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New study from Morgan State explores how black female athletes navigate racism and sexism to excel

Christina Epps represented Team USA in the 2016 Rio Olympic Games, finishing 15th in the triple jump, as well as the Pan American Games (seventh) and the track and field indoor world championship (10th, 2016). She is the only Olympian in her alma mater Coppin State’s history.

And yet the “biggest thing” in her career is that some feel that she’s not feminine enough.

“People have called me a tomboy,” she said. “I just view myself as an athlete. I go out there to compete, not to look pretty.”

Examining how racist and sexist behavior demeans black female athletes is both timely and a long time coming to Jacqueline Jones.

The assistant dean and chairman of the department of multimedia journalism at Morgan State co-edited a new study from the school, “Beating Opponents, Battling Belittlement: How African-American Female Athletes Use Community to Navigate Negative Images,” which was commissioned by The Undefeated, a sports and pop culture website owned and operated by ESPN.

“The resiliency by black athletes and in particular black female athletes is talked about in superficial ways, and I thought it was time to add to the research world what has happened to them across generations,” Jones said.

The study notes:

  • Serena Williams, who has won 23 Grand Slam tennis titles, has been compared to a “man” and a “gorilla.”
  • Players on the 2007 Rutgers women’s basketball team were called “nappy-headed hos” by radio host Don Imus after losing to the Tennessee team in the NCAA final.
  • The late Ed Temple, who coached Tennessee State track and field for 44 years and guided eight “Tigerbelles” into the National Track and Field Hall of Fame, said in an interview that his athletes were “ladies first, track girls second.”

The crux of the study is this — black women’s athletic abilities are severely undervalued in favor of their physical appearance, whether they are attacked for “mannish” appearances or overly praised for their femininity.

Women had to find empowerment in themselves to continue to excel because they would rarely find the respect they deserved in the outside world, according to the study.

By looking at the experiences of black female athletes in basketball, tennis, swimming, track and golf, the stories were similar.

In Epps’ case, it was textbook. Rather than wearing long, tight shorts in competition, she and her opponents were made to wear panties instead.

“That’s something more sexualized to bring more, I guess, attention to the event. That’s sad,” said Epps, who was not part of the study.

Even while researching other triple-jumpers in the world on YouTube, she was greeted with hyper-sexual videos of women in her event, rather than the strictly sports ones her male counterparts appeared in.

“The women’s sports period are not taken as seriously as the men’s,” Jones said. “There’s never been that same kind of respect for women athletes, and then when you layer race on top, it’s even harder.”

Despite her accolades, Epps has felt pressure to present more femininity as she’s grown in the sport. As her stock began to rise, she reached out for sponsorships, only to find that the deal would land with someone with less talent but a more girlish appearance.

“It’s sad that you can’t be respected for your abilities, and rather you have to look a certain way, wear makeup when you’re competing,” she said.

The study found that from 1936, when Olympic official Norman Cox said, “The International Olympic Committee should create a special category of competition for [black female athletes] — the unfairly advantaged ‘hermaphrodites,’ ” to present day, when Russian tennis player Maria Sharapova claimed she was intimidated by Williams’ “thick arms and legs,” the respect given to talented black female athletes always comes with an asterisk, one rooted in racial stereotypes.

Female athletes such as like Florence Griffith Joyner, “Flo-Jo,” the decorated American sprinter who was equally known for her world records and her 6-inch nails often embraced overcompensating their femininity by wearing makeup during competition.

“Women always had to find a way to compensate to how they were treated,” Jones said. “You take lemonade out of lemons. You take what’s thrown at you and make something good out of it.”

Epps has worn her hair long and straight in competition, even though she said it would be more comfortable to wear it in braids.

“I have felt those pressures to change a little bit, just to try to get a sponsorship with a Nike or an Adidas company who are looking for more feminine athletes,” she said.

Often when a black female athlete emphasized her femininity, it was still a no-win situation, the study found.

Lisa Leslie, a three-time league Most Valuable Player with the Los Angeles Sparks and four-time gold-medalist, collected 5,000 points in the WNBA and piled up 488 points, 241 rebounds and 36 blocked shots in her four Olympic appearances, becoming Team USA’s all-time leader in all three categories.

She was also a model with Wilhelmina in New York, paying “careful adherence to softening [her] appearances.” In turn, that meant that “media focus on her good looks often overshadowed Leslie’s legendary athletic skills,” the study noted.

“Lisa Leslie was an incredible athlete, and yet what she was known for was being pretty almost in spite of being an athlete,” Jones said. “This is a woman who has won at every level, and yet, her modeling contract and the depictions of her tends to say, ‘Yeah, she does all that, but isn’t she cute?’ ”

A New York Times article in 2003 detailed how Leslie (a “combination of power, grace and beauty”) was unappealing to the fans, “surly” when choosing not to respond to cheers and one side of a rivalry with Seattle Storm forward Lauren Jackson, who once accidentally pulled Leslie’s faux ponytail off during a game.

But to Jones, that article from 15 years ago is not merely a relic — it would fit in just fine today.

“There are certain tropes we tend to fall under as writers. In some ways, it’s very lazy writing,” she said. “ ‘Let me feminize this athlete because I don’t want to make her appear masculine or overly muscular,’ or whatever it is, but still not respecting the athlete for her athleticism. It’s, ‘Let me tell you about all of these other things about her.’ ”

You can read the full study here.

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