Removing the fine print to mental, physical and emotional health has a long way to go.
If you ever stumbled across your favorite athlete's social media page and suggested them to "rise above the haters," "get over it," told them to stick to sports or inserted your Kanye style ad lib over their vulnerable moments, you probably did a stellar job at gaslighting them. Before you jump into defense mode, I hope we can all look in the mirror and admit that all of us have done this to someone in our everyday lives. A lot of people were unknowingly groomed and conditioned to believe in this form of support thanks to passing down generational trauma via survival mode or being influenced from mainstream media controlling the narrative of what's deemed professional and appropriate.
In a world where people urge others to be transparent and vulnerable, we don't do a great job making space for anyone to do it - this is heavily witnessed in the fitness and wellness space, particularly with Black athletes. And to Addison, Archibald and the rest of the crew, let's knock this out before we go any further: Keep your "all lives matter" dialogue to yourself about mental health in sports. I'm intentionally focusing on the obtuse levels of disrespect and lack of empathy projected towards Black athletes in sports. Whenever we speak up about our mental health, set boundaries or merely exist in our own bodies, we are ridiculed and demanded to be quiet. I don't need a lot of words or examples to prove that a lot of policing on Black athletes in sports is rooted in White supremacy, male fragility and all of the trigger words that makes Twitter feeds run on Dunkin Donuts coffee.
Politics in Sports: The Shut Up and Dribble Effect
In 2018, journalist Laura Ingraham smugly told LeBron James to keep his political commentary to himself. The notorious statement "Shut Up and Dribble" made its way around the world through mainstream media and shimmied its way to your favorite social media networks. She unjustly thought this was an appropriate statement to make towards James, a Black athlete that refused to visit the White House where the blatantly racist, sexist and homophobic former president Donald Trump resided. While many were shocked, I'm certain that a collective of Black, Brown and Indigenous people viewed this as another Karen moment. The only thing that raised my eyebrow was finding so many extras seeking to fill roles in "Ally Athlete #3448" in exchange for 1 static post on Instagram and 5 Instagram stories. And as Black people like me watch themselves emerge on everyone's list to follow as some of us were nervous being called an activist after going through years of being disrespected, we patiently sipped our tea to see who would show up to work after such hashtags like #BlackLivesMatter started to dwindle.
Despite my very sodium laced dialogue, I'll be frank: It hurts to feel like the tokenized help in the sports industry. Oftentimes Black athletes are strongly demanded to be silent or not speak up about the "politics" that affect us; I know this intimate pain from firsthand experience. And when we don't say anything and simply use our bodies to object, we're not "patriotic" enough to a world that never strived to earn Black people's respect. People like Colin Kaepernick is still being viewed as a menace to sports for kneeling during the National Anthem. It's only been a week since people gave Olympic Hammer Thrower Gwen Berry hell for turning her back on the flag during the Star Spangled Banner.â It's exceptionally audacious of any nation to ask Black and marginalized people to say thank you while being oppressed.
Mental Health + Physical Wellbeing for Black People in the Fitness Space
With all due disrespect, the sports industry doesnât care about Black folks, particularly women; it is painfully evident in practically every area. Great examples can be seen from the removal of athletes for their natural body development to being mocked after speaking up about their mental health. Iâm certain people will seek more reference points and unfortunately, Iâll offer a host of examples:
Christine Mboma and Beatrice Masilingi were withdrawn from the 400-meter distance due to the World Athletics declaring them ineligible for the womenâs competition because of DSD â differences of sexual development. Letâs not forget that Caster Semenya was subjected to this same removal in the 2019 Rio Olympic Games and she wasnât alone on that list. The 2016 Olympic Games 800-meter bronze medalist Margaret Wambui was removed and openly inquired for a third category in athletics. And while DSD doesnât discriminate against race, thereâs something wrong with these outdated enforced policies of intrusive testing on women in sports. To push a person to elect to leave behind their career or take some pills to change up their biology sounds like a violation on womanhood. I suppose this outrage isnât loud enough for some White feminists to speak up but rules are rules, right?
Iâve read enough comment sections from these allegedly rule abiding citizens on social media that think itâs fair that ShaâCarri Richardson, a Black U.S. Sprinter, was removed from the 100-meter at the Tokyo Olympics. And while many of us acknowledge that she admitted smoking marijuana, several athletes are questioning these outdated policies. The sheer hypocrisy of an alleged âdrugâ to be socially acceptable for recreational and medicinal use in 18 states and several countries on 3 or 4 continents is viewed as a âperformance enhancement drugâ yet rules havenât caught up is a bit mind blowing to me. To shut this down in advance, Iâm not here to argue with anyone on the personal safety issues and what ifs scenarios on how I would feel if it was alcohol. 8 hours on social media trying to debate while unknowingly entering a name calling match is not good for my spirit.
Instead of sounding like a Twitter echo of hypotheticals about White men that would get away with this, letâs not forget that this young woman lost her biological mother one week before the event. If you never lost a parent, you wouldnât understand the logic of doing the most unexplainable things just to feel like youâre closer to your departed loved one. Until this day, I have a hard time rationalizing to others about picking up a pack of Newport cigarettes and smoking for almost a year straight after my fatherâs death. Grief told me that I needed to be closer to him; my dad died of lung cancer and a string of other health conditions. I didnât enjoy the taste of cigarettes but the scent was familiar on days that I could no longer hear his voicemail message on a phone that I couldnât afford to keep on. Grief doesnât seek permission from your supervisor when it visits you. Itâll surface in the middle of your training, press conference or intimate moments of hugging your surviving loved ones while a camera crew is paid to capture the magic.
I donât care much for how this will be interpreted but itâs intriguing how much empathy and odes to self-care that extended to White people, particularly public figures, when theyâre grieving but we â yes, all of us â worship and passively demand our Black athletes to be a superhero when they need a moment to save themselves â OURSELVES; Iâm speaking for me too. Although I donât have personal desires to hit first place or become eligible for the Olympic trials, I am an athlete that gets a lot of media coverage. And from personal experience, I remember being advised to smile through one of the hardest moments of my life despite requesting financial assistance for mental health services because I knew I wasnât okay.
I am wildly aware of how people want you be quiet about the harm conducted to you because itâs not flattering for your image or brand when youâre that vulnerable or rawâ or at least thatâs what I was advised. I can tell you ten ways to flip your own narrative to brand yourself as a sparkling âpositiveâ leader that people admire on social media and beyond. Conversely, I can tell you how to pin down your tears for 8 minutes and 46 seconds because Iâve been coached through that too. Sometimes I wonder if this sports industry â and many others â require for Black athletes to be a bit broken so we can tell stronger stories. And despite loving what I do, I know that my media introduction to this space was stimulated by that same pain. Whilst I can cram you on the ways that I elected to use my moments to inspire others to persevere through rough hiccups in time, I wish this industry offered 24/7 sincere opportunities to Black athletes to not feel as though we have to choose between our mental and physical health or our financial stability and personal safety.
Ever heard âjust because you can donât mean you should?â Well, if this was a perfect world, many of us wouldnât sacrifice our mental health, personal safety and wellbeing to be providers. Many of us wouldnât justify and demand a need for struggle to always be present for us to feel âinspiredâ by our achievements. We ask people to be real, get mad they show us their layers and blame Photoshop. Iâm inclined to believe that while we know this to be true, we covet our personal hypocrisies tightly as we demand others to be perfect.
I donât have a one size fit all solution to these ever-growing issues but I know that change starts with all of us. Sometimes that process starts with calling out the action and calling people in to dissect the tangled roots. Along the way we will encounter hurdles and met with adversity. But itâs going to require for us all to consistently acknowledge thereâs a problem and get uncomfortable while addressing these issues.
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Latoya Shauntay Snell
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