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The Struggles of Black Athletes

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American gymnast Simone Biles at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. Photo: Lindsey Wasson / Reuters

By Dr. Tomi Wahlström |

Regardless of some of the recent successes in race relations, the pandemic has been difficult for many black athletes. Those who have succeeded face enormous expectations. Simone Biles, for example, recently withdrew from Olympic competition to concentrate on her mental health. She followed the example of Naomi Osaka. At the same time, Tiger Woods has experienced challenges and his future career is unknown. Even Serena Williams has not been at her best. While there have been many white athletes that have suffered during the pandemic as well, in some ways the situation is harder for black athletes. Some of them come from challenging backgrounds and have a lot more to prove. That is, some of them are the “firsts” among blacks to reach such levels of success. The entire black community, and sometimes the world, looks up to them with often unrealistic expectations. Mental health stigma can also be harder to overcome in the black community. Especially in the lower socioeconomic black communities, mental health services are scarce. Meanwhile, depression and anxiety, for example, tend to be much more widespread in these communities. The pandemic has been stressful to everyone, but it has hit people in these communities worse than anyone else. Even the vaccination levels are lower in these communities which means that their struggle is far from over. There may not be a post-pandemic era for them anytime soon.

The US has a long history of difficult race relations and institutional racism. The historic protests of 2020 have opened the eyes of many. Black Lives Matters now has over 40 chapters globally and they are a household name. While there are many sports fans who do not support their cause, there are also many that do. Many athletes have chosen to show their support by having anti-racist statements in their helmets or shirts. They have chosen to take a knee or raise their fists. Some have withdrawn from games or entire seasons. Many white athletes have become allies and shown their support putting their careers in danger. In many ways, these protests have worked. There has been a visible shift in awareness and the sports business is starting to respond to it. Many major sports companies like Nike have released anti-racist advertisements and made supporting statements. Sport teams like Indians and Redskins have changed their names. Progress may be slow but it is happening. Athletes have found themselves in the middle of this movement. Some may embrace it and others may find it stressful. Many athletes never sought to become activists and to be placed in such a spotlight. This role has been forced on them by the society. It is up to each one of them to decide how they react to it.

There is no way to predict the future but it is fairly clear to most people that something seismic has happened during the pandemic. The world will not be the same after it is over. Sports will survive but will not be the same. The lives of black athletes will likely be different in the future. In many ways they will be improved but for some the struggle will certainly continue. World will be even more unfair and uneven in some aspects. During the pandemic, the wealthy have become wealthier and the poor poorer. We are more divided than ever. At the same time, conflict in itself is not bad. It can be a source of creativity and progress. With any luck, we may come out of this as a better world.

Dr. Tomi Wahlström is the Provost at the United States Sports Academy.

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