No Flag, No Anthem, No Apologies
S1: This is a word, a podcast from Slate. I’m your host, Jason Johnson Gwen Berry made the Olympic team this weekend and made news by turning our back on the flag and the national anthem that made conservatives like Congressman Dan Crenshaw from Texas mad. We don’t need any more. Activist athletes know she should be removed from the team. The entire point of the Olympic team is to represent the United States of America. More on Gwen Berry and the history of black women athletes and protests coming up on a word with me, Jason Johnson. Stay with us. Welcome to A World, a podcast about race and politics and everything else. I’m your host, Jason Johnson. When the U.S. Olympic team competes in Tokyo later this month, track and field star Gwen Berry will be there representing the country and the hammer throw event. That’s even 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. In an interview with the Black News Channel, Barry said There’s no contradiction.
S2: I never said that I didn’t want to go to the Olympic Games. That’s why I compete in the third. And the thing I never said that I hated the country, never said that. All I said was I respect my people enough to not stand or acknowledge something that disrespects them. I love my people like you.
S1: But this kind of protest is nothing new for Gwen 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. Joining us to talk more about it is a Miro’s Davis. She’s a professor of history and African-American studies at Penn State. She’s also the host of Burn It All Down, a podcast about women in sports. And Amira Rose Davis joins us now. Welcome to a word.
S3: Yeah, happy to be here.
S1: Before we get started, in the interest of full disclosure, you know Gwen Berry, right?
S3: Yes, I do.
S1: There are 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?
S3: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I think that 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 that when she’s referring to that feeling of set up or are that coincidence. Right. Is that it felt to her, you know, oh, of course they’re going to play it when I’m there now. You know, it’s it’s perhaps a coincidence, you know, that that’s how she felt it. But I do think that that’s important to note that, you know, it 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 fists like we saw her doing in twenty nineteen at the Pan American Games or what we saw this weekend where she turned her back on the anthem.
S1: You spoke with Barry before on your podcast, including after she was sanctioned for protesting the 2018 Pan Am games. At that time, she said raising her fist was about a personal moment of triumph, but also about systematic racism. Here’s the clip.
S4: The other reason why we would definitely bring awareness about the things that are not being talked about and the things that are being pushed under the rug in America that, you know, racial discrimination. A lot of black men, unarmed black men are being killed by the police. Unarmed black women are being killed by the police. People are dying in prison. Children don’t have opportunity that they would have if they had wealth, racial wealth gap. All of these things that I see literally every day
S1: remind us, how was her action greeted at that time and how has it evolved? Because we’ve seen an evolution in how everything from the regular public to sportscasters have responded to athlete protests really in just the last two or three years.
S3: At the time, both her and Amadie, who was a fencer at the Games, both did medal stand protests. And this was firmly in the Kaepernick era. Some will call it, in some sense, 2016, this kind of 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 clamours to be off the team or to be disciplined in some way in terms of how the United States track and field and their funders responded. You saw her really separated from a lot of funding streams, some of which are hard to track because through personal donations of of the track and field kind of boosters and sponsors, and there was lack of kind of corporate sponsorship opportunities that had once existed. 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 was USA track and 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 is still on probation. And they publicly apologized. They remove 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 and 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. So their reaction, as you’ve seen, has been to not engage when you.
S1: Talk about, you know, streams of funding, a lot of Americans probably don’t really understand how track 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? Like, how does that financial thing work? And therefore, how can it be used as a cudgel against people who are activists?
S3: Yes, all of the above. So especially in Olympic sports, endorsement deals are a lot of what helps you along. And in addition to that, there are subsidies in different packages that athletes get from USA track and field from the foundation. And that money is raised a myriad of ways. And so when we’re talking about strings of funding within the sport, the different packages that are awarded, depending on your tier level, Gwen has always been a tier one level. She was at the 2016 Olympics. And so there’s different awards that you get throughout the year for performance and then kind of capped off at various points that are additional supplemental things to help training expenses, et cetera. And so she was getting certain awards and then noticing a pattern of not getting other ones. Again, it’s very hard to track right. Kind of on purpose. But the other thing that she was noticing was, you know, the search for sponsors, for those endorsements 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 quality shirt. And this is really significant because Puma, of course, is the brand that stepped up to help Tommie and John after the 1968 Olympics. So they have a legacy. They have a history of doing that. And so those are the people who are having her back right now.
S1: With that in mind, you know, 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 at 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, to pay attention to 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?
S3: 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 kind of bolster this American image abroad and refute Soviet propaganda about racism. And Rosa Robinson refused to go very publicly mean like Jett was covering this. Right, Chicago Defender, and she didn’t go. 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 three hundred and eighty six dollars. But as we move through the 60s and 70s, we also have more examples of black women athletes that sixty eight games, for instance, we think about Tommie and John, as you said. 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 why don’t we Tyas, who was 64, 68, Olympic Olympian, first person to go back to back in the hundred meters and get gold there. She wore protest shorts. She wore different colored 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 kind of cut off the narrative of like them being outliers. 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, you know, the number of black students on campus or the need for black history classes or the black studies programs. And so they use the sidelines of basketball games. They use the field and 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.
S1: We’re going to take a short break. When we come back, more on Gwen Berry and black women in elite sports. This is a word with Jason Johnson. Stay tuned. Did you know you could be listening to this show, ad free, all it takes is a slate plus membership. It’s just one dollar for the first month and it helps support our show. Plus, it lets you hear all Slate podcast without ads and read unlimited articles on the Slate site without ever hitting a paywall. So sign up now for Slate plus at Slate Dotcom. Again, a word plus that slate. Dotcom, a word plus. You’re listening to a word with Jason Johnson today, we’re talking about the activism and the pressures on black women in elite sports with Amira Rose Davis. We’re going to step away from Gwen Berry for a moment to talk about other athletes and other sports, the Wimbledon tennis tournament is underway without Naomi Osaka, the second ranked player in the world. She’s Haitian and Japanese, grew up in the US and is a supporter of Black Lives Matter. How are people responding to Naomi Hosaka and her activism today in a way that perhaps they didn’t with Venus and Serena just five or six years ago or even further back?
S3: I think that’s a really good juxtaposition. Naomi has been so critical to the growth of the sport and to kind of new wave of athletic activism, both by, you know, donning masks at the U.S. Open with the names of victims of police violence and state sanctioned violence and police brutality. I mean, she’s been really consistent, right, about not letting kind of sports media flatten or erase her identity, erase her blackness. She puts herself on a continuum with the Williams sisters. Naomi, like Venus and Serena, can stand on the pedestal of winning to be taken seriously.
S1: 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 Atlanta Dream. I’m curious if you think that that women’s activism is sometimes easier in a team sport than, say, an individual sport like gymnastics or tennis. Is it easier to band together as a group than having to go it alone?
S3: I think that collective action is really necessary for you. I mean, just mobilisations, you’re going to get more done. And for women’s sports, that has absolutely been a feature for a number of reasons. And I think that when you’re talking about the W and you’re talking about the dreams impact, it’s really important to understand that not only is the history of the absolutely political, but that the players brought the league along. Right. 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, like you absolutely had WNBA players who were shutting down pressers saying we’re not going to take a question. This has to do with police brutality. They were standing together. They were wearing black shirts and solidarity. And this is an important moment, right? Because the league tries to find them, the league tries to find them for wearing these black shirts at the same time that the NBA is putting their superstars on the stage of CBIZ and applauding them for their activism. They’re fining the WNBA salaries if people were the salaries is already devastatingly low. Right. And it was stopped because, A, the players refused to yield. Tina Charles got the player of the week and they did a whole presentation at half court for her and she wore her protest shirt to do that. And the caption that she put was essentially like, no, we’re not going to stop saying Black Lives Matter. We’re not going to stop doing this because we’re asking you as a league that same energy. You have her pride and many of us are queer and we appreciate it. But that same energy, you have a pride, that same energy. You have a breast cancer show up now, pull up now. And because that they were so staunchly together on that, the league had to follow them.
S1: Amira. I want to turn back to Gwen Berry and other recent protests at the Olympic trials. So the Olympics start in a couple of weeks. What’s the actual official policy around protest from the Olympic Committee? And, you know, is there an expectation that there’s going to be a long, hot summer like his rule really been laid down? Is everybody given freedom to make their individual choices? Where we at right now,
S3: the Olympic Committee in the United States. Right. Has basically said we’re not penalizing this. This is a right of expression. That was a hard fought win by the athletes and especially the athletes on the Social Justice Council. And so they are not going to intervene. We know that the IOC, the International Olympic Committee, has is clinging very hard to rule 50. Right. So that’s banning political expression, protest. It’s a very gray area on purpose. Right. And so there’s ways that they’re like, OK, this is what’s this is what’s acceptable. Or you can do this in the Olympic Village, but you can’t do this. You can’t do that. So, for instance, they said that you can’t wear the words Black Lives Matter, but you can wear equality or justice or freedom. You know, I think it’s very telling when the Olympic Committee is like, yeah, where these random words, but you can’t wear black lives matter. And so because of that and because they’re kind of watching for it, it remains to be seen what athletes, not only us athletes, because we’ve seen black athletes around the globe and not just black athletes, but use the Olympics also as a sign of protest remains to be seen who actually goes there and does something and then how the Olympic Committee responds. One of the reasons why they keep it a gray area is because they like to kind of kick it back to the federations to do their dirty work for them. And because the US committee has already said we’re not going to do anything, it’s going to be really interesting to see if they. To do more.
S1: How do these athletes, when they’re engaging in these protests, do you have a sense as to what other athletes feel about this? Because one of the things that we’ve seen in America, in male team sports is, you know, you had a lot of NBA players who were like, yeah, you know, Black Lives Matter, but you had a couple stand out and say, well, I can’t do Black Lives Matter because I’m a Christian. There were serious conflicts in the NFL. I mean, you had serious conflicts in the NFL, sometimes between quarterbacks, linemen, all sorts of literally position groups disagreeing about how to speak out in these kinds of issues. How was that playing out in the Olympics? Do you have athletes who were quietly or publicly saying, look, I don’t want to see any of this, it’s distracting from my ability to concentrate? Or do you think as a collective, most athletes in the Olympics are saying, hey, you know, I’m glad they’re doing what they need to do to perform. What’s the internal conflict like within the sport?
S3: Yeah, I mean, so absolutely. This is a brand new day because of the last year that we’ve had. And so the Social Justice Committee internally has done a lot of work with their fellow athletes to get to a point of, you know, if people have personal issues with things or if they’ll do it differently, they’ve at least had space to talk about that. And they also are understanding that that’s it’s not requiring them to act. Right. You’ve seen absolutely white Alicia white Olympic athletes. And that is a tell all in time. Pete Norman, who’s on the medal stand with Tommie and John, doesn’t necessarily get talked about as much. But if you look closely to that picture, you’ll see he’s wearing an Olympic project for human rights. But he was very close with them. He was shunned by Australia. He’s the fastest dude in Australia, absolutely blacklisted from from track competitions for not denouncing them. Actually, when Pete passed on, both Tommie and John went back and were his pallbearers. The Harvard rowing team also was in solidarity with them. The WNBA is really effective because the white women in the league are standing there and understanding how their position is important. Right. And when they need to step front and when they need to step to the back. And I think in the Olympics, you’re starting to see this, too. I mentioned race who protested with Gwen last fall. Race is a white man who’s a fencer. And I think that you see Olympians just this past weekend, many standing in support of Gwen, many saying, you know, Michael Johnson just tweeted and said, like, whether you agree or disagree on tactics. Right. You have to admire the bravery and you have to respect her freedom to do it. And I think that’s where a lot of people are coming down right now.
S1: 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 were doing and believe in them and believe in what they’re doing, both on and off the court field to track?
S3: Yeah, I love that one tune in, I say that especially for especially for like the right, like a lot of people put them on a pedestal and like look at them as activists, like tuned into a game like these are elite athletes. There’s just like a base level to this, you know, support support sports, not Olympic sports. That’s never been hard. Right. It’s kind of a masculine act to show for your country. So like women’s sports in the Olympics have always been things that people have crowded around and cheered for, etc. when it comes back to the domestic space, keep that same energy. Absolutely. 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. Many people have foundations, people write op ads, people hold town hall meetings, amplify their voices. Right. Stand with them and say like, no, they have a right to speak. And here’s how we can amplify this. And also, I think that a lot of people are doing really important work with various foundations. I just want to shout out the Black Women’s Players Collective, which is the black women in the NWSL who have partnered with players for change from the MLS, who said, hey, one of the biggest issues about getting black kids into soccer is that there’s not enough soccer fields, you know, and so they have been working to just create soccer fields and create opportunities in soccer across the country. And so those things, those those kind of smaller work that is being done, a lot of local work, wherever you are, if you have a team in the area, there’s more than likely that there is some initiative that black players are doing that you can support and get involved with to recognize their whole self.
S1: Amir Rose Davis is an assistant professor of history and African-American studies at Penn State University and the co-host of the Burn It All Down podcast. Thank you so much.
S3: Yeah, thank you.
S1: And that’s a word for this week. The show’s email is a word at Slate Dotcom. This episode was produced by Ahyiana Angel and Jasmine Ellis. Aisha Solutia is the managing producer of podcasts Slate. Gabriel Roth is Slate’s editorial director for audio. Alicia Montgomery is the executive producer of podcasts at Slate. June Thomas is senior managing producer of the Slate podcast Network. Our theme music was produced by Don Will. I’m Jason Johnson. Tune in next week for word.