Social issues U.S. Black women athletes face (then vs. now)

Today I’m sharing my original outline from the talk I gave recently, focused on U.S. Black women athletes and social issues.

Social issues U.S. Black women athletes face (then vs. now)


Women’s sports are described in many ways.

As a way for women and girls to build confidence, a precursor to corporate success, as a way to build role models, inspiration, etc.

I view women’s sports as an opportunity to analyze society; the way Black sportswomen are treated often reflects the way black women are treated in society.

We can use the Olympic Games as an example, this is the biggest stage women’s sports is played on at the moment.

Before we get started, I can share some stats.

From American Progress, 2013:

  • Black women have a higher mortality rate than white women from breast cancer
  • Black women over the age of 20 have higher hypertension rates

From Equal Pay Today:

  • Black women make 63 cents for every dollar white men make

From Harvard, 2021:

  • Black women died from COVID-19 at 3x the rate of white and Asian men, only Black men were more likely to die from the disease.

It’s a bleak picture, but a reality. You may wonder, what does this have to do with sports?


Sports are one of the few opportunities for Black people to transcend the boxes societies place them in; this isn’t to say Black people are only good at sports, or are better at certain sports than other races, as the stereotype goes. (That’s something we can discuss in a later newsletter!)

Where are Black people allowed to exist, or even thrive, without racist interference?

As it is, sports are an opportunity and avenue for social mobility, for travel and for access to spaces Black women would have been denied historically. Let’s look at Dawn Staley and A’ja Wilson.

Staley recently told GQ: “We from North Philly. Ain’t no smilin’ if you from there cuz ain’t nothin’ to laugh about.” Staley went from North Philly to Virginia to the WNBA and years later, GQ is interviewing her at her mansion. Staley coached A’ja Wilson, the 25-year-old WNBA star whose grandmother couldn’t walk on the University of South Carolina campus, the same campus where Wilson now has a statue thanks to her overall sporting contributions and glory brought to the university (money, national championships, etc.)

These are success stories, of transcending society’s boxes. Success isn’t a given, no matter the talent.


More stats:

  • From its inception until about the mid-20th century, the USTA banned Black players.
  • The first Black players didn’t compete for USA women’s basketball until 1971
  • Dawn Staley, in 2016, became USA women’s basketball’s first Black head coach

Even if sporting institutions, like the United States Olympic Committee or U.S. Soccer or USA Basketball, start integrating the teams, there may still be segregation in the decision maker departments (all-white front office, executive teams, social media and marketing teams, coaching and equipment staffs. I do, however, wonder, if the white supremacist roots can ever be removed from these organizations, even if there are Black people brought into the fold.)

That doesn’t create a welcoming environment for Black women athletes.

In 1932, Tidye Pickett and Louise Stokes couldn’t eat in the same restaurant as their team or sleep in the same living quarters, they slept in workers quarters, and had water thrown on them by Babe Didrikson.

From Olympic Pride, American Prejudice, “Claims would surface of Babe using the N word and belittling African Americans. One of her teachers is quoted later in life as saying Babe “really did hate blacks in those days. I think she went out of her way to antagonize them and, truly, to hurt them.”

And then, there are the snubs by national team coaches.

Tidye and Louise qualified for the 4x100 with their times, but The Chicago Defender wrote an article sharing the truth. “Tidye Pickett May Lose Olympic Spot,” writing, “Lily-whiteism, a thing more pronounced than anything else around here on the eve of the Olympic Games, threatened to oust Tidye Pickett and Louise Stokes from participation and put in their stead two girls who did not qualify.”

We can use a more recent example, the U.S. women’s national soccer team, which in recent years, has snubbed its Black players dramatically on Olympic and World Cup rosters. Three of the four alternates at the most recent Olympic Games were Black players, and were only added after an Olympic change to the women’s soccer tournament. Yet Lynn Williams, one of those players, created both opportunities, a goal and an assist, that helped the U.S. reach the quarterfinals.

Media plays in the way we understand these things.


Who tells the story also impacts the understanding of social issues, and whether any change takes place. Let’s use the examples of Venus to the Hoop by Sara Corbett (1997) and Black Gold by Teresa Edwards (2021).

The 1992 U.S. women’s basketball team “settled for bronze” in the Barcelona Olympics, after winning gold in ‘84 in ‘88, and you’d think Katrina McClain and Teresa Edwards were to blame.

In “Venus to the Hoop,” Katrina and Teresa are portrayed almost as if they don't care about USA basketball, while head coach Tara VanDerveer is the fearless (though somewhat stressed) leader with the weight of succeeding in order to advance women’s basketball in the U.S.

“They had an inkling that VanDerveer had come away from the World Championships figuring them to be uncoachable…” Later in the chapter, they are portrayed as not having even tried in during the early days of the trial, citing Andy Landers as saying, “I’d cut you in a second.”

In Black Gold, we find out Teresa and Katrina learned while overseas, that USA Basketball had discussions about not wanting them to even come to the trials. Edwards also outlined the environment Tara VanDerveer created for Edwards, an instance where another coach had to get involved. Without this book, we’d not have Edwards' version of events.

There’s been a lot more media coming out that give Black women athletes the space to share their stories; podcasts, audiobooks and other digital media.

Media means money, and it impacts the bottom line of athletes.

“Economic racism negatively affected black women’s athletic opportunities, their athletic training and performances, and their lives after retirement from athletic competition.” - Cindy Himes Gissendanner

Sabrina Ionescu played three games in 2020 and received twice as much coverage as the most mentioned Black player, A’ja Wilson, the season’s MVP.

Risa Isard on how disparities fuel economic disparities.

“Media mentions get quantified as earned media value or marketing value and it's basically a way to communicate how much money you know someone would have had to pay to get this recognition. If you were to place an ad, this is what it would have cost or like how much are you worth? And those metrics then get sold to sponsors and they say you should sponsor my athlete or you should sponsor me because "look, I get all this media coverage, right? I'm going to be able to sell your brand."

Media impacts who is forgotten first.

Historically, a good example of this is Earlene Brown, who had her car seized, had to borrow a car to get a passport for the Tokyo Olympics, and had to either sacrifice money for training or training for money. Michael D. Davis noted that Earlene Brown wasn’t even able to live up to her potential, though she still made history as the first U.S. woman to medal in shot put.

Michael D. Davis writes in Black American Women in Olympic Track and Field, “If ever there was a clear case of how American concepts of amateurism stifles the development of American athletes, that case would be Earlene Brown … A great American star who had brought great prestige to the United States at the height of the cold war by beating Russia’s finest athlete in Moscow in 1962 was hard-put even to make the U.S. team.”


Second-best isn’t good enough, and erased if you’re a Black woman. Competing for Team USA means something different for every athlete. Do they feel they are bringing glory to a racist nation? Do they feel it simply means they are the best at their craft in the world? Do they feel the complications and plan to protest?

Supporting also means something different for every fan.

But Black women athletes are draped in American flags when they medal at the Olympics, they are celebrated, put on national platforms.

Though that always wasn’t the case. Wyomia Tyus had no fanfare in 1968 when she made history, becoming the first person to win back-to-back golds in the 100m.

From 2018: There was also no fanfare following her historic win, other than one interview with Howard Cosell. No one brought out banners or draped Tyus in the American flag. In her book, “Tigerbelle: The Wyomia Tyus Story,” she wrote, “At the time, they were not about to bathe a Black woman in glory. It would give us too much power, wouldn’t it?”

So what happens if they aren’t expected to win? In the case of Anna Cockrell, who made the 400mh finals this year, she wasn’t acknowledged in a Twitter post made from Team USA, that had more than enough room to include her photo and name. The two athletes that were featured were expected to bring medals to the U.S.

It may seem small, but it doesn’t feel like it. The post was called out by many fans, and it ties into media and segregation of sporting organizations beyond the field as well as part-time citizenship. Do you have to be the greatest of all time to be acknowledged by your country?

Is it not enough to qualify for the finals, which is a feat in itself?

Why are Black women so easily discarded?


All these issues, and some I didn’t even touch, take a toll on these athletes.

Weathering is the process of wearing or being worn by long exposure to the atmosphere. According to Deborah Gray White, weathering is the daily minutiae that black women have to deal with in terms of racism.

“I was depressed at Rome,” said Earlene Brown, who competed for the U.S. during the Cold War. She went on to say, when she was required to go to tea with Russian athletes, saying she caused a lot of trouble, not wanting to participate in U.S. politics. “I was ready to come home without competing. All they had to do was give me my ticket.”

Now, she had Russian friends, she just didn’t want to be used as a political prop, in addition to all of the other life’s obligations.

Lusia Harris had no options after playing college basketball at Delta State and leading USA Basketball to its first medal. She was offered an opportunity to play in France, but didn’t want to leave home. She wasn’t able to take care of her family in the short-lived Women's Professional Basketball League. She moved away from home to pursue a coaching opportunity and lost that job. She revealed in a recent documentary that she had a panic attack after that and is bipolar.

Simone Biles, one of the most decorated gymnasts ever, is navigating being one of the faces of standing up to sexual abuse in sport, the pressure of being expected to bring more hardware home, anxiety and death of a family member, decided to remove herself from certain competitons during the 2020 Olympics.

These are just some of the examples of the social issues Black women face and the impact on the athletes. Thank you for your support and do reply if you have any questions or thoughts to share!