By Johari Shuck
“Sometimes we are blessed with being able to choose the time, and the arena, and the manner of our revolution, but more usually we must do battle where we are standing.” ~Audre Lorde
We couldn’t breathe. The collective battle cry could be heard from all corners of the world in the wake of yet another blatant disregard of Black lives in America. In the wake of the public displays of solidarity made by Black professional athletes holding their hands up like Michael Brown in his final moments or rocking black t-shirts that nonverbally reminded us of Eric Garner’s final moments, many collegiate and high school athletes have followed, joining the ranks of Black people who have expressed their awareness of and frustration with the perpetual problem of the (undervalued) negro; a toxic ideology that has seeped into nearly every crevice of society today, especially sports. These public displays of solidarity with the Black American community by athletes further expose the unique position of Black athletes who have been historically and simultaneously praised and exploited by virtue of their race. Whether or not these young people had ever heard of Harry Edwards, Tommie Smith or John Carlos, they joined the lean ranks of athletes who chose to speak out about injustice anywhere.
Among the images that went viral on the internet of Derrick Rose, LeBron James, Reggie Bush and others in the now iconic Black, “I Can’t Breathe” t-shirts, the gesture that stood out to me were captured in images of Taya Reimer and her teammates of the Notre Dame women’s basketball team during pregame warmup— according to some, the first women’s basketball team to wear the make the statement (followed by the Cal women’s team). It is certainly admirable for young people, who are often accused of civic apathy, to demonstrate support of those families who have lost their loved ones to the rogue tactics engaged by far too many law enforcement officials who bring about the end of too many Black lives. Young and old. Male and female. Young women like Reimer have fathers, brothers, uncles and cousins who have been disproportionately targeted. But the image of a woman wearing the Black tee brought to mind the question of question of activism among female Black athletes. This image not what we come to see or expect, women using their voices. Iconic images are male dominated before.
The scene of young ladies from Notre Dame emerging from the tunnel in onto the hardwood in the Joyce Center reminded of a conversation I’d had just two weeks before, with Civil Rights pioneer Dr. Harry Edwards: architect of the 1968 Olympics boycott, consultant to numerous professional athletic organizations, and Professor Emeritus at University of Southern California. “I’ll say one last thing,” Dr. Edwards said before we got off of the phone, “The number one human rights issue in American society today is the set of circumstances and outcomes of women and girls. And the thing I’m more disappointed in the realm of stepping up and speaking out, than anything else is the fact that I see no large organized group of women athletes standing up and protesting .”
The women of Notre Dame had certainly challenged Dr. Edwards’s assertion. But I wondered where are the other women athletes standing up and protesting?
Importance of Historical Context
You don’t know where you’re going if you don’t know where you’ve been. There is a disturbing lack of knowledge that young people in general today have of the impact of the past on the present. This disconnect has had detrimental impact on state of Black people in our country today, but I digress. I have witnessed the enlightenment that one of my own students at Indiana University, some of whom played football for the school experienced over the course of the 8 weeks I had with them. I learned from my students what I had already believed in: the power of the awareness of history. In the class I developed and currently teach at IU, The Black Male College Experience, I provide my students with the historical foundation required to understand the state of the Black male athletes today. They learn about William Henry Lewis from Harvard to Ozzie Simmons from University of Iowa. By the end of the class the athletes in the class admitted their new perspectives about the history of Black athletes was empowering
We can’t blame Reimer and others for not knowing the history of women athletes before her, like Wilma Rudolph, who used her influence to affect change. After the Black Pearl proved herself to be the “fastest woman in the world” at the 1960 Olympics, staunch segregationist Tennessee Governor Buford, planned a parade and banquet in her honor. Rudolph protested the event and refused to attend the celebration because it would be segregated; her protest led to the first integrated event in Clarksville, TN. She was subsequently active in protests in the city until the segregation laws were struck down. Later in life, Rudolph worked at DePaw University in Greencastle, Indiana to help recruit African Americans to the school.
New Wave of Activism?
Context matters in social movements. The socioeconomic climate of the times dictates underlying issues of movements as well as the mode of activism. I asked Dr. Edwards if he thought there was a “New Wave” of activism building today,
“Well, you have to understand that all generations have approached issues in different ways. You had Jack Johnson, Jesse Owens and Joe Lewis who approached it as a struggle for legitimacy. Jack Johnson used to follow white heavyweights around and say, ‘Hey I can beat you. And the only reason you won’t find me is because you’re afraid that I’ll beat you, I’m a legitimate boxer.’ The ethos at the time was that any success they got was a situation of luck or an accident. So most were in the international arena”
“Then in the post WWII years, the struggle was for access, and that’s when you had Kenny Washington and Woody Strode integrating the NFL and in baseball, Jackie Robinson, you had Chuck Cooper in the NBA. The struggle was for access, we knew we were legitimate, we could beat everybody in the world. Jack Johnson and Jesse Owens had proved that. Once the struggle for legitimacy was resolved, then the struggle was for access”
“Then in the 1960s, there were great athletes, Jim Brown, Muhammed Ali, and Arthur Ashe, who struggled for dignity and respect. Access for them was not enough.”
So what then are the issues at hand today for Black women athletes and what is the form of activism that is precipitating change? It seems that legitimacy, access, respect and dignity are all still part of the struggle of Black women in sports. When Dr. Edwards, said there were no organized group of women attacking issues affecting them, he overlooked one important organization, such as the Black Women in Sport Foundation (BWSF), led by Tina Sloan Green, the first African-American head coach in the history of women’s intercollegiate lacrosse, that has advocated for African American women in sports for 25 years.
Black Women and Title IX
According to the New York Times, Tina Sloan Green and 19 other prominent African American women with connections to athletics convened in 2012 covered to strategize on ways to tackle issues of race and gender in sport. The most recent (2013) annual Racial and Gender Report Card from The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport (TIDES) reveals evidence of disparate benefits of Title IX gained among Black and White women (and even White men) in college athletics, over 40 years after the passing of legislation calling for gender equity:
The low representation numbers of African American women in leadership position in college sports reflects a similar trend in the larger world of sports. The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) has begun to pay scholarly attention to the perceived barriers in college coaching and administration faced by women of color. While it is important to identify obstacles to more effectively address disparities, it is equally important to recognize those, such as Tina Sloan Green and others who have earned important roles in sport who have opened doors for the Taya Reimer in college sports. Through organizations such as BWSF, Black women former athletes are now engaging in the struggle where they stand, as leaders in academia, boardrooms and communities. A new report by Ernst and Young’s Women Athletes Business Network and EspnW found that a majority of high-level executives had once been athletes: Fifty-two percent of women on boards or with CEO, CFO, or COO titles had played a sport at the university level (and, at other management levels, 39 percent had done so). We must educate and mentor the coming generations of young Black women athletes to carry on the struggle for equity in sport and beyond.