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The Conditional Respect of the Black Athlete

Olympic champion Simone Biles of United States competing on the balance beam at women’s all-around gymnastics qualification.
ID 80421510 © Zhukovsky | Dreamstime.com

On July 28, following her withdrawal from two Olympic events, Simone Biles, the fan-favorite gymnastics heavyweight, took to Twitter to express her gratitude. Her choice to prioritize her mental and physical health by deciding not to compete was welcomed by her understanding fans.

But not everyone was happy with Biles. Her decision was linked to her patriotism, as many critics questioned whether she truly cared for the United States.

For Black athletes and entertainers in the public eye, their success and widespread appreciation can often be conditional. Reactions in the aftermath of Simone’s withdrawal demonstrated this conditional respect for Black athletes in particular. After acknowledging her athletic prowess and incredible talent, Charlie Kirk, conservative activist, and radio talk show host condemned Simone’s decision to withdraw calling her a “selfish sociopath,” “immature” and a “shame to the country.” 

Biles is anything but. Having won the United States an impressive number of medals in the Olympics and World Championships, she stands as the most decorated American gymnast of all time. But beyond her amazing and rule-changing athletic abilities, Biles is human. An extremely talented human who struggles just like everyone else. She is worthy of our respect and understanding as she runs her body through the wringer to represent the country.

The reaction shows a clear lack of understanding of the duress athletes put themselves under and the danger Biles would have been in if she continued to compete in her state. Biles was a victim of the “twisties” — a gymnastics term used to describe the feeling of mind and body not syncing in the air. Unlike in many sports where losing your bearings can be dangerous but not cataclysmic, in gymnastics, a disconnect between body and mind could result in extremely severe career-ending injuries. After experiencing a case of the “twisties” in 2012, Jacoby Miles ended up with a broken neck and potentially permanent paralysis. Miles took to Instagram to show her support for Simone and applaud her decision to prioritize her mental health. 

Biles demonstrated just how selfless the decision truly was when she shared that her decision to walk was to ensure that the American gymnastics team could bring back a medal at all lest her mental block holds them back. The decision was mature. Withdrawing from a world stage that broadcasts to millions of people takes an immense amount of self-awareness as well. Acknowledging when you’re not at your best and having the courage to walk away from the biggest sports event in the world is something most of us cannot even fathom. 

Associate Professor of Professional Practice at the University of Southern California, Miki Turner compared the experiences of Biles with those of Kerri Strug, a retired gymnast remembered for having performed the vault despite having injured her ankle. She cited “an era in which women’s gymnastics was run by some rather unsavory and controlling trolls who consistently played mind games with these young women,” as a contributing factor to Strug’s decision. 

“Strug didn’t realize it was okay to say no. She hadn’t learned how to put herself first and realize that at the end of the day it’s just a game. So that’s why I’m so proud of Simone. After all, she’s been through — particularly in the last couple of weeks — her strength was gonna see her through. She’s proven she has the courage of her convictions. And some of the backlash from the Twitter trolls might sting a bit, but I can almost guarantee you that at this point in life she knows she has nothing to prove. She’s the best,” said Turner.

Biles also faced backlash from a host of Good Morning Britain Piers Morgan who tweeted “Are ‘mental health issues’ now the go-to excuse for any poor performance in elite sport? What a joke. Just admit you did badly, made mistakes, and will strive to do better next time. Kids need strong role models, not this nonsense.”

Morgan’s criticism addresses the recent actions of Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka, another extremely talented Black athlete who took time off to prioritize her mental health. Osaka decided to forgo the traditional post-match press conferences to preserve her mental health and it resulted in extreme backlash and a hefty $15,000 fine. But to further punish the athlete, the heads of all four Grand Slam tournaments signed a statement that would suspend Osaka from further participation in future tournaments. Osaka responded by withdrawing from the tournament entirely. 

Grand Slam Champion Naomi Osaka of Japan celebrates victory after her semifinal match at 2019 Australian Open in Melbourne Park. ID 138702943 © Zhukovsky | Dreamstime.com

In another demonstration of the lack of understanding afforded Black athletes, Ross Patterson, American actor and New York Times best-selling author, replied to Osaka’s tweet where she communicated her decision to withdraw with condescension.

“In all sincerity, there’s probably no need to be a professional athlete then. Press is a part of the process due to the massive winnings that are awarded. There’s plenty of opportunities at the local level and teaching that don’t require daily press conferences. Good luck!”

It was one of the many examples of the clear disregard for Black athletes as soon as they do anything other than their sport. When they are unable to perform, there is a tendency to write them off. 

Placing this immense level of stress and pressure on athletes because of their talents is wildly unfair.  We need to do better for our Black athletes. We need to prove to them that they are more than their talents, their statistics, and their medals. We need to treat them like they’re human.  

Turner commended Biles’ decision as a potential turning point: “Hopefully her bravery will permeate into the psyches of other athletes who have been brainwashed into thinking that their self-worth is contingent on how well they can bounce a ball, do a backflip or run a race.

Sam Stewart
Sam Stewart
Sam Stewart is a Culturas writing intern. She is currently a junior studying Cinema and Media Studies at the University of Southern California. Her passion for film and media has made her particularly passionate about issues at the intersection of race and entertainment.
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