In February for Black History Month, USA TODAY Sports is publishing the series 28 Black Stories in 28 Days. We examine the issues, challenges and opportunities Black athletes and sports officials continue to face after the nation’s reckoning on race two years ago.
As it has been, and as it always will be, Black female athletes are the beating heart of sports and continue to set the standard for everyone.
Long before Colin Kaepernick knelt and John Carlos and Tommie Smith raised their fists on an Olympic podium, there was Althea Gibson, Earlene Brown, Wyomia Tyus and Eroseanna Robinson. These women were “firsts” in their sport, which is often a form of activism in itself.
While their stories are less visible, their impact on sports, gender equality and racial advancement proves to be an important example for how Black women in athletics lead today.
This is one of the greatest lessons and reflections about Black History Month. It’s that Black women are at the front of sports and, frankly, always have been.
A forgotten hero
Throughout the 1950s, track and field talent Eroseanna Robinson made activism a significant part of her life. She was a prominent figure in desegregation protests, including a notable protest at a segregated skating rink in Cleveland.
Being a skilled high jumper on the AAU (Amateur Athletic Union) circuit, Robinson was named to the USA’s track and field team and invited to an international competition in the Soviet Union during the Cold War in 1958.
Robinson declined the offer, telling Jet Magazine: “I don’t want anyone to think my athletics have political connotations. In other words, I don’t want to be used as a political pawn.”
A year later, at the Pan-American Games in Chicago, Robinson sat during the playing of the national anthem, 57 years before Colin Kaepernick. About six months later, Robinson was arrested for tax evasion, sharing with Jet that she refused to pay taxes because of the foreign policies of the United States.
“I have not entered my tax return for 1954-1958 because I know a large part of it goes to armaments,” she said. “The US government is very active in atomic bombs and fallout, which is destructive rather than constructive. If I pay income tax, I am participating in that destruction.”
During her 366-day sentence in prison, Robinson staged a hunger strike, bringing increased media coverage to her case, which ultimately led to an early release.
After she was released, Robinson’s athletic career at the national level essentially withered away, just as her body did in prison, leaving her unable to compete – making the ultimate sacrifice for her beliefs.
The fighters of today
Tennis star Naomi Osaka wore custom face masks at the 2020 US Open, each bearing the name of victims of racial bias and police brutality: Trayvon Martin, George Floyd, Philando Castile, Breonna Taylor, Elijah McClain, Tamir Rice and Ahmaud Arbery.
Osaka made it clear on a global stage that she was willing to use her platform for change, and go beyond being just a tennis player. And while the task of standing up for others during a politically divisive time in society is hard, the act of standing up for herself proved to be just as difficult.
At last year’s French Open, Osaka announced that she would not speak to the media during the tournament to protect her mental health, later withdrawing from the tournament altogether. Osaka did not participate in Wimbledon either. Amid monetary fines and public scrutiny, Osaka’s openness di lei to reveal her personal struggle with mental health, anxiety and depression proved to be the conversation the tennis world and sports in general needed to witness.
Osaka wasn’t alone in protecting her mental health. Simone Biles withdrew from four individual finals in last year’s Tokyo Olympics, citing mental health concerns after suffering from “the twisties.” She also later revealed she was processing the death of her aunt di lei.
When Osaka and Biles, at the top of their sport, decided it was more important to take care of their mental health rather than succumb to the unrealistic pressures of performing perfectly at all times, that allowed women – especially Black women – to believe it is indeed OK not to be OK.
WNBA leads the way … again
In 1996, when the Women’s National Basketball Association was founded, sports history was changed forever, but the advancements this brought to women’s sports was just the beginning.
Today the NBA is often highlighted as the league that sparked protests around the nation during its bubble season, but collective protests within a sports league dates back far beyond 2020 for the WNBA.
In a league that is more than 80% Black, everything the WNBA does can be seen as activism. WNBA players were among the first athletes to hold media blackouts, kneel during the national anthem, and wear clothing with political and social justice messaging.
When four-time WNBA champion Maya Moore left the game to focus on criminal justice reform, she addressed the mass incarceration of Black men.
When four-time WNBA champion Seimone Augustus announced she was a lesbian, she took a stand against a ballot that could ban same-sex marriages in Minnesota, illuminating the conversations of gay rights and the history of discriminatory state legislation for the LGBTQ community.
When Kelly Loeffler, former member of the US Senate and former co-owner of the league’s Atlanta Dream, said the Black Lives Matter movement threatened to “destroy” the country – speaking in direct opposition to everything her players on the Dream and around the league stand for – the team took action to push for voting within Georgia, publicly endorse Loeffler’s opponent and call for Loeffler to be removed as a co-owner.
From online voting campaigns to showing up to their games in T shirts with the words “vote Warnock,” the Dream played a significant role in Loeffler’s defeat to democratic candidate Raphael Warnock in the special election last January.
These are just some of the examples in a history full of them. These are the Black women heroes from yesterday and now.