How far have we not come?: Racism and the lived experiences of black women athletes.
Recently, Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame and U.S.
Olympic Hall of Famers Dawn Staley and Lisa Leslie separately published commentaries about the most recent swell of racial discord brought on by the murder of George Floyd, at the hands of a now-fired and arrested Minneapolis, Minnesota police officer. Staley is currently the head coach of women's basketball at the University of South Carolina and USA Basketball Women's National Team. Leslie is one of only two women head coaches in the men's professional BIG3 Basketball League. Her team, the Triplets, will be defending their 2019 championship title once games are allowed to resume in or after the Covid-19 era.
Professional women's sports were barely a blip on the screen when Staley and Leslie were born in the early 1970s. That was during the time when Alpha Alexander, Nikki Franke, Tina Sloan Green, Lurline Jones, and Ann Koger were trying to make their way through the murk of racism still lingering from the days of the Civil Rights Movement. Their stories as told in Chapter 8 of They Carried Us, resonate with painful experiences that overtime they mostly overcame.
Alpha was the only black woman on Wooster College's basketball team. Her presence in a game so enraged a competing team that they launched an unprovoked physical attack against Alpha and her teammates. She said, "I ended up fouling out. We got beat really badly and we got beat up because I was the only black on the team." Around the same time, Nikki was in the early stages of making her way as head coach of the newly formed women's fencing (foil) team at Temple University. She recalled how a persistent cloud of invisibility hung over her as white coaches and officials typically assumed her blackness precluded her from being the team's coach - that it was someone other than her - someone, white.
And although Tina was a stand-out player on the All American women's field hockey team, she was not selected to play in the 1968 games in South Africa - her blackness would have been an affront to the Apartheid-ruled country. Lurline learned what it felt like to be seen as an affront in Baltimore, Maryland where she attended all-black Morgan State College. She experienced scorn in the local department store, coffee shop, and paddy wagon as she and others were arrested for protesting against racial injustice.
Ann's early experiences with racism were tinged with unlawful, but abundant, segregationist rules. From the neighborhood park, swimming pool, movie theaters, tennis courts and clubs she knew well where she was welcome, and where she was not. Slow shifts occurred in America's laissez-faire attitudes and practices of racial discrimination leading up to the early 1980s when Marilyn Stephens (also featured in They Carried Us) arrived at Temple University as the only black person on the women's basketball team. She knew what to expect, having been lovingly told, "There ain't no black people there."
Forty years have passed between then and recently when Staley wrote an article in The Players Tribune titled, "Black People Are Tired" https://www.theplayerstribune.com/en-us/articles/dawn-staley-racial-injustice. In it, she passionately wrote in response to almost world-wide protests and riots in the aftermath of Floyd's death that, "People are mad because NOTHING HAS CHANGED." Lamenting the fact that long-standing and systemic racism has been allowed to flourish throughout local law enforcement, Staley also wondered, "How could you not release your knee to allow this man to breathe? He's on his stomach. His hands are behind his back. And you just continue, despite his pleas for air."
Leslie's article titled, "Dear America" https://www.theplayerstribune.com/en-us/articles/lisa-leslie-dear-america-racism is also featured in The Players Tribune. She wrote, "Well, now everything has been exposed in broad daylight for the whole world to see. Your oppression, your systemic racism, your lack of justice continue to suffocate black America, and “We Can’t Breathe!” Black people have had enough of you destroying our very existence." She spoke the truth in saying, "Even though we no longer have laws saying that blacks have to drink at one water fountain and whites at the other, or blacks have to enter a restaurant from the back or sit in the back of the bus, we still have to abide by an unspoken set of rules because of the color of our skin. The police can arrive in our communities and be the judge, the jury, and the executioner on the spot."
Black women in sports have always faced racial (and gender) discrimination (https://theundefeated.com/features/the-struggle-is-real-the-unrelenting-weight-of-being-a-black-female-athlete/). But they were not deterred and used their platforms to speak and act against racism (https://www.publicbooks.org/black-athletes-black-activists/).
Whether participating in media campaigns like tennis stars Serena Williams, Coco Gauff, Naomi Osaka and Sloan Stephens (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qsQ9IRgskFk), demanding that schools and higher education institutions open up opportunities as regulated by Title IX Federal Law, or forming organizations like the Black Women in Sport Foundation (BWSF), black women - and certainly those in Chapter 8 of They Carried Us - have refused to be relegated to the bleachers.