Black female athletes: Things are better, but far from fair
Panel at Morgan State focuses on obstacles facing women in sports
For decades, black female athletes have faced criticism, inequality, lack of support and unrealistic societal expectations. Although there has been progress, it hasn’t been enough.
“Just because it’s better doesn’t mean it’s fair,” said professional softball player AJ Andrews. “A lot of times they say, ‘You have this. It’s fine.’ ”
She noted how unusual it is to see a black pitcher in her sport, comparing it to how black quarterbacks once were rare in the NFL. Andrews said a lot of female athletes throw up their hands and conclude that “it is what it is. Not allowing that to be true is something that I want to happen. I want there to be no more ‘it is what it is.’ I want people to challenge that. I want people to go after what they deserve.”
On Nov. 13, Andrews appeared on a panel with WNBA player Nneka Ogwumike and Penn State professor Amira Rose Davis at Morgan State University in Baltimore to discuss the struggles of black female athletes. The discussion was part of a collaboration between The Undefeated and Morgan State to study the history and image of black women in sports.
Earlier this year, Morgan State faculty produced a study, Beating Opponents, Battling Belittlement: How African-American Female Athletes Use Community to Navigate Negative Images, that examined the history of black women’s participation. It identified cultural factors such as attitudes about body image that interfered with the ability of black women to succeed and coping methods that they continue to use today.
“You have some people who will say the same thing: ‘She’s manly’ or ‘Her muscles are too big. From the neck down, it looks like a man.’ All because of my muscles,” Andrews said. “At the end of the day, I’m an athlete. I don’t know what you’re expecting me to look like, but I’m going to have muscles. I worked for these. I’m going to show them off.”
Davis, whose academic work focuses on race, gender and sports, said the cultural conversation surrounding black female athletes has shifted in part from what women have to look like to participate to what they have to look like to be endorsed. Davis pointed to the example of professional boxer and two-time Olympic gold medalist Claressa Shields. Davis talks about a moment in T-Rex: Her Fight for Gold, a documentary about Shields, in which she complains that she received virtually no endorsement deals after her gold medal wins.
“You see a moment in this documentary where she’s like, ‘Listen. Gabby [Douglas], Simone [Biles], they all got Wheaties boxes and all this stuff. What do I have?’ ” Davis said. “And they said, ‘OK, we’ll help you with your image, but the first thing we need you to do is to stop telling people you want to hit people.’ She’s like, ‘But I’m a boxer!’
“There’s no space for that, and I think it’s particularly important when we’re talking about black women. When we’re talking about women’s sports, a lot of the financial stability comes from those endorsement deals.”
Andrews added: “At the end of the day, it’s all about you trying to find your image and trying to sell yourself. If I’m playing a sport where you primarily see lighter faces and straight hair, it’s about what I project that is appealing to the demographic softball reaches. … I need to be presentable, in my mind, in a way that will relate to those people so I can have the fan base to grow my image. It’s a lot you have to think about. You can never just play, especially being women in sports and also being black women in sports. It weighs on you a lot.”
Both Andrews and Ogwumike recounted instances of support as well. Andrews recalled a day when she went 0-for-3 at the plate but a young African-American girl still declared that Andrews was her favorite player. Ogwumike told an anecdote about being in the airport with her Los Angeles Sparks teammates and encountering two young white boys who were thrilled to meet them.
All three women talked about how they need to be catalysts for the changes they wish to see, whether it be better pay for female athletes or more opportunities for black women on the field and in other sports-related jobs, from coaching to broadcasting.
“What I’m realizing is before we can even begin to have these conversations with those outside of our experience, there needs to be an awareness,” Ogwumike said. “There needs to be an awareness of those affected directly like us, there needs to be an awareness of those indirectly affected. Everyone needs to be able to put themselves in someone else’s shoes, and I’m seeing that that’s the problem. … When I’m done playing, when I’m retired, I want to at least say that I left it better than when I came in.”