Sports

Black Female Athletes Score for Activism

Gwen Berry holds flowers while wearing her medal at the U.S. Olympic trials.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images.

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When the U.S. Olympic team competes in Tokyo later this month, track and field star Gwen Berry will be there representing the country in the hammer throw event. That’s as critics ask why she’s even on the team, after she turned her back on the flag and “The Star-Spangled Banner” during the Olympic trials.

But this kind of protest is nothing new for Berry or for Black women in sports who have used their success to call for justice and equality, and to amplify the voices of others who do that work. On Friday’s episode of A Word, Amira Rose Davis joined us to talk about it. She’s a professor of history and African American studies at Penn State. She’s also a co-host of Burn It All Down, a podcast about women in sports. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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Jason Johnson: Before we get started, in the interest of full disclosure, you know Gwen Berry, right?

Amira Rose Davis : Yes, I do.

There was some reporting that Gwen Berry didn’t plan to make this statement on the podium and she felt set up. Can you talk about that a little bit?

Yeah, absolutely. First and foremost, the anthem is not traditionally played on all the podium stands at the Olympic trials, and it hadn’t been played throughout the day. So I think she’s referring to that coincidence. I do think that’s important to note that [the protest] wasn’t necessarily a plan, although she has said very clearly for multiple years now that that anthem doesn’t speak to her and she plans to stand for it in her way. Whether it’s raising her fist, like we saw her doing in 2019 at the Pan American Games or what we saw this weekend, where she turned her back on the anthem.

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You’ve spoken with Berry before on your podcast, including after she was sanctioned for protesting at the 2019 Pan Am games. At that time, she said raising her fist was about a personal moment of triumph but also about systematic racism. Remind us, how was her action greeted at that time? And how has it evolved?

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At the time, both her and Race Imboden, who was a fencer at the games, did medal stand protests and this was firmly in the “Kaepernick era.”— since 2016, this new wave of athletic activism. And so it wasn’t completely out of context, but it was still met with the standard responses that we have become accustomed to, which is lots of hate mail, lots of notes, lots of clamors to be off the team or to be disciplined in some way. In terms of how United States Track & Field and their funders responded, you saw her really separated from a lot of funding streams, some of which are hard to track because they are through personal donations of the Track & Field—boosters and sponsors. And there was a lack of corporate sponsorship opportunities that had once existed.

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Although nine months later, after George Floyd was murdered and we saw a very different response, we saw corporations saying, “Black lives matter.” One of the things we saw is USA Track & Field say, “Black lives matter,” and say much of the same stuff that Gwen was saying nine months earlier. And she said, “This is really nice to hear, but I’m still on probation. Race [Imboden] is still on probation.” And they publicly apologized. They removed them from probation. They were like, “OK, you were ahead of us.” And I think that that’s really important to note that USA Track & Field not only caught up to her, but the work that athletes have done has been so instrumental in getting the United States Olympic Committee to agree not to impose any sanctions, any more discipline.

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When you talk about streams of funding, a lot of Americans probably don’t really understand how track and field athletes are funded. Can you just take us briefly through that? Like, do you get money from USA Track? Do you have to go out and hustle to get money from Nike or Reebok? How does that financial thing work and therefore, how can it be used as a cudgel against people who are activists?

Especially in Olympic sports, endorsement deals are a lot of what helps you along. And in addition to that, there are subsidies and different packages that athletes get from USA Track & Field. And that money is raised a myriad of ways. And so when we’re talking about streams of funding within the sport, there’s different packages that are awarded depending on your tier level. Gwen has always been a Tier 1 level. She was at the 2016 Olympics. And so there’s different awards that you get throughout the year for performance and then additional, supplemental things to help with training expenses, etc. And so she was getting certain awards and then noticing a pattern of not getting other ones.

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But the other thing that she was noticing was the search for sponsors was hard to come by. And what we’ve seen in the last few months is Color of Change has done a historic partnership with Gwen. Just a few weeks ago, Puma announced their partnership with Gwen. She wore a equality shirt and this is really significant because Puma, of course, is the brand that stepped up to help Tommie [Smith] and John [Carlos] after the 1968 Olympics. So they have a legacy of doing that. And so those are the people who are having her back right now.

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With that in mind, this kind of action around the national anthem or the flag isn’t new. And you mentioned Tommie Smith and John Carlos raising their fists on the podium in the 1968 Olympics. But that’s something that I think a lot of Americans, if they’ve paid attention to Olympic history and Black athletes and activism have heard of, but we don’t hear as much about women engaging in that kind of activism. Can you tell us a little bit about Black women who were doing similar protests and things in the ’60s and ’70s and ’80s?

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We obviously start with Rose Robinson, who was a high jumper out of Chicago at the Pan American Games in 1959 in Chicago. She was not going to stand and engage in the pomp and circumstance of the anthem, but she’s also really notable because she refused to go on a Goodwill Ambassador Tour with the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War. Very publicly saying, “I’m not a pawn to be used in your political games.” Very clearly identifying the way that Black athletes were being used to bolster this American image abroad and refute Soviet propaganda about racism. And Rose Robinson refused to go very publicly. But six months later, she was thrown in front of a judge for tax evasion charges and she refused to pay those, was thrown in jail, and staged a hunger strike. This was all over $386.

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As we move through the ’60s and ’70s, we also have more examples of Black women athletes. That ’68 games for instance, we think about Tommie and John, but the Black women athletes there were excluded by the Olympic Project for Human Rights in the planning process. And so really, everybody was kind of doing a free for all of their own protests. So Wyomia Tyus, who was a ’64, ’68 Olympian, the first person to go back to back in the 100 meters and get gold there, wore protest shorts. She wore different color shorts as a protest. She put her fist up along with her teammate on the medal stand briefly. They of course dedicated their medals to Tommie and John, to cut off the narrative of them being outliers.

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And then my favorite thing to talk about in the ’70s is a whole bunch of Black cheerleaders at schools around the country who said, “Hey, we’re part of the sports spectacle. And we are going to use this space to join with Black athletes and Black students who are talking about the number of Black students on campus or the need for Black history classes or the Black studies programs.” And so they used the sidelines of basketball games. They used the field in football games to use the anthem to either sit down or to put their fists in the air. And so you absolutely have Black women doing this through that period of time.

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One of the things you’ve chronicled in your podcast is the collective activism of different kinds of women in team sports. Like the WNBA’s Atlanta Dream. I’m curious if you think that women’s activism is sometimes easier in a team sport than an individual sport. Is it easier to band together as a group than having to go at alone?

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Collective action is really necessary for just mobilization. You’re going to get more done. And for women’s sports, that has absolutely been a feature for a number of reasons. When you’re talking about the WNBA and you’re talking about the Dream’s impact, it’s really important to understand that not only is the history of the WNBA absolutely political, but that the players brought the league along. And so if you go back to the months even before Kaepernick took a knee, you had WNBA players on the Liberty, on the Indiana Fever—you absolutely had WNBA players who were shutting down pressers saying, “We’re not going to take a question unless it has to do with police brutality.” They were standing together. They were wearing black shirts in solidarity. And this is an important moment, right? Because the league tries to fine them.

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The league tries to fine them for wearing these black shirts at the same time that the NBA is putting their superstars on the stage of the ESPYs and applauding them for their activism.

So the Olympics start in a couple of weeks. What’s the actual official policy around protests from the Olympic Committee? Is everybody given freedom to make their individual choices? Where are we at right now?

The Olympic Committee in the United States has basically said, “We’re not penalizing this. This is a right of expression.” That was a hard-fought win by the athletes. And so they are not going to intervene. We know that the IOC, the International Olympic Committee, is clinging very hard to Rule 50, banning political expression protest. It’s a very gray area on purpose. So for instance, they said that you can’t wear the words Black Lives Matter, but you can wear equality or justice or freedom.

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And so, because of that and because they’re kind of watching for it. It’s going to be really interesting to see if they try to do more.

What can those of us who are watching these athletes entertain us, represent us, and then fight for us, what is the way for those of us outside of this realm to show these athletes that we support what they’re doing and believe in them and believe in what they’re doing, both on and off the court, field, or track?

Well, one, tune in. I say that especially for the WNBA. A lot of people put them on a pedestal and were like, “Look at them as activists.” And it’s like, tune into a game.

Look for ways to stand up and stand for Olympians. If you want to support Gwen, for instance, she has a website, you can buy her Activist Athlete shirt. Stand with them and say, like, “No, they have a right to speak, and here’s how we can amplify this.”

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