that HBCU football programs created “a network of athletes, administrators, coaches, sportswriters and fans” that formed vital relationships between HBCUs and Black communities. PWIs began to recruit more Black athletes and talent who became racial pioneers in tumultuous, segregated environments. ​Jesse Owens​, who faced Nazis at the 1936 Olympics and won, was not permitted to visit the White House with his white peers. The Olympics repeatedly became a proxy battlefield pitting country against country.​ Yet, when Tommie Smith and John Carlos lowered their heads and raised their gloved fists at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, the two sprinters were dubbed “black-skinned stormtroopers” for their podium protest.

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Now, the socioeconomic entanglement in professional sports is inevitable for the politically-engaged Black athlete in a post-9/11 and post-Ferguson America, reasons Senior ESPN Writer Howard Bryant​. Framed around Black Lives Matter, a well-endorsed, accomplished athletic generation becomes a monodeistic brand. Keeping quarterback Colin Kaepernick out of the NFL was never about football but, rather, about business. Senior Sports Illustrated writer Michael Rosenberg ​notes​ that Kaepernick epitomized the labor-like quality of sports: either a tool for management’s bottomline or a tool to affect change, especially with what the Black athlete means to the NFL. Simply juxtaposing a league versus the athletes who kneel or refuse participation minimizes the anti-racism movement and how it transcends individual athletes.  

Black Athletes should be compensated in equal measure to the duress their bodies face, as well as be able to withhold their labor.  Twenty-three year old, four-time grand slam champion Naomi Osaka was fined $15,000 following her announcement that she would not do media interviews during the French Open. The fine was imposed by the heads of the organizations that run the Grand Slam tournaments, who want to ensure all players are treated exactly the same, no matter their stature, beliefs or achievement. Later, Osaka withdrew entirely from the tournament to prioritize her mental health, citing her depression and “[feeling] that people have no regard for athletes’ mental health.” Her departure was intended to minimize any distraction her previous announcement would have on the tennis press tour. Tennis legend Billie Jean King even threaded a “both sides” arguments in response. 

Leagues and organizations cannot ask athletes to perform tasks of greater difficulty and prowess, so as not to be commended and rewarded in equal measure. This is especially apparent by the medical bias that either undervalues pain or overvalues Black strength. In 2018, the French Open president banned Serena Williams’s medical “catsuit” that was custom designed to prevent the blood clots that almost killed her. Lest we forget Williams, who has won the French Open three times and has nearly two dozen Grand Slam titles, has been bestialized by the media repeatedly. Ahead of her 2012 U.S. Open appearance, the then-No. 1 ranked junior in the world Taylor Townshend was deemed “not fit to play” by the U.S. Tennis Association (USTA) unless she changed her diet and weight. The fatphobia disturbed Townshend further because the USTA ignored her physician’s counsel and revoked monetary support ahead of competition.

Punishing Black athletes to change their bodies or face extra duress extends beyond tennis. The NFL has a history of dismissing or under rewarding payouts for filed dementia claims from Black NFL retirees suffering from concussions and traumatic brain injuries compared to their white counterparts. The practice has been justified by the assumption that Black people have lower cognitive function. South African Olympic runner Caster Semenya faced “discriminatory testosterone limits” for the naturally occurring hormone. World Athletics now intends for female athletes to take medication to lower their testosterone levels if others, like Semenya, wish to continue competing internationally in running events. The ruling is also a consequence of the anti-trans movement, as Semenya has been repeatedly accused of being a man and was subjected to a “sex determination” test after complaints from white athletes who lost to her.  At the 1998 Nagano Olympics, France’s Surya Bonaly became the only figure-skater to land a one-legged backflip and pejoratively received a silver medal. For what was considered a gracefully clean though illegal move, Bonaly’s iconic program and prowess alluded her deserved Olympic or world champion. Recently, Simone Biles became the first woman to perform the ultra-dangerous Yurchenko double pike in competition and was scored low. Some hope it will “discourage gymnasts from attempting the dangerous move.” Yet, Biles can only resign herself and keep quiet “because they’re not going to reward the correct value.” Ahead of Tokyo’s 2021 Olympic Games, individuals like Sha’Carri Richardson have already become avatars for success and national pride though it may be fleeting.

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Moreover, COVID-19 has left the very business of the tournaments in precarious positions and this labor extends beyond professional teams operated by white presidents, white coaches, and white media. Black athlete imagery is propped up on display for the National Collegiate Athletic Association, ​a 501(c)3 non-profit organization to profit. The NCAA ​coined​ the term “student-athlete” in 1955, which has since muddled amatuer representation between student and employee before the law. Black athletes do not have protections while they invest ample time and effort into their endeavors to remain in peak physical condition. Likely, a union would yield accountability and transparency because of its collective bargaining power to alleviate athletes’ anxieties as athletes’ bodies and labor​ generate millions of dollars for a white hegemony. Organizations, such as the ​National College Players Association (NCPA)​, a nonprofit advocacy group, aid in​ similar endeavors​. With much time and effort invested, increased safety protocols and the freedom for athletes to opt-out of competition if they feel unsafe should be implemented. Organizations are once again at a precipice for change. 

Being of sound, body, and mind, to perform at the highest levels of athletics, requires setting professional and personal boundaries to achieve excellence. If Black athletes do not endure the unfairness and racism they encounter, and instead stand up for themselves, they are deemed uncooperative, lazy, or selfish. Biles, Osaka, and the Black NFL retirees make clear their intentionality and mindfulness of their position. Bodily autonomy and self-care are just as important rather than perpetuating maladaptive problematic tropes related to strength or resiliency. Powerful people, who are not marginalized in situations based on decorum or dignity, should not be able to manipulate situations against those who are marginalized. Their legacy, how it is sustained, and potential improvements at the collegiate and professional level should be to work towards correcting the failings of neoliberalism and capitalism to Black bodies.

A former D1 athlete and English major, Amelia is a Philadelphia-based writer whose research includes indigeneity within global hegemonies, political engagement, environmental racism, and intersectional feminism. She enjoys the writings of Jesmyn Ward, Nella Larson, and Toni Morrison. Her work has appeared in Shit You Should Care About, RaceBaitr, and several other publications. You can follow her work at: mia-amelie.medium.com/

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