Taylor’s treatment amplified the double discrimination that Black women experience in institutions throughout society: In leaked comments, Rachel Nichols, an established sports analyst, privately complained about losing a high-profile assignment to Taylor, alleging the network was trying to make up for its “crappy” diversity record by promoting a Black woman. Taylor and ESPN parted ways after the two sides could not reach an agreement on her contract.
This was one in a string of incidents that called attention to systemic racism, sexism, and the male-dominant culture that has ruled sports since its beginning — and it comes just as many Black women are poised to step into the spotlight at the Summer Olympic Games.
In the past few weeks, we’ve seen a ban on swim caps created to accommodate Black women’s hair, two Namibian teens barred from competition based on unsubstantiated hormone policies and a Black American sprinter suspended after testing positive for marijuana. Taken together these incidents suggest Black women are being subjected to anti-Black and often sexist policies and treatment by major sports institutions. And despite the equity, inclusion, and social justice rhetoric voiced last summer in the wake of the racial reckoning after George Floyd’s killing, sports institutions have forced us to question their love and respect of Black women, even though Black women are among the world’s best and most popular athletes.
The presence of powerful figures, such as Serena Williams and Simone Biles, has not protected Black women from discrimination in sports.
Women’s professional basketball offers a perfect illustration of how even the overrepresentation of Black women in a sports institution doesn’t translate to equity. The WNBA, the world’s most successful women’s league, is made up of roughly 80 percent Black players. Yet White men, White women and Black men dominate at the head coaching ranks.
Walt Hopkins, a White man with a total of four years of WNBA head or assistant coaching experience, was hired last year as head coach for the New York Liberty, one of the original and most storied WNBA teams, despite the availability of several Black women assistant coaches with more coaching experience. Currently, only two Black women hold head coaching positions in the league.
As athletes prepared for the Games in Tokyo, several incidents revealed ongoing concerns with racism and sexism in the rules and practices of the Olympics committee and its affiliated governing bodies.
International federations like World Athletics use poorly researched criteria in its policing of Black women’s bodies. For instance, the federation bars many athletes with Differences of Sexual Development or DSD, an atypical sexual development associated with genes or hormones. Recently, Christine Mboma and Beatrice Masilinigi, Namibian runners, were barred from competing in the 400-meter race by World Athletics, which ruled that their naturally occurring testosterone levels were outside what is acceptable for women competitors in this event. But recent research suggests that many of these hormone standards, which disproportionality impact Black women, are rooted in faulty science.
The Fédération Internationale de Natation (FINA), also known as the International Swimming Federation, banned the use of Soul Cap, a swim cap designed to properly fit over Black women’s hair. FINA does not understand or care that Black women wear hairstyles like braids, locs, weaves, and have hair that is often naturally voluminous, curly and kinky. These hairstyles often do not fit into the approved swimming caps. Also, the chlorine formula in swimming pools is extremely damaging to Black women’s hair. Yet FINA banned the Soul Cap, developed by a Black-owned company, suggesting that it does not follow “the natural form of the head” — which begs the question, whose head?
Intersectionality, which considers the unique experiences of people with multiple identities, such as being Black and female, sheds light on how a 100-year organization like FINA could make such an uninformed statement.
Failing to acknowledge intersectionality is apparent in how Nichols viewed herself as the victim after Taylor was tapped to host the ESPN’s coverage of the NBA Finals. In comments meant to be private that were inadvertently recorded to an ESPN server, Nichols complained: “If you need to give her more things to do because you are feeling pressure about your crappy longtime record on diversity — which, by the way, I know personally from the female side of it — like, go for it. Just find it somewhere else. You are not going to find it from me or taking my thing away.” Nichols’s comments suggest she understands sexism because she has dealt with it, but she does not understand how her words support a sexist and racist narrative.
These examples are evidence that the presence of Black women does not signal sports organizations’ desire to fully embrace Black women. Instead, Black women are accepted so long as they fit into long-standing standards and norms that were created without their input or consideration. This is diversity, without equity and inclusion.
For sports organizations to recover from the past few weeks of what many fans see as “hating” on Black women, they need to apply an intersectional approach to understanding the experiences of Black women. As suggested by Danielle Obe, the Black Swimming Association co-founder and chair, there is little to no research on Black women in swimming. Therefore, the sport is neglectful of Black women’s swimming needs.
The majority of sports organizations were not designed for the inclusion of Black women. The Olympic Games started in 1896 when many Black women were still under the control of colonialism in the Caribbean and parts of Africa or state-sanctioned racism, Jim Crow, in the United States. They were not created with Black women in mind, and 125 years later, the Olympics still lack the presence of Black women in leadership positions. For instance, the USOPC in 2020 reported 58.2 percent women, but only 16.2 percent people of color of 412 total nonathlete workers.
International federations, committees, and governing boards must be intentional in evaluating their policies, to ensure that the way things have always been done does not perpetuate racist and sexist barriers that exclude Black women. Even in organizations such as the WNBA, where Black women are well-represented as athletes, leaders must take an intersectional approach to inclusion.
As a former collegiate basketball player, I look forward to watching Black women shine during the Olympic Games in basketball, track and field, and swimming events, and remain optimistic that sports will learn to fully embrace the Black women in all their glory.
Black women love sports and have so much to offer — if only sports would learn to return the love and respect.