Black athletes, including Naomi Osaka (pictured above at the Australian Open in Melbourne) face discrimination in sports. Photo retrieved from Reuters, taken by Loren Elliott.
While sports can be a unifying force for many people, they can be a traumatizing experience for others. Over the years, micro-aggressions in sports have become more noticeable against members of minority groups. This social issue can emerge in different ways from sporting regulations, restrictive policies or relentless media scrutiny.
The Olympics are an integral part of sports. However, their decision to ban U.S. runner Sha’carri Richardson from the Tokyo games due to a failed THC test shows that micro-aggressions in sports still exist.
Since this news broke, people rallied around Richardson. Some believe this is yet another instance where officials use weed to target a member of a minority group.
“Their decision lacks any scientific basis,” AOC tweets. “It’s rooted solely in the systematic racism that’s long driven anti-marijuana laws.”
Arizona-based physician and marijuana researcher, Sue Sisley told The Washington Post that there is no proof that the herb strengthens an athlete’s performance in any sport.
“I understand that the Olympics have the ability to sanction players based on conduct and for using performance-enhancing drugs[;] but there’s no evidence that cannabis is performance-enhancing,” she says.
Testing athletes for THC is unnecessary, she adds.
“This seems genuinely unfair that we continue to punish athletes based on a test that should not even be done. Why do the Olympics continue to test for THC at all?”
Richardson’s ban followed a controversial decision by FINA, the governing body for water sports. They decided to prohibit a Black-owned swimming cap brand designed for natural hair from being used by Olympic athletes.
Officials didn’t permit them because they didn’t fit “the natural form of the head.”
Michael Chapman, co-founder of Soul Cap, tells Insider that this issue highlights the lack of diversity in aquatic sports.
“The response and support around this issue has been phenomenal,” he says. “We hope our story highlights the lack of diversity in aquatics and drives long-term change in sporting rules.”
Stigma and Stereotypes
Sports journalist Julie Dicaro tells NPR that the rules in sports are very different for people of color.
“[…] Rules have always been very different for Serena Williams, for Venus Williams, for other women of color who are playing tennis,” she says.
For instance, in 2019, an Australian cartoonist published a drawing in the Herald Sun. The drawing depicted Serena Williams throwing a tantrum after her loss to Naomi Osaka in the U.S. Open.
Many criticized the drawing for its similarity Jim Crow imaginery, or laws that enforced racial segregation in the U.S.
Dr. Kate Dossett, history professor at the University of Leeds, tells Inews that the image highlights racist stereotypes.
“The enlarged facial features and the position of a dummy in the cartoon draws on pernicious stereotypes of African Americans as angry, childlike and in need of restraint by white masters,” she says. “These were the images used to justify African enslavement and racial segregation in the past; they are still used to control Black lives in the present.”
Separately, a sports arbitration court is forcing South African runner Caster Semenya to take medications to suppress testosterone in order to compete at major events.
Semenya appealed the International Association of Athletics Federations’ (IAAF) regulation that targets women who innately produce high levels of testosterone.
However, officials upheld the IAAF’s decision to impose restrictions on athletes who’s body produces higher testosterone levels than most women.
“[T]he IAAF’s regulations have always targeted me specifically,” Semenya tells The Washington Post. “For a decade the IAAF has tried to slow me down, but this has actually made me stronger. The decision of the CAS will not hold me back. I will once again rise above and continue to inspire young women and athletes in South Africa and around the world.”
Officials punished America’s most decorated gymnast, Simone Biles, after she became the first woman to complete the Yurchenko double pike. The move is so difficult that only a few men — no women — have ever attempted it.
Despite Biles’ accomplishment, International Gymnastics Federation judges severely undervalued her vault rating. They gave it a start value of just 6.6 points for difficulty.
Biles tells USA Today that despite disagreeing with the score, she has no choice but to accept it.
“I feel like now we just have to get what we get,” she says. “There’s no point in putting up a fight, because they’re not going to reward the correct value. But that’s OK. We’re just going to take it and just be quiet.”
Tom Forster, team coordinator for the women’s U.S. Gymnastics team, echoes Biles’ statement in The New York Times. “I definitely think (the vault) is undervalued. It doesn’t seem to be consistent with what they’ve done with (the progression of) other vault values, and I don’t know why they do that,” he says.
Similarly, officials penalized professional tennis player Naomi Osaka, a Black, Japanese woman, for refusing to attend media interviews at the French Open in an effort to preserve her mental health. Osaka has struggled with depression since 2018, reports Forbes. However, officials fined her $15,000 for her boycott.
Basketball Hall of Famer Lisa Leslie reflected in a tweet about the lack of value and support placed on Osaka’s mental health needs.
“It’s so sad that we are in a time that when a young person tells you they need help or a break, people respond with anger and a lack of support! I stand with you @naomiosaka Your mental health is just as important as your physical health.”
The Fear of ‘Coming out’
Along with people of color, microaggressions also target LGBTQIA+ athletes as well.
For example, a study published in the Sexuality Research and Social Policy Journal about experiences in youth sports highlighted that 51% of gay/bi males and 35% of lesbian/bi females have been a target of homophobic behavior in sports.
High School Football star, Jake Bain, told NBC News that gay athletes worry about judegment based on their sexual identity.
“Most people don’t have to come out. Most people don’t have to worry that they will be judged based on who they are attracted to,” he says. “Playing football and being gay, those two things don’t really collide with each other usually, at least not in the public eye.”
Former NFL player, Brad Thorson told Athlete Ally that the homophobia in sports made him suppress his true identity.
“The prevalence of homophobic language and hyper-masculinity made it clear to me that gays weren’t welcome in football,” he says. “I was good at football, and so I constructed strong mental barriers around anything intimate that might reveal who I really was.”
Eric Lueshen, cofounder of LGBTQIA+ advocacy group, SportSafe, also tells NBC News that more athletes ‘coming out’ will break stereotypical barriers for gay athletes.
“As we see these athletes come out, that is really shattering these stereotypes that society has around LGBTQ athletes in sports, and these stereotypes are fueled by ignorance,” he says. “And just by being open about who they are, they educate other people, and that really normalizes LGBTQ athletes and their experience.”