All the stars: Black women dominating in sports

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Young Venus Williams (right) and sister Serena Williams.

The presence of the black female athlete is often its own revolution. Her very existence both fascinates and disrupts. Such a wonder is she, admiration begets curiosity, talk of her prowess, possibility, buoyancy, hair, brains. 

When we think of the past 20 years of women in sports, there can be no discussion of influence without mention of certain groundbreaking athletes. Think Venus and Serena Williams, Marion Jones, Simone Manuel, Gabby Douglas, the players of the WNBA. These women are pioneers, the history-makers, the barrier-breakers, those who change not just the optics but sometimes even the approach of the sport just by their participation.

Each in her own way has made history, won a race, shattered a record, endured a loss. Each one has created a ripple that became a wave. Their experience is uniquely American, having been harassed about their hair or penalized for speaking up about their civil rights.

As a result, these women have taught us how to take a stand and reminded us that it's not where you come from that's most important. It's how well you play the game.

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Venus. Serena. Sisters. Sisters born 15 months apart, whose father envisioned his daughters to be tennis champions before they were born. Sisters whose mama and daddy -- their first teachers, on and off the court -- gave them names that sound like goddesses. Sisters who played first on clay in Compton, a community where neighbors watched the girls practice and stopped them in the street to tell them they were proud.

"You be sure to bring home that win for us," they said. "You can do it."

Sisters who threw broken tennis rackets to strengthen their serve, trained with boxers to quicken their step and studied geometry to understand angles. When it was their time to step into the arena at 16 and 17 years old in 1998, the Williams sisters were ready, stark tennis whites bouncing off their brown skin -- complete with their iconic beads in their braided hair. Theirs was a flagrant display of blackness that charmed many and blinded others.

"Venus and Serena are performatively black in ways that black people connect to," said Yaba Blay, author of "(1)ne Drop: Shifting the Lens on Race." "These girls had parents who were all up and through the practice. People weren't saying, 'Oh, they're from Los Angeles.' No. They're from Compton. Which also communicated something to folks at the time when we were heavily inundated with L.A. gangs, gangster rap, N.W.A. 'Straight Outta Compton.' It gave them a particular veil of what kind of black they were, as opposed to someone who might have been coming out of Sidwell Friends [the prestigious private school that Sasha and Malia Obama attended]." 

Of note was their confidence. Arrogance, some called it. See, their Louisiana-born, son-of-a-sharecropper father had already let his daughters know that America would not want them to be too black, too proud, too outspoken, too free, so this self-assurance was their sword and shield. Sometimes their blackness counted against them, such as when a bead fell out of Venus' hair during a match, and it cost her a point. Or the time the sisters were booed at the 2001 Indian Wells tournament after Venus dropped out of the semifinal match they were scheduled to play against each other.

So upset was the audience of mostly white audience that the California crowd booed Serena throughout, instead cheering for her Belgian opponent. It was a telling, ugly scene, one that revealed that the men were not accustomed to this freedom of the black body. When Serena won, she walked off the court, hugged her father, walked to the locker room and cried. The Williams family would not return to the tournament for 14 years.

They didn't have to. Because before long they would be legends. Legends who both Crip-walked and fought for pay equity at Wimbledon. Legends who jump up and down in girlish glee after a win. Legends whose most memorable matches are the ones they play with or against each other. Legends who not only changed the face of tennis in terms of race and who can afford to play it but also literally changed how the women's game is played, infused it with their speed and power.

Venus and Serena are playing long past their competitors. They are playing past age, past illness, past Sjogren's Syndrome and two pulmonary embolisms, past pregnancy and emergency C-section and scar rupture and hematomas -- and breastfeeding. Serena won last year's Australian open against her sister while she was two months pregnant and without dropping a set. The Williams sisters have played past having to prove anything to anyone but themselves.

And still, they want more. "Maybe this goes without saying, but it needs to be said in a powerful way: I absolutely want more Grand Slams," Serena stated in the February 2018 issue of Vogue, for which she appeared on the cover with her then-4-month-old daughter, Alexis Olympia Ohanian Jr. "I'm well aware of the record books, unfortunately. It's not a secret that I have my sights on 25."

And so we get to witness Serena, one of the greatest athletes of all time, make a comeback. Begin again. We get to watch the Williams sisters play this sport they love for as long as they please. We get to watch them be designers and entrepreneurs and philanthropists and sprinkle all kinds of black girl magic on the court.

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Marion Jones speaks to the media outside a United States federal courthouse October 5, 2007.

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Ah, but to be a legend, there's a price one must pay -- a price sprinter Marion Jones paid dearly. When Jones raced, it wasn't really a question of if she would win. The question was by how far. At the turn of the century, the 5-foot-10 sprinter from Los Angeles had been crowned the fastest woman in the world. She'd shown up and shown out at the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney, medaling a record five times -- three gold and two bronze -- and running the 100 meters in 10.75. The only woman to have ever run a faster race was her California homegirl, Florence "Flo Jo" Griffith Joyner.

Like her predecessor, Jones was blessed with incredible speed and a winning smile. However, Jones' top-shelf endorsements (think Nike, Gatorade, TAG Heuer) were among the most lucrative of any athlete, man or woman. When Jones appeared on the cover of Vogue magazine, she did so standing on a shoreline, statuesque in a slinky red gown. The headline read "Greater Than Gold. Marion Jones: The New American Hero."

This was major. Not only was she the first athlete to grace the cover of arguably the most respected fashion magazine in the world, but it was also a glamorous, powerful moment for black women, whose faces on the covers of mainstream magazines were few and far between. Jones had become not just the face of track and field but also the face of American athleticism.

So it really was a shame when, in 2007, Jones pleaded guilty to lying to federal agents about taking "the clear," a designer performance-enhancing drug she says she believed was flaxseed oil.

In a nation in which athletes are hoisted as heroes, Jones had done the unforgivable: cheat. After her trial, at which she was sentenced to six months in jail, Jones held a news conference admitting her wrongdoings and announcing her retirement. Voice cracking, her mother's hand on her back, she paused a full eight seconds before uttering the words "... and so it is with a great amount of shame that I stand before you and tell you that I have betrayed your trust."

The Olympian was stripped of her medals and titles from 2000 on, effectively erasing her from the history books. Her once shining legacy was reduced to a criminalized cautionary tale.

Still, Jones' fall felt harder, the scorn displayed toward her deeper, the punishment harsher. The judge on her case made no secret of wanting to make an example of Jones because of her elevated status, giving the then-nursing mother the maximum sentence for her plea deal.

"It really pointed to the disposability of black women's bodies in particular, [her denouncement] was so swift and fast," said Amira Rose Davis, assistant professor of history and women's, gender and sexuality studies at Penn State University. "That lets you know you are the darling golden girl in all these ways, you occupy the space. But as soon as you step outside this box ... she is just so easily disposed of, in the way we didn't quite do for male athletes who were part of the era of doping."

To be fair, Jones is also an example of resilience. After she did her time, she went about the business of rebuilding her brand and being an athlete, going on to play a season and a half in the WNBA. She turned her misfortune into a message, whittling down her court-mandated 800 hours of community service by doing talks called "Take a Break," which encouraged children to pause and think before they act. Essentially, the mother of three did what black women have done since time immemorial, which is make a way out of no way. 

"I have almost become the poster child for poor decisions that athletes make," Jones said on an episode of OWN's "Where Are They Now?" Except this time she could laugh about it. Jones is a necessary reminder that even our superheroes are human.

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Gabby Douglas during the balance beam in the women's gymnastics U.S. Olympic team trials at SAP Center in 2016.

 

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Being human is important to remember, particularly in the age of social media, in which people can be cruel behind a keyboard. For gymnast Gabrielle "Gabby" Douglas, it wasn't just her performance that took center stage at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, England. It was also her hair. Thanks to precise pirouettes on the balance beam and release moves on the uneven bar so high, the homeschooled 16-year-old from Virginia Beach, Virginia, won the gold medal in the coveted women's all-around -- making her the first black woman to do so. Not since Dominique Dawes had America seen a black gymnast, often the minority in the sport, shine so brightly.

But when Douglas went back to the Olympic Village that night and Googled her name, she found folks on Twitter, mostly black women, were talking more about her hair than her win. Douglas' ponytail with the Goody hair clips apparently wasn't neat -- or representative -- enough for her detractors. The discussion became a trending topic, in a terrible combination of cyberbullying and misplaced respectability politics.

"It was a feeding frenzy, and warped feelings of racial righteousness that smacked of shame," said Ayana Byrd, co-author of "Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in America." "The shame that white people will see a black girl on their screens and think less of her, and collectively, less of us, because her edges and her kitchen weren't slicked back within an inch of their life."

In a world in which professional gymnasts are practically infantilized as bubbly, diminutive powerhouses with bows in their hair, Douglas was being harassed by nameless, faceless tormentors insisting that her looks mattered more than her victory.

It turns out this idea of representation in the black community was a double-edged sword. On the one hand, Douglas was a beacon for children, especially young black girls. She wrote a book about her life, had her very own Gabby Douglas Barbie and even performed at the 2012 MTV Video Music Awards. (Douglas did a mini floor routine while Alicia Keys sang "Girl on Fire" and Nicki Minaj rhymed, "And I got 'em 'aggy because I win the gold like Gabby.")

On the other hand, representation also meant bearing the brunt of people's expectations. After taking a more than two-year hiatus to just be a teenager, Douglas returned to the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro to defend her all-around title. Incredibly, the social media bullying continued, this time not just with black folks about her hair but with anyone who had an opinion about her perceived lack of enthusiasm for her teammates and for not putting her hand on her heart during the national anthem, resulting in the hashtag #CrabbyGabby.

"I won the [team] gold medal and would go back to my room and see everything, and I would literally cry my eyes out," Douglas said at the 2017 MAKERS Conference. "I literally felt like the world was against me."

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Simone Manuel swims in the preliminary heat of the women's 100 meter butterfly during day one of the Arena Pro Swim Series on April 13, 2017.

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In the same Olympics, Simone Manuel was also in tears but for a much different reason. The 20-year-old swimmer won gold in the women's 100m freestyle. Strong strokes in the last 10 meters pushed her past the front-runner, and she tied for first with Canadian Penny Oleksiak. It was a remarkable race, making Manuel the first black woman to medal in an individual event in swimming. And so she cried, not only for her win but also for its undercurrent of meaning.

"Coming into the race, I tried to take [the] weight of the black community off my shoulders," Manuel said. "It's something I carry with me. I want to be an inspiration, but I would like there to be a day when it is not 'Simone, the black swimmer.'"

In a sport that, like gymnastics, has few people of color, Manuel's victory was a direct counter to the stereotype that black folks don't swim. The racist stigma dates back to the Jim Crow era, when desegregation led to neglect of public pools and beaches. Privatization of these spaces greatly reduced access, causing another kind of swimming segregation. To get some idea of the role swimming played in the fight for racial justice, it has been said that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed largely because of a photo of a white motel manager in St. Augustine, Florida, pouring acid into a pool of black and white protestors during a "swim-in." Manuel's presence and performance were the refutation of years of racist ideology -- including studies on the buoyancy of black folks.

"This is for all the people after me who believe they can't do it," Manuel said in her postrace interview, name-checking black swimmers who have come before her, such as Maritza Correia and Cullen Jones. "It means a lot, especially with what is going on in the world today, some of the issues of police brutality. This win hopefully brings hope and change to some of the issues that are going on. My color just comes with the territory."

Manuel was speaking of the bloody summer of 2016, when 5,000 miles away in America, it seemed that every other day there was a report of an unarmed black person killed by police or while in police custody. Her statement was simple and bold, a shard of clarity piercing the bubble that is the Olympic Games.

Photo by David Sherman/NBAE/Getty Images

The Minnesota Lynx stood with their arms locked during the national anthem before Game 1 of the WNBA Finals.

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This unrest might, too, have informed Manuel's tears. It was the reason the players of the WNBA could not hold their peace. In this critical, culminating moment in American history, each citizen was tasked to ask themselves deep questions: Who am I? What do I really believe about race in America? What should I do to combat this problem? The women of the WNBA -- 70 percent of whom are black -- decided to speak out. Players from teams such as the New York Liberty, Indiana Fever and Phoenix Mercury collectively decided to wear some variation of black shirts bearing the names of slain black men Philando Castile and Alton Sterling and the words "Black Lives Matter" to support the grassroots movement that had sprung up in response.

"When I think about politically active leagues, [the WNBA is] the No. 1 league I go to," Davis said. "They often get overshadowed. But there is a particular space in the WNBA that has embraced and amplified activism around issues of police brutality, pay equity, equality for LGBTQ athletes. Part of the reason you get this kind of political action is the large presence of black women in both the playing and coaching ranks. I haven't seen another league embrace that kind of intersectional view and speak out and take action for so many different communities. They really made the league 'woke,' as the kids would say."

The players took a tremendous risk by making such a political statement, chancing ire from the public and corporate sponsors, as well as the possibility of losing their jobs. The league fined the players for their activism: $5,000 for organizations and $500 for individuals -- $300 more than the fine for usual uniform violations.

In response, the New York Liberty held a postgame news conference in which they would discuss only "Black Lives Matter" issues and the WNBA fines. "This violence is something that directly affects us, and we want to use our voices," guard Tanisha Wright said. "We need the league to be just as supportive with this issue as they were with any other."

Eventually, the fines were rescinded, but that was just one fight for a league that has had an uphill battle when it comes to making a name for itself and being respected for its own game. Still, it is in the tradition for black athletes to use their platforms to fight the power, and the women of the WNBA set a social justice precedent that other leagues -- including the NBA and the NFL -- would follow. A unified, team-wide protest. The players reminded spectators that, as athletes, they do not exist merely to wow and entertain. They are flesh and blood, too.

Karen Good Marable is a writer based in Atlanta, Georgia.

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