Olympic gymnast Simone Biles and tennis star Naomi Osaka have recently dropped out of the world's top competitions. They've cited concerns about their mental health. Harry Edwards and Akilah Carter-Francique say, as Black athletes, those women bear a special burden.
"We’re in a space where as Black people, either you are invisible and you are silenced in a space, or you are rendered superhuman, which also gives this notion of invincibility, that we don’t have pain, we don’t have emotion," Carter-Francique says. "It’s a devaluation of their humanity."
"Between the economic demands of a sport, the fear of Black advancement in the white mainstream, the aspiration of Black society that are placed upon the shoulders of athletes, that’s a lot that the white athlete doesn’t have to deal with," Edwards adds.
Today, On Point: the unique burden on Black athletes.
Akilah Carter-Francique, executive director at the Institute for the Study of Sport, Society and Social Change and associate professor in the Department of African American Studies at San Jose State University. Former track and field athlete at the University of Houston. (@doctafrancique)
Stephany Coakley, senior associate athletic director for Mental Health, Wellness and Performance at Temple University Athletics. She's worked with college, professional and Olympic athletes. (@BAForceofNature)
Harry Edwards, sociologist, activist, professor emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley.
On the initial response to Simone Biles' decision to pull out of competition
Stephany Coakley: "My initial response was also that of concern. And as she continued to reveal her rationale and her reason behind withdrawing from competition, I was extremely proud. I said, good for her. Good for her. She doesn't have to sacrifice her well-being to perform so that other people can have their joy, and she can feel ill and unwell. So, you know, I thought, good for her. She doesn't have to prove anything to anyone. She's good enough just the way she is. And after, as things continue to evolve, I continue to feel very proud of her for her actions that she's taken. Because she's taken a huge step. And not just taking care of herself, but showing others that this is an important trait that we all need to develop."
On the unique burdens Black athletes experience
Akilah Carter-Francique: "The survival extends into their lived experiences in sport. And in a context in which sport, despite negative treatment, Black women as individuals like Althea Gibson. As pairs, when I think of Louis Stokes and Tidye Pickett in track and field. Or Margaret and Matilda Peters in tennis. Or in groups, when I think of the Tennessee Tigerbelles, which in many ways were ... the U.S. women's track and field team for about 28 years under the leadership of Ed Temple, and the collective traditions of the Black community and HBCU's.
"So ultimately, you know, this is a culture that has nurtured Black people, but also understood and recognized that we have been limited in these spaces as entertainment, as musicians, as athletes for the benefit of white audiences. And not only in America, but around the world. But at the same time, they had the wherewithal, as Edwards said, to be a force to reckon with, to persevere, demonstrating excellence at all times and having that mental fortitude."
Stephany Coakley: "There are so many expectations that are placed on Black athletes, and when those expectations are unmet, the criticism is harsh. That in and of itself, is traumatic to the athlete's well-being. And can interfere with what it is that they have to do on a daily basis. Where they show up, they have to show up 100%. And if they don't show up 100% and perform to the top of their ability, they are dismissed, discarded. As you mentioned earlier, the vitriol that we saw on Twitter and across the media in the last three weeks, it's been sad, it's also been frustrating.
"It's been maddening and it continues to show up. And, you know, health, when somebody is mentally unwell, it affects their physical health and vice versa, failed to take into consideration that mental health is health. And I think that one of the things that will be important is Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka, they are leading the charge of this as it pertains to sport and athletics. Is that we need to change this narrative of mental health being separate and apart from physical health.
"What Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka were experiencing were health issues associated with their mind, their brain, which is part of their body, and it controls the whole system. If you think about it, the brain controls the body. And they had to step away, but to ... somebody else's point earlier, in previous Olympic Games and previous competitions, they would have risked life and death to continue to perform. And I'm so glad that they're no longer doing that."
On the historical experiences of Black athletes
Akilah Carter-Francique: "There are these barriers, there are these spaces and places in which were only sort of crafted to allow Black athletes through. And other people of color in these spaces to have an opportunity. If we take in the research of even Dr. Richard Lapchick at the University of Central Florida looking at that racial and gender report card, we begin to see who's in those positions of leadership, who's in those positions of ownership, who are those individuals, what is their race?
"What is their gender? That are governing, or creating the laws, or the policies or advising the best practices for these respective organizations and sports. And what we find that it's often white, it's often male. And so there's very little opportunity for Blacks historically, and even contemporarily to rise to the occasion. So one or two are getting through.
"And with that, there is that overwhelming burden of I am representing for all and I need to perform with excellence. I need to serve with excellence. I need to lead with excellence so that I can provide an opportunity for another Black person to come through, another woman to come through into these spaces. Because if I don't do well, then the assumption is that this is what we thought, that she wouldn't succeed, that you couldn't lead, that she didn't have the fortitude, the intelligence, the mindset to be able to be that leader, to be able to come into these spaces and navigate. And so there is that overwhelming burden."
On the physical and mental toll on Black athletes
Stephany Coakley: "The burden is a one track train to anxiety, depression, eating disorders, substance abuse. ... People don't know that that burden can lead to when they place that expectation. That we have to be excellent at all times, we have to win for our community. Unfortunately, the other side of that coin is mental illness. And one of the things we do know is that there's a stigma in the Black community for mental illness and mental treatment. And we know that approximately close to 70% of people who have mental illness in the Black community are not seeking treatment for their mental illness.
"And athletes are not immune. And I've been doing this work for a really long time, and I work with a number of athletes across the spectrum, as you mentioned, that are not immune. And now slowly, they are starting to talk about the impact and the effect that the burden that they carry ... these Black female athletes, Black male athletes, the burden that they carry day to day for their families, for their friends, for their coaches, their teams who oftentimes do not support them in the way that they need to be supported, particularly from the mental health and wellness standpoint.
"And so in my work, I just am thrilled that we have a Simone Biles and we have Naomi Osaka, because when athletes of that stature disclose that they have experienced mental health challenges and they are seeking treatment, that leads the way for other athletes who are six years old right now, who are looking up to those young women and wanting to be like them. But they are now seeing a different path that those athletes are traveling. Because athletes are now talking about how the burden has impacted them, and what they're doing to manage in an effective and healthy way."
How can we better support athletes who feel the burden of representing the Black community?
Stephany Coakley: "We need to encourage our athletes to talk about what's going on for them, not just what they're doing and what their stats are and what their scores are. But like, how are you feeling, and how are you really feeling? When people tell you how they're feeling, then we have to do something about that. Because it doesn't help to know and do nothing about it, because then we'll continue to have the types of issues that our athletes who are not getting treated for their mental health conditions currently face. So just more dialogue, more open conversations. ... Ladies, guys, just talk about what's going on."
This program aired on August 4, 2021.