When we see athletes on stage, in front of a camera, on magazine covers, or on the field, we see a finished product. The flawless makeup. The toned body. The perceived effortless perfection. Our eyes are glued to everything outside of the inner struggle. Everyday self-consciousness still lingers.
When an athlete, or anyone in the public eye for that matter, opens up and reveals issues with his or her body, it reminds us that we're all human. Seeing the elite work through and overcome the struggle with their body image, can motivate and inspire us even more.
Take Gabby Douglas, an Olympic gold medalist and history maker who had to deal with severe media scrutiny about her appearance as an impressionable teenager.
We saw the public victories, but there is more than what meets the eyes.
Behind closed doors stood a girl with a great passion for the Olympics and the pressure of unrealistic beauty standards applied by critics.
Someone even suggested that Gabby get a nose job because of her flat nose.
Because she knew she wasn't in this alone, Gabby's confidence and accomplishments reached new heights.
Gabby’s mother and manager, Natalie Hawkins, told Teen Vogue, “I remember when everyone was talking about her arms, and she became very self-conscious about how muscular they were. Then Gabrielle saw the elegance with which Serena Williams handled all the negative criticism of her own body. It was liberating for my daughter to see that. She said, ‘I don’t have to apologize to anyone about my body. My body is beautiful.’”
Simone Biles, recently hailed as the best gymnast in the world, has had her fair share of internal struggles as well.
Despite being a record-breaking stellar athelete, she has not been immune to criticism over her physical build or her race in the predominantly white world of professional gymnastics. Simone admits to being insecure about her self-described stocky physique in comparison to other gymnasts. However, she now sees this as an advantage.
“I was built this way for a reason, so I’m going to use it,” she told Teen Vogue.
Simone's struggle is also reminiscent of the same issues Misty Copeland, the first black principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre, faced. She details her experiences in the documentary A Ballerina's Tale. Copeland was told by the company to lose weight, and she had a more muscular body than the other dancers that caused her confidence to diminish.
And let's not forget about Serena Williams who is constantly slaying us with her confidence and body positivity. Serena's looks have long become more of an issue to mainstream media instead of her knockout, record breaking performances on the court. She's overcome the challenges and found a way not to let the criticism overshadow her glory.
Black women aren't the only ones that have had to deal with criticism about their bodies, though. Men are also objectified and ridiculed for their natural build. Vince Wilfork, decorated nose tackle for the Houston Texans, graces the cover of ESPN The Magazine's Body Issue and let us all know how confident he is about his body.
📸 time for number 7⃣5⃣.
Here's @wilfork75's @ESPN the Magazine cover for the 'Body' Issue. (h/t Peter Hapak). pic.twitter.com/rDUBii3niH
— Houston Texans (@HoustonTexans) June 30, 2016
“I’m proud of who I am. I’m proud of my body,” the two-time Super Bowl champion told ESPN. “People can talk about me all they want, I don’t care. I never lose sleep.”
"I just think it's a good idea for people that are bigger-boned," Wilfork said when asked why he posed for the cover. "If people can look at me, a guy that's 325-plus, doing an issue like this, I'm pretty sure that they might have a little confidence."
He's even ready for the modeling world!
Tommy Boi where u at? Now that I've done @ESPN Mag #BodyIssue I'm ready for the modeling world. Pics out tomorrow! pic.twitter.com/kVLFInAG8M
— Vince Wilfork (@wilfork75) June 29, 2016
All of these athletes have had to deal with criticisms about their body whether it be from the media, themselves, or a mixture of both. Yet at the end of the day, all of them have come out at the TOP of their game (no pun intended). They've proven that even the cream of the crop can struggle with the same issues that we do. Because of their drive to succeed and transparency about hangups involving body image, they inspire us all to come out on top as well.
Mind over matter.
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On Monday, April 25, 2016, the U.S Appeals court reinstated the NFL’s four-game suspension of Tom Brady for next year's football season, 2016-2017, seriously jeopardizing The New England Patriots’ chances at winning another championship. Being a New England Patriots fan, but most importantly, a black New England Patriots fan from Boston, hearing this news not too long ago would have sent me to the fan pages joining the uproar over this “injustice.” However, this past year has forced me to re-examine what injustice truly looks like, and it ain’t what happened to Tom Brady. Not only do I not care, but I take pleasure in seeing my white once-hero become a victim. Yes, I know this is considered sacrilege in Boston, however, my blackness will not allow me to continue to idolize “The Golden Boy” any longer. Here’s why:
I originally fell in love with Tom Brady in 2001, when I was one of a few black students on a predominantly white college campus. Tom Brady was then an unknown rose from the bench after he replaced an injured Drew Bledsoe as Quarterback. That season, he would go on to lead the New England Patriots to their first Super Bowl victory. On the day of the scheduled celebration for the first Super Bowl title for the franchise I — and what seemed like the entire white campus — descended into the city to witness the messiah and his disciples' triumphant return. One million people showed up, clambering for every available inch, just for a glimpse or, if blessed, to be able to touch the stage Tom Brady and his Patriots floated on. In the middle of the swarming frenzy, I, the ignored black kid with the failing grades, stood in the middle of this celebration and felt like a winner, for once. In the years that followed, Tom Brady continued to win his way to being mentioned as one the greatest quarterbacks to ever play the game, while my grades continued to plummet until I finally dropped out and fell back into the ghettos of Massachusetts.
Fast forward to this past 2015-2016 NFL season. During the first regular season game of the year, I stood in the middle of the largely white crowd jubilantly willing my mostly white Patriots to another victory. Afterward, I waited around to watch the end game interviews in the locker room. Behind the news anchor neatly nestled next to Tom Brady’s number 12 jersey, I saw a scarlet hat with bold white letters that read,“Make America Great Again.” I’d grown accustomed to seeing that hat modeled by some yarn-chewing, tobacco-spitting farmer from some forgotten American city Donald Trump needed to win in order to continue his assault on democracy, but to see Tom Brady — the only white man I have ever rooted for — boldly display his political affiliation was something entirely different. The slogan, “Make America Great Again” is not a new idea. America has repeatedly used this ideology to justify the many heinous acts committed to black people in this country. Slavery, Cross burnings, “the war on drugs,” were all done in the name of “Making America Great Again.” Lynched black bodies hung from lamp post because they attempted to vote. Martin Luther King, Jr. was murdered by people who thought America was losing its greatness. Cointelpro was designed by men who believed in “Making America Great.” Based on these examples, when was America ever great? Was America great when my grandfather living in the Jim Crow south was denied a loan to help feed his 14 children, simply because he was sinfully black. Or maybe America was great when the red-faced officer snatched Justin, my 8th grade classmate, from amongst my troublemaking group and brought him underneath the train tracks, where he pressed a gun to his young black face and threatened to kill “his n*gger ass”? Was America great then? Tom Brady appears to think so.
Not too long ago, hearing the news about Tom Brady’s four-game suspension would have upset me. But that was when I actually believed Tom Brady was rooting for me to win. I realize now that his ideas of injustice are not the same as mine. His ideas about America’s greatness do not include me. They never have and probably never will. I guess that’s why they call him a Patriot.
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Starting today, we will celebrate March Madness — the NCAA’s time-honored means for selecting the best college basketball team in the country. It's virtually certain that a traditional powerhouse will win the tournament, and it's also safe to assume that a substantial number of that victorious team’s players will be black. Furthermore, it's a given that many fans will root for upsets throughout the tournament. What is up in the air, however, is when (if ever) will five world-class black athletes assist a historically black college or university (HBCU) in truly upsetting the tournament — and the status quo as a whole — by winning March Madness and reaping all of the financial rewards of such a historic championship run.
The Fab Five
I first thought about the possibility of an HBCU winning the national championship when I read William C. Rhoden’s Forty Million Dollar Slaves: The Rise, Fall, and Redemption of the Black Athlete. In $40 Million Slaves, Rhoden discusses the societal impact of myriad black athletes, including the Fab Five — five of the best black high school basketball players in the country who all chose to enroll at the University of Michigan in 1991 and eventually led the school to two consecutive championship games.
Even though the Fab Five were an unforgettable cultural force who appeared supremely confident in their young black manhood on a national stage, Rhoden emphasizes that a predominantly white institution (PWI) still took advantage of their economic power. In particular, when describing the 'revolutionary' act that the Fab Five could have engaged in, Rhoden states that “they could have chosen a Historically Black College and then taken it to the NCAA Final Four as surely as they did Michigan, which would have shone a national spotlight on those schools, driven money and new blood into them, and provided an impressive model of black self-help.”
Rhoden contends that “[i]nstead, they staged a rebellion and chose Michigan, a decision that in the grand scheme of things still empowered the very system of power that has traditionally smothered black aspirations.” Although Rhoden indicates that the Fab Five discussed attending HBCUs, Rhoden explains that ultimately a “rich, predominantly white institution simply got richer from black labor, while black institutions were left struggling.”
In the approximately 25 years since the Fab Five enrolled at the University of Michigan, the NBA has restricted athletes’ rights to make a living, racial achievement gaps have persisted in education, and some college athletes have started to demonstrate a greater awareness of their true worth. Thus, now more than ever before may be the perfect time for five elite black athletes to help an HBCU avoid merely entering — and quickly exiting — the tournament as a low seed and instead become so firmly rooted in the college basketball landscape that its entire student body materially benefits from each athletic feat of the players’ limbs.
The financial benefits
With respect to the NBA, American basketball players no longer even have the option of entering the NBA draft right after high school; they have to be at least 19-years-old and one year out of high school before entering the NBA draft. \It is thus a standard practice for pairs or groups of extremely talented black student-athletes to enroll at PWIs and lead those schools to championship games while HBCUs such as Hampton University struggle to win games in the tournament.
Since superstar black basketball players are essentially being herded into grossly uncompensated labor at institutions of higher education, it would be disruptive but completely appropriate if five of these elite athletes decided to perform their yearlong NBA auditions at an HBCU and ensure that the revenue streams that they create are converted into dramatically enhanced educational resources for black students such as new 4-year scholarships that cover the full cost of attendance, transformative technology initiatives and paid internships, especially with social justice organizations.
Thus, instead of merely cutting down the net for a PWI after a championship game, these athletes’ efforts could fund scholarships that help masses of HBCU students break the chains of inter-generational poverty. As opposed to supporting a PWI in its efforts to hang another championship banner in its arena, these high-flyers could directly aid the educational aspirations of the descendants of individuals who hung in the air for very different reasons. In addition, rather than helping a PWI be prominently featured in the One Shining Moment video tribute at the end of March Madness, these superstars could help their HBCU reach unseen heights and thereby better serve as a North Star for all of its students.
Given the recent boycott of the University of Missouri’s football players in support of the larger black student community, it at least seems possible that five black high school basketball players may be open to explicitly capitalizing on their economic power for the benefit of thousands of black lives. Whereas the University of Missouri’s football players showed what could be accomplished when a PWI is presented with a potential loss of revenue, these NBA-bound philanthropists could demonstrate the life-changing value of directing their unparalleled financial contributions to an HBCU.
This year of service would definitely be a physically, mentally, and emotionally draining undertaking for each of the five black student-athletes involved. However, I think this power move is certainly worth a shot, especially in light of all the shots that we have taken over the years.
Victor A. Kwansa, Esq. is an attorney, educational advocate, poet, and commentator from Prince George’s County, Maryland. He received a B.A. in Political Science from Yale University in 2008, and he graduated from Harvard Law School in 2011. He has performed at universities, K-12 schools, community centers, and even once while visiting a former slave camp in Ghana, his parents’ home country. Victor’s website features his poetry and education-related commentary.
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12-year-old Tamir Rice was shot and killed by a police officer on Nov. 22, 2014, in Cleveland, Ohio. On Dec. 28, 2015, a grand jury chose not to indict the police officers responsible for the shooting. Shortly after this news broke, social media created the hashtag #NoJusticeNoLebron, encouraging Cleveland Cavaliers megastar LeBron James to boycott playing in protest of the non-indict for Tamir’s death.
When asked about a potential protest, LeBron admitted he didn't have “enough knowledge” to participate in a boycott. Previously, LeBron has spoken out in solidarity with Trayvon Martin’s case and Eric Garner’s, but he has never boycotted an NBA game. But what is LeBron’s and other star athlete’s true responsibility?
Jim Brown. Muhammad Ali. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Three powerful black men that stood up in the face of racial and social adversity in the prime of their careers. Let’s add some context — all of these players performed during the Civil Rights era. Unfortunately, our athletes today are playing in one of the most socially turbulent times in modern U.S. history. But what makes these athletes different than their predecessors? Money.
Michael Jordan is one of the most powerful men in the United States and he has a strong stance against speaking on social issues. Why? The money. MJ is not going to isolate anyone from buying his tennis shoes based on his thoughts on police brutality. But even Jordan didn't play during anything as publicly visible and polarizing as Mike Brown, Trayvon Martin, Sandra Bland and a host of other racial provocative issues and incidents. Even the NBA has spoken out against gun violence — that’s a powerful statement if you think about it.
So should we force players like LeBron to speak out in protest for the black community? No. An activist, a leader or a spokesperson for a particular issue or group should be passionate and knowledgeable about whatever they're advocating. Black people don't need uninformed athletes speaking out against issues they know nothing about. Etan Thomas wrote a letter to Richard Sherman about his Black Lives Matter comments back in September of last year. Thomas is using his former platform correctly, but his comments will never have the same impact as LeBron’s.
It sucks we must have this conversation, but it’s a reality for the world we live in today. I would rather see athlete’s take the Jalen Rose route and start a school. Words matter, and they help, but actions go a lot farther. Sports aren't just games; they're a way of life. And the victims of police brutality are not just names; they're mothers, fathers, sons and daughters. Our obsession with celebrity forces us to hold athletes to a standard they might not be able to reach but their influence our world is...
By almost any measurement, I am a wholly mediocre basketball player. Good enough to never be picked last, but never good enough to win a game on my own. My greatest on-court skill is not turning the ball over, a skill that I imagine I picked up after playing with two older brothers for over a decade and being afraid to let them down. Mostly, every athletic skill I have is rooted in fear. Which doesn’t exactly make me a desirable NBA prospect. None of these facts stopped me last summer in Oakland, after making two jump shots in a pickup game with some fellow writers, from holding my follow through, glaring at my defender, and saying:
"I’ll be at this all day. You better get a hand up."
I missed every shot I took for the rest of the afternoon, but I say that with the knowledge that it doesn’t matter. For those who are well-versed in the language, we know the secret. Trash talking isn’t about an individual’s ability to be consistently great. If you are from any place in this America where you have seen all breeds of struggle grow until they cloak an entire community, and you are fortunate enough to survive, few things become more urgent and necessary than reminding the world when you’re at your best. Because you know how fleeting those moments can be. You’ve seen how quickly they can vanish.
When I talk about Compton here, I need people to understand it as it once was, and not as the re-imagined area it is slowly becoming as crime rates drop to the lowest they’ve been in decades, and the wealthy residents who started to flee in the early 90’s begin to inch back into the edges of the city. The Compton I need to bring to life here is the one that N.W.A. blew the dust off of. An area that we saw in blockbuster movies which often shared a common theme: the Black person who died at the end, usually by the gun, was promising. Or turning their life around. Or had done “all of the right things” to get out of what we were to understand as an urban killing field.
The Compton that needs to be understood when discussing Serena Williams is the one that America has used so often for entertainment and irony, while simultaneously turning its back on the infrastructural failures that plague so many of the neighborhoods that kids from the suburbs have the luxury to wear on their tongues, and on their bodies, but never in their hearts or minds. This is the Compton that briefly held the young Williams sisters, and the Compton that came back to claim one, Yetunde Price being shot and killed in Compton after a confrontation in 2003. Though Serena Williams only resided in this Compton for six years, it is perhaps essential in understanding the father who pulled his two daughters from the national junior tennis circuit before they were teenagers, due to White parents talking down to them. It is perhaps essential in understanding the competitive nature of the Williams sisters, though especially Serena. It is ABSOLUTELY essential in understanding how Serena revels in her dominance.
When I talk about crack cocaine in the 80’s here, I need people to understand it for what it did to the individual home. Or the individual block of homes. Or the individual Black child. And not so much as the epidemic that is often discussed now in broad-brushed terms, with no eye toward its very real impact. In places like Compton, and places like many I know and have lived, neighborhoods were already swelling with gang violence by the time the '80s hit, even before the introduction of crack cocaine. Once-flourishing industries had long left these areas, leaving whole families without one steady income. Many of the people who were pushing crack were just everyday people, trying to silence a child’s cries. Though this didn’t stop wars from being fought over territory, over prices, over who got to feed their family and who did not. These things are what our entire American history is littered with. Who will not make it home alive so that someone else can be fed. Still, when it happens in the Black community, it takes on a different idea; a different tone altogether. Everyday people killing everyday people in the hopes of being able to provide for the everyday people who became addicts, not above robbing and killing in order to rest in the comfort of their addiction. It is almost impossible to ignore the governmental root of this cycle, but, while it certainly bears mentioning here, that is a much larger thing to unpack. It is one thing to sit in a movie theater and watch the fragility of Black life play out on a screen in front of you. It is an entirely different thing to sit in a movie theater, watch the fragility of Black life play out on a screen in front of you, and have no escape from it once you leave. It is an entirely different thing to have its presence hang thick over your home, over your young and talented daughters.
I remember the fear I felt when I realized that I had buried enough friends to think of death almost casually. Something that I expect, and know will come for people I grew up with and care about. When I see a childhood friend’s number flash across my caller ID, I exhale and prepare myself for an all-too-familiar routine. There’s a sadness in that, but there’s also an urgency. Witnessing the taking of sacred things is how we learn to covet. It is enough to make a father take his children to a place where he is the only one who can fail them.
As someone who observes culture in all of its forms, if the past three years have taught me anything, it’s that people have found so many new ways to say “silence.” It is what is meant when we look at a peaceful protest and hear people say: "Well, why can’t they just do it more peacefully?"
It is perhaps what I mean when I look at a text that I am not too keen on returning and text back: "I’ll get back to you in the next hour." And it is definitely what is meant when Serena Williams is looked at, careless and immersed in joy, and told: Be more "humble."
There really is no measurement for how America wants its Black athletes to be. Oftentimes, they are asked to both know their greatness and know their place at the same time, a landscape that becomes increasingly difficult to navigate depending on the sport they’re in. When Deion Sanders starts high stepping at the 40-yard line, he’s still dancing. America has always been fine with its Black athletes doing the dance on the field of their choosing, as long as they do the dance off of it. When Marshawn Lynch doesn’t speak to the press, that’s when people begin to feel cheated. To be Black and a woman, and a Black woman who is great, and a Black woman who is great at tennis is perhaps the trickiest of all of these landscapes. For many people, the intersection of race and gender is an uncomfortable place, and Serena Williams’ greatness sits firmly in the center of it. So much so that any time she wins, there is no way to have a discussion that does not reduce her to her most Black, or her most woman. It isn’t always explicit, of course. But one could argue that these things rarely are.
Serena Williams is, almost without argument, one of the greatest athletes of our time. If she was not before, she has cemented herself in that place after this weekend’s French Open victory, her 20th major. She did it in traditional manner, battling back and rallying, using her elite athleticism and strength to overpower and outhustle her opponent, Lucie Safarova. And she did it with all of the volume and intensity that we’ve become accustomed to. Serena yelled, both in joy and agony. She pumped her fists, talking confidently to herself when she was most on. Tennis is like few other sports. In most cases, there is only you and a single opponent on an island, sometimes for hours. The mark of greatness in those times is how you sustain, even if you have to celebrate the smallest victories in an attempt to will yourself to the larger one. When we insist that Serena Williams be more reserved, or less “scary”, or when we insist that she fit into the mold of decorum that we believe tennis should be, we’re really telling her to silence the very things that drive her. We’re asking her to not be great so that we can be comfortable. We’re telling one of the most dominant athletes many of us will ever see to maybe keep it down a bit, as if any kind of dominance is stumbled upon silently.
When I talk about Serena Williams here, I need people to understand her for where she came from, and not where she is now. Rather, I need people to understand her for what she was born into. I need people to understand both the whole and the sum of her parts. I need people to understand the Compton, the crack cocaine and the champion. The woman who buried a sister with the same hands she uses to bury opponents. If you do not know what she knows, then you know nothing of the ultimate reward of greatness. The way it feels when everything clicks. It is almost unfathomable to tell someone to act like they’ve been somewhere before when they are intensely aware of the fact that they were never supposed to be there in the first place, isn’t it?
And so Serena throws her racket and falls to her knees. And so a little Black girl finds a tennis court on the outskirts of her ‘hood. And so another father finds hope. And so I hit two jump shots in a row in the middle of summer in Oakland. And so I extend my follow through, hold it, and let the breeze blow sweat off of my arm. A reminder of how easily things can be taken from us. ...