The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Athlete protests are now celebrated. One Olympian says she’s still paying for hers.

Gwen Berry throws the hammer during the 2019 world championships in Doha, Qatar. (Morry Gash/Associated Press)
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Gwen Berry stood atop the Pan American Games medal podium in Lima, Peru, on Aug. 10, 2019, and rocked from one foot to the other, a manifestation of her restlessness. The national anthem blared in tribute to the gold medal she had won in the hammer throw, but Berry found no peace in the career highlight. She had not planned on any demonstration, but in that moment, she felt an imperative she now calls “indescribable.” Berry thrust her right fist in the air, a protest of America’s treatment of its Black citizens.

“I was so proud to win, and I was proud to be an American — I’m proud to be an American athlete,” Berry said. “I just knew the song was contradictory to what was going on in America at the time. I just had to do something.”

The world has changed since Berry’s protest, moving with head-spinning speed in her direction. Widespread protests in the wake of George Floyd’s death while in Minneapolis police custody have convinced, or perhaps forced, sports leagues and corporate America to embrace calls for social justice and racial equality. Nods to social justice in commercials and on social media accounts have become ubiquitous. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell apologized for not listening to NFL players sooner, and upon the resumption of its season, the NBA painted “Black Lives Matter” on its court. After the Milwaukee Bucks walked out before a playoff game following the police shooting of Jacob Blake, leading to a three-day shutdown of the playoffs, the NBA offered support.

But more than a year after her medal stand demonstration, Berry has yet to receive such support. The U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee placed her on probation for a year. The International Olympic Committee has resisted calls from American athletes to rescind Rule 50 of the Olympic charter, which bans athletes from political demonstrations inside venues. Several sponsors — including Nike, a giant in track and field and a major sponsor of Colin Kaepernick — have cut ties, though some contend her protest did not play a role. She lost roughly 75 percent of her funding and has been seeking a side job while training for the Tokyo Olympics.

“It damn near cost me my career,” Berry said.

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In an age of expanding athlete protest, a novel approach to sponsorship surfaced last week. Color of Change, a nonprofit that creates campaigns dedicated to racial justice, announced Sept. 8 that Berry would be its first sponsored athlete. Sponsorship is typically transactional: An athlete promotes a company in exchange for money. Color of Change is offering financial support not to elevate its own profile but to draw attention to social issues.

“Our bottom line is justice and not profit,” Color of Change President Rashad Robinson said. “We don’t need Gwen to make profit for us. We need Gwen to continue to raise her voice in powerful ways and also to compete and succeed on the field.”

The nature of Color of Change’s support is also unusual. While it is providing Berry financial backing, “we recognize in no way will we be able to provide the type of support that the companies that have backed away should be providing,” Robinson said. It instead intends to pressure those companies into providing Berry finances, launching a petition to “demand” they sponsor Berry.

“These companies have a real chance to be on the right side of history, to take a powerful stance in ways that actually impact their bottom line in the larger sense,” Robinson said. “For companies that have made commercials referencing social justice, have made statements, have leveraged our hashtags and our songs and our chants to elevate their products, here is one opportunity to put action behind those words.”

Before the Pan Am Games, Berry trained and worked as a volunteer assistant at the University of Mississippi. The experience made her profoundly unhappy. She felt the school capitalized on Black athletes while neglecting their mental health and discarding them when their playing careers ended.

Searching for a release, Berry and her boyfriend at the time attended classes at a Freedom School, where she learned “a lot of things about America that I didn’t know before and I was never taught.” She saw racism embedded in the anthem.

“That song definitely was not for us,” Berry said. “The Constitution is definitely not for us.”

While her Pan Am Games anthem protest wasn’t planned, she did not anticipate backlash.

“I didn’t think it was that big of a deal,” Berry said. “It wasn’t that big of a deal, because I didn’t do anything to harm anybody else. It was a peaceful, nonviolent protest.”

Within days, Berry understood her protest would affect her career. She received a letter from the USOPC, informing her she had been placed on probation for a year for her action. Then, she said, she got a call came from the USATF Foundation, telling her it did not support her and not to do it again. Within months, Berry said, one major corporate sponsor dropped her.

As the climate shifted in the spring, Berry, who finished 14th in the hammer throw at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, still went without financial support. USA Track & Field, Berry said, has supported her “100 percent,” with officials frequently calling to check on her. But Berry remains bothered by the USATF Foundation, which is a separate entity.

“They made me feel like I’m the problem and they’ve helped me so much and I’m wrong for calling them out for defunding me,” Berry said. “That’s typical corporate White. That’s typical.”

USATF Foundation CEO Tom Jackovic said the organization’s financial support did not waver because of Berry’s protest. Jackovic emailed The Washington Post copies of two checks to Berry provided after her protest, one in late August 2019 for $4,000 and the other in December 2019 for $1,500. Berry declined a $5,000 donation this year, Jackovic said, after the USATF Foundation did not offer her its largest grant.

“While we understand Gwen’s disappointment for not receiving our largest grant award this year, there are only 25 of them for over 40 events,” the USATF Foundation said in a statement. “In a perfect world, the Foundation would give all of our grantees more money, but the demand exceeds the need at this point as we have over 250 applicants. Gwen’s allegation that her stance from the podium at the Pan-Am Games adversely affected our grant-making decisions in 2020 is inaccurate.”

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When Nike, which had sponsored Berry since 2017, chose not to renew Berry at the end of 2019, she said she was not given a reason. Nike has used images of protest in its commercials, and it has a multimillion-dollar endorsement contract with Kaepernick. In the space of its Twitter bio, Nike posted only, “#blacklivesmatter.”

Berry finished the season ranked third in the world, but she did not medal at the world championships in the fall. She surmised Nike may not have had enough money in its hammer budget for both her and the throwers who had won medals.

“Nike has a long history of supporting causes important to athletes and in line with our values,” Nike said in a statement. “We have a long-standing belief in the power of sport to move the world forward. We continue to support athletes across the sports community in their response to the issue of systemic racism experienced by the black community.

“We do not comment on athlete contracts, but we respect Gwen as an athlete and her efforts to elevate an issue and drive change in a very critical area of importance to society.”

Berry’s experience highlights a thorny issue for corporations and major sporting entities. They may be eager to cast themselves as progressive or to support athletes, but it is not as good for business to confront contradictory actions from their past.

“We’ve seen it with the league, the NFL, saying they should have listened to athletes earlier but Colin Kaepernick still not being able to play,” Robinson said. “We recognize that those who are early, those who pioneer, are often punished the most. What we want to do is hopefully have a new story to tell.”

Despite what she has faced, Berry would take nothing back. She is heartened by the way athletes have used their voices this summer. Berry declined to reveal whether she would protest if she reaches the podium in Tokyo next summer, but she has no regrets.

“If anything, I feel even more proud,” Berry said. “I feel like it’s been a long time coming. I feel like now more athletes are speaking out and saying things. It doesn’t get any better than this, moving forward with more people speaking out. More people are showing their solidarity with Black people and appreciating us. I wouldn’t take it back at all.”