From segregation to Serena: the representation of black women in the sporting industry

Image Source: Today

By Meika Bottrill | @meikabottrill

Black female athletes have faced misrepresentation in the sporting world for decades due to inequality, prejudicial criticism, and a lack of support from the industry.

The disparity between gender and race in sport proves to demonstrate a power imbalance that provides men with a better opportunity to succeed.

The impression that women in sport are paid less because they generate less money leads us to the fundamental flaw in the marketing and support of female athletes.

“We absolutely do not get promoted as our male counterparts do,” Washington Mystics player, Elena Delle Donne, posted on Twitter.

Females in a professional sport already suffer from lack of endorsements and unequal pay, however, by adding racial stereotypes into that mix, we open up an even greater problem.

Athletes of colour have long had to face the devaluing of their achievements, as the media focuses on their “natural ability”, ignoring the immense physical training athletes endure in order to play at a professional level.

While representation is progressively moving forward, we are far from where we should be in terms of providing black female athletes with a supportive and unprejudiced playing field.

Triumphs for women in the sporting industry can easily distract us from the racial vilification that female athletes of colour endure on a regular basis.

In order to completely understand the representation of black women in sport, we must take a look at a few players who have played key roles in shaping the industry.


Alice Coachman Davis

The 1948 London Olympics marks a significant moment in history when black women were recognised globally for the first time in history.

Sprinter Audrey Patterson was the first black woman to receive a medal in the Olympics, taking home bronze for the 200 metres.

Then Alice Coachman Davis quickly followed suit, becoming the first black female athlete to win a gold medal for her high jump abilities.

It was a historic and incredible achievement for women of colour in America.

However, Davis’ accomplishment occurred 16 years prior to the Civil Rights Act of America in 1964.

Therefore, despite setting a world record, her achievements were overlooked as soon as she set foot back in her thensegregated hometown of Georgia.

Upon her return, the white mayor of Albany, Georgia, refused to shake her hand, and Davis was forced to utilise a side door of the auditorium she was being honoured in.

She spoke to a room full of people, whites on one side and blacks on the other.

“We had segregation, but it wasn’t any problem for me because I had won,” she said.

“It was up to them whether they accepted it or not.”

Despite overcoming a society that opposed women (let alone women of colour) by winning gold, Davis has been granted the title of forgotten women in sports’.


Image Source: The New York Times

After her win, Davis chose to retire as an athlete, and she then began a career of coaching.

Her retirement came before mass media communication and, more importantly, before the Civil Rights Act, meaning she slipped away from public attention and was outshone by recognised, black female athletics from later times.

“Go any place and people will tell you Wilma Rudolph was the first black woman to win a medal — it’s not true,” MsDavis told The Times in 1997.

After Davis’ death in 2014, the New York Times published an obituary acknowledging her achievements and how she paved the way for black women in sports.

While her decision of retiring was her own, the question remains: if she were rightfully celebrated and encouraged, would she have continued her athletic career?


Serena Williams

Last September we witnessed a media storm surrounding Serena Williams in the US Open when she received a number of code violations that resulted in her losing the match to opponent Naomi Osaka.

When Williams attempted to protest the umpire’s decisions she was ridiculed and reduced to the black female stereotypes we so often see in the media.

“I definitely was scrutinised because I was black and I was confident,” Ms Williams told ESPN.

The language that surrounds black female athletes in the media regarding their physical appearance, demeanour, and actions unquestionably contrasts how we speak about male athletes.

Nick Kyrgios, an Australian tennis player notorious for aggressive outbursts during his games, does not suffer the same consequences as Williams has for eruptions on the court.

Kyrgios is not a particularly well-liked or favoured tennis player, but his Greek ethnicity is rarely brought to the forefront of the conversation (rightfully so).

Women of colour regrettably do not have that same luxury though.

Previously, Serbian tennis player Novak Djokovic had similar concerns with Carlos Ramos, the umpire that deducted points from Williams.

In 2017, Djokovic told Ramos he was “losing his mind, however, did not suffer from any game violations throughout his match.

This contrast demonstrates the mistreatment of black women in sports by umpires, supporters, and the media.

As a society, we have no room to allow black women to screw up; we instead immediately punish them for their errors.

Herald Sun cartoonist Mark Knight further ignited the fire by publishing a controversial cartoon that relied on fundamental racial and sexist stereotypes in order to convey its meaning.

Not only did Knight depict Williams with stereotypical African-American racial characteristics of Williams, he furthermore wrongfully contrasted Williams with her opponent Osaka as a blonde, thin, and white female despite her Japanese and Haitian ethnicity.

Osaka’s win makes her the first male or female Japanese tennis player to hold the Grand Slam title.

However, due to misrepresentations of race and a focus on minimising a strong black woman for her outburst, this achievement was painfully ignored.

In a predominately white and male-dominated sport, this is consequential to the advancement of acknowledging accomplished, female athletes of colour.  

There is no argument that Williams was outspoken at the result of her violations, but she has already suffered the consequences of her actions.

The cartoon has been likened to the dehumanising caricatures of the Jim Crow era, however, when the press council investigated complaints, they found that the cartoon did not breach any standards.

While Williams’ sportsmanship is in question and tennis players (male and female) are renowned for arguing back to umpires, it is essential to understand that the misconstrued role of the ‘angry black woman has no place in this story.


Halima Aden

Often the conversation of black women in the sporting industry can be a disheartening topic, however, it is evident that there has been some change in the way we approach this issue.

Athletes are not the only ones who suffer from misrepresentation in the sporting industry.

The media plays an integral role in the shaping of stereotypes and characteristics of black females in sport.

Sports Illustrated, a publication that is typically known for broadcasting women in bikinis throughout its magazine, made headlines in May when they featured model Halima Aden in a burkini, hijab, and headscarf.

Aden is a Somalian refugee who has made history as the first model in Sports Illustrated to wear a burkini.

The photo shoot was held in Kenya, where she was born in a refugee camp before she moved to America in 2004.

A burkini is defined by the Cambridge English Dictionary as a “swimsuit that covers the entire body leaving only the hands, feet, and face exposed,” typically worn by women in the Muslim faith.

Over decades of publishing, Sports Illustrated has faced major controversy over their misrepresentation and objectification of women throughout the magazine.

It is encouraging to see a major publication acknowledging the existence of Muslim women, however, the decision to feature Halima Aden was not entirely well received.

“Sports Illustrated is proving that a girl that’s wearing a bikini can be right alongside a girl that’s wearing a burkini,” Ms Aden told Good Morning America.

However, controversy was sparked by a Western audience who criticised Sports Illustrated for portraying a woman wearing a politicised item of clothing.


Image Source: Sports Illustrated

Muslim women may choose to wear the burkini as an alternative to the West’s exposing swimwear in order to follow the Quran’s ideology of staying conservative and modest.

Diversifying our media and acknowledging variance in religions, races, and genders is essential in reaching equality.

In a world where 1.8 billion of the population are practising Muslims, it only makes sense for publications to represent portrayals of women that differ from Western norms.

In order to encourage body positivity, to rebuke racial vilification, and to accurately portray the world we live in, we must represent all kinds of women in the media.

“Now girls are going to be able to see they don’t have to change themselves,” Ms Aden said.

“They don’t have to conform to fit in.”

It is important for girls who look to magazines, influencers, and the media for inspiration to see an accurate portrayal of themselves.

Black women have come a long way since the 1948 Olympics, but evidently, racism, stereotypes, and inequality still play a fundamental role for women in the sporting industry.

While companies, such as Nike or Sports Illustrated, are actively backing female athletes of colour, an increase in support needs to be the focus for sponsors, fans, and the media as a whole in order to improve.

We aren’t there yet, but we can be.




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