August 05, 2021
By Aaron Morrison, Astrid Galvan and Deepti Hajela
Naomi Osaka. Simone Biles. Both are prominent young Black women under the pressure of a global Olympic spotlight that few human beings ever know. Both have faced major career crossroads at the Tokyo Games. Both cited pressure and mental health.
The glare is even hotter for these Black women given that, after years of sacrifice and preparation, they are expected to perform, to be strong, to push through. They must work harder for the recognition and often are judged more harshly than others when they don’t meet the public’s expectations.
So when New York city resident Natelegé Whaley heard that Black women athletes competing in the Tokyo Olympics were asserting their right to take care of their mental health, over the pressure to perform a world away, she took special notice.
“This is powerful,” said Whaley, who is Black. “They are leading the way and changing the way we look at athletes as humans, and also Black women as humans.”
Being a young Black woman — which, in American life, comes with its own built-in pressure to perform — entails much more than meets the eye, according to several Black women and advocates who spoke to The Associated Press.
The Tokyo Games show signs of signaling the end of an era — one in which Black women on the world stage give so much of themselves that they have little to nothing left, said Patrisse Cullors, an activist and author who co-founded the Black Lives Matter movement eight years ago.
“Black women are not going to die (for public acceptance). We’re not going to be martyrs anymore,” said Cullors, who resigned her role as director of a BLM nonprofit foundation in May. “A gold medal is not worth someone losing their minds.
I’m listening to Simone and hearing her say, ‘I’m more important than this competition.’”
She added: “Activism and organizing is just one contribution that I’ve given. And we all need to know when enough is enough for us.”
Biles’ message also resonated with Whaley, who co-created an event series in New York City called Brooklyn Recess to preserve the culture of Double Dutch, a rope jumping sport popular in Black communities. Early on, Whaley and co-creator Naima Moore-Turner found they were talking a lot about a mental health component to their events.
“People will say, ‘Let Black women lead, because they know,’” said Whaley, a 32-year-old freelance race and culture writer.
“It’s like, (Black women) know not because we’re some sort of special humans who are supernatural,” she said. “It’s because we live at those intersections where we have no choice but to know.”
ATHLETES AT THE
The world’s greatest living Olympian, swimmer Michael Phelps, has been credited with elevating a conversation about sports and mental health. But when Phelps hung up his goggles five years ago, he was less likely to be burdened by the chronic health disparities, sexual violence, police brutality and workplace discrimination that Black women, famous or not, endure daily.
Still, the Black women Olympic athletes, echoed by many of their sisters in the U.S. and around the world, stepped forward and said they need to protect their mental health. They didn’t ask for sympathy or permission. They demanded people respect their decisions and let them be.
“I say put mental health first because if you don’t, then you’re not going to enjoy your sport and you’re not going to succeed as much as you want to,” Biles, 24, said after pulling out of the women’s team gymnastics final on July 27. Before the Tokyo Games, she was already the most decorated American gymnast in modern times.
Prioritizing mental wellness “shows how strong of a competitor and person that you really are, rather than just battle through it,” she said.
Biles went on to win a bronze medal in the balance beam competition on Tuesday.
Four-time Grand Slam winner Naomi Osaka, 23, first raised concerns about her mental health in June when she avoided speaking to the press during the French Open, and ultimately pulled herself out of the competition until the Tokyo Games. Although Osaka was eliminated from Olympic medal competition, she reiterated her concern for her own well-being.
“I definitely feel like there was a lot of pressure for this,” Osaka said after the Olympic defeat. Weeks earlier, she had written an op-ed for Time magazine in which she said: “It’s OK to not be OK, and it’s OK to talk about it.”
Some of these attitudes might be about age. Many young people feel empowered to speak about mental health in a way previous generations have not.
Biles and Osaka, born months apart in 1997, are members of Gen Z, the first generation whose entire lives have been online. Gen Z-ers are notably more open about mental health struggles, said Nicole O’Hare, a licensed counselor in the Phoenix area.
“It’s so beautiful to witness this sort of normalization of mental health and asking for help,” O’Hare said. “They’re really pushing that barrier and saying I can’t, I need help, I’m struggling, I need support. ... If we really listen to what they’re asking, we can hear a whole lot.”
FACING MORE CHALLENGES
Even with the increased discussion, the overlooking of Black women’s mental and emotional wellness is far from new.
Before slavery’s abolition, enslaved Black women rarely enjoyed agency over their bodies or their families. They were wet nurses to enslavers’ wives, objectified for sexual desires and made to toil in fields and homes without credit for successes or innovations. After slavery was abolished in 1865, Black women gained the right to vote with ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920, 50 years after Black men.
More recently, Black women’s mental health is likely to be impacted by disparities in health and socioeconomics. African American women have a maternal mortality rate three times higher than white women, and are more likely to report not being believed when they seek treatment for pain from medical professionals.
While they are architects and leaders of the modern movement against police violence, Black women are also victims of it. And with various studies showing Black people as much as three times as likely as white people to be fatally shot by police, Black women are more often grieving the loss of family members or close friends to police violence.
They are also more likely to experience sexual assault in their lifetimes, an issue that likely resonates with Biles, who reported being assaulted by Larry Nassar, the former USA Gymnastics team doctor convicted of criminal sexual conduct with minors. And in the workplace, Black women are paid between 48 to 68 cents for every dollar paid to a white man, according to the National Partnership for Women and Families.
During the U.S. Open last year, following a summer of protests and civil unrest, Osaka had the names of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and other Black Americans killed by police or vigilantes emblazoned on face masks.
But such activism is not a burden for Black women alone, Cullors said, adding that they could simply prioritize themselves if that’s what they consider best.
The message is also resonating beyond well-known figures like Cullors. Liz Dwyer, a Black woman who is a writer and editor in Los Angeles, celebrated Biles on Twitter and declared that “Black women are no longer willing to be the mental health mule.”
“The whole society gets the benefits from the work that we do,” Dwyer said. “And yet the racism and sexism, worrying about the rise of hate crimes, worrying about the safety of your children, worrying about your children being profiled and put in the school to prison pipeline ... that all takes a toll.”
Melanie Campbell, president and CEO of the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation and convener of the Black Women’s Roundtable, is of a different generation than Biles and Osaka. She said she has been inspired by their leadership on mental health.
“It motivates me to keep advocating, to keep pushing for civil rights because you see this generation is stepping up,” said Campbell, who was recently arrested while engaging in civil disobedience during a voting rights campaign led by Black women.
“All of us have a role to play,” she said. “I can speak about these issues and still be who I am.”
July 29, 2021
By Amanda Scurlock
Las Vegas Raiders cornerback Keisean Nixon returned to his hometown of Compton to host a backpack giveaway to help young students for the upcoming school year. Along with receiving free school supplies, families were also given free food through the United Hands of Compton food bank.
Students were given several items including backpacks, notebooks, erasers, and pencils. Families also received fresh produce and canned goods among other types of food.
For Nixon to give back to his hometown is “indicative of [his] experience here in the community,” according to the Compton Unified School District (CUSD) Governing Board Vice President Satra Zurita.
“The greatest compliment that we can have in this community today is having our son Keisean Nixon to come back and do a backpack giveaway,” Zurita said. “This is so important.”
Nixon partnered with Zurita and Compton councilmen Isaac Galvan to create the event. Oakland Raiders safety Johnathan Abram and former WWE superstar Chavo Guerrero were also in attendance to give autographs to parents and children.
“This is our eighth year doing the event right here and every year it gets bigger and bigger,” Galvan said. “It’s just a blessing that we get to team up with great people like Keisean Nixon, John Abrams, and my good friend Chavo Guerrero as well to give back to the community.”
Being able to give back is something that Nixon does not take for granted. He wanted to see the students he impacted in person.
“Spending time and showing my face is way more important than just cutting a check and sending money,” Nixon said. “I know these kids will remember this for the rest of their life.”
Nixon was awarded with a plaque from the City of Compton and a certificate from CUSD. Galvan also presented him with the Compton Community Champion Award for his efforts.
“You got to give back to where you came from,” Guerrero said. “It’s really cool to give back to the community.”
Abram recently hosted a football camp and school supply giveaway and was happy to visit Compton to show his support.
“For me, it’s just the chance to give back,” Abram said. “I’m big on education.”
Students will also have access to free eye exams. Compton Unified has been working to ensure students have a positive learning experience. CUSD schools gave their students tablets and iPads, helping them excel when they had virtual classes.
“We made sure long before the pandemic that our kids all had devices,” Zurita said. “We had made that an initiative a few years ago.”
CUSD also partnered with Verizon to give 500 families Wi-Fi so students can learn during the pandemic. Compton High School is also being rebuilt so students can have state-of-the-art learning facilities.
“I’m a Compton High alumni and I say our kids deserve bigger, brighter, better,” Zurita said. “They deserve new science labs, they deserve bright campuses.”
After enduring the challenges that the pandemic caused, Compton leaders are elated to have professional athletes help them conquer the problems that face the city.
“Communities of color, like the City of Compton, were hit the hardest,” Galvan said. “It just feels good to give back to the people and make sure that our kids go back to school fully equipped to conquer the classroom.”
July 22, 2021
By Betti Halsell
Coach John Walton Smith, Jr. is known to have the ‘Midas touch’ when creating gold medalists. Currently, sprint-athlete, Michael Cherry, is following Coach Smith into battle; after being cleared through the COVID-19 process, they will participate in the 2021 Tokyo Olympic games. Smith has been in this position eight other times on a consecutive basis.
Reflecting on the past routes to victory, Smith provided the blueprint to achieving the ultimate success in life. Coach Smith talked about his freight train-like focus to achieving the highest reward in all aspects of his life.
“I didn’t see this coming,” Smith said, in a surprise of the Olympics considering the current climate of the COVID-19 pandemic. Smith described training consisting of running up hills and using parks instead of gyms and training facilities because they were closed. Smith talked about the ingenuity in preparation for this year’s Olympics.
“I had to dig deep down in some of my principles that I’ve gathered and strengthened over the last 35 years—I didn’t lose hope in my ability to train them or in them.”
Due to his resolve and determination to perform to the highest standard, Smith said he found new words of motivation that captured the passion to overcome the obstacle of not having an official place to train. Coach Smith is considered “one of the most accomplished sprints and hurdle coaches.” He has cleared the path for many athletes to achieve Olympic gold, world championship gold, and noted global records. He is one of the most sought-after coaches known in the Olympic circuit.
The secret to Smith’s success is staying focused and surrounding himself with great people. He’s known on a global scale as one of the most engaging and supportive coaches, taking his pupils and sculpting their mindset to only envision the gold in their future.
Another pillar to the coach’s success is to remain in a state of learning. Smith shared this quote, “I’m a student. As soon as I lay my eyes on you, I’m collecting data that assists me in either coaching you or determining how to beat you.”
Smith can reach new frontiers of potential found deep within the athlete. In addition to his innate ability to see ripened talent waiting to harvest within his pupil, Smith has also been in their shoes. He knows the fears, doubts, and mental landmines that can throw one’s mind off track.
The Olympic coach shared a few personal detours that altered his reality and how he overcame them.
Every time he was knocked down, he got back up. After each plunge of hope, he regenerated his mind to think positively and regained focus.
Smith credits that skill of remapping to discipline; he made it clear that a trained mind, body, and spirit will align with an unstoppable path to success. Smith shared, “one must discipline oneself to a lifestyle of a champion. That means setting goals, being spiritually centered, being committed to the tasks at hand, no matter how challenging and overwhelming they appear, and finally, executing the plan.”
The former coach of the Muhammed-Ali Track Club accumulated this formula of success from over 40 years of experience. When he competed, Smith was one of the top quarter-mile sprinters, holding a world record in the 440-yard dash. In his collegiate season at UCLA, Smith ran a 440-yard dash in 44.5 seconds (1971 National Championship).
Smith shared that he injured his hamstring in a pre-Olympic track meet, but nothing was deterring his focus on the gold. Locked into his vision, the injured sprinter still made it to the semi-final round. However, his reality changed after he was no longer physically able to finish in the finals. Smith shared those moments of mental darkness; devastation was evident through his tears from the bench.
He mourned the death of that dream by taking a break from the track and field scene, getting into football and acting. He explored different talents that were untapped before this life-changing event.
Smith applied the same tunnel vision to this new chapter of his life and produced multiple levels of success as well. It would be 16 years before Smith would step foot on a track again. “I avoided it, I went to pro-football and tried my hand in that ...” Smith said.
Smith went on to read off a list of other professions that he tried; he highlighted acting as something he enjoyed because he was able to exercise his strength in an art form.
Reflecting on his journey, Coach Smith said, “What happened to you in your past makes you who you are in the present.” Smith shared that through his experience of trying different career paths, he realized one of the most important pillars in life is living out your dreams.
Reconnecting to his passion, the UCLA track and field department beckoned for Smith’s return as a coach. The former Olympian struggled with the offer. He said, “I struggled with it because I ran away from track and field for the last 12 years.”
After accepting the opportunity, Smith embodied that process of mental perseverance and laid that down as the foundation of work he did with athletes training under him.
Sprinters under his tutelage have always seen a medal come from their collaboration. Smith is highly respected as a coach on an international scale and represented five continents, each having been adorned with a medal. His past Olympics trainees earned 17 gold, nine silver, and eight bronze medals, totaling 34 medals.
Sprint runner, Michael Cherry, is the current clay in Coach Smith’s hands; he is representing Team USA in the 2021 Tokyo Olympics. Smith started working with Cherry in 2018, and he shared that Cherry is not afraid to work. Smith also said this in reflection of his method of coaching “the spirit” of the athlete, Cherry has a strong spiritual base.
The three-time silver medalist reflected on his transformation with Coach Smith and shared this statement, “Since coming to Los Angeles and working with the legendary John Smith has been nothing short of amazing and a dream. His wise knowledge on life and experience he has had working with multiple Olympians and world champions, shows as he comes to work every day, ready to push me to be a better athlete and person.”
Cherry continued, “I have learned so much about myself and the sport of track and field since training under John. The growth as an athlete overall is what I’m most impressed about. Qualifying for the Olympics means everything to me--as this was one of the goals that I set before I made the move from Baton Rouge Louisiana to Los Angeles. Trusting John to lead the way and developed me into the athlete that I am today. For us to accomplish that on the first try shows the hard work we have been putting in is paying off. The work is not done and can’t wait to see what the future holds!”
July 15, 2021
By Doug Feinberg
Candace Parker grew up playing video games, and now she’ll be the first female basketball player on the cover of one.
The Chicago Sky star will appear on the NBA 2K22 cover for the WNBA 25th Anniversary special edition when it’s released Sept. 10.
“I grew up a video game fanatic, that’s what I did, to the point where my brothers would give me the fake controller when I was younger where I think I was playing and I wasn’t,” Parker said. “All I wanted to do was just be like them. As a kid growing up, you dream of having your own shoe and dream of being in a video game. Those are an athlete as a kid’s dreams. To be able to experience that, I don’t take it lightly.”
Parker said that when she was just starting in the WNBA in 2008, she might not have appreciated it as much as she does now.
“I think when you’re young and experience these type of things, you’re onto the next thing,” she said. “As I’ve gotten older, I’ve really savored the moment.”
Parker joins an exclusive group of female athletes to adorn covers of sports games. Shawn Johnson was on a Gymnastics by Wii game in 2010, and Jelena Dokic was on a tennis game in the early 2000s.
“I think it’s a benchmark of women’s basketball for sure. I think most importantly it speaks to visibility and how important it is and how important the WNBA is,” Parker said. “Everyone is looking at it that it’s impacting little girls, but it’s also impacting little boys and young men and young women and men and women. I think our game is different than the NBA, now it’s embracing that fact. Now more than ever, fans want to follow the athlete. Through social media, through video games, it’s adding and benefitting the WNBA.”
The 35-year-old former MVP knows there were a lot of players who could have been the first and was humbled that she was the one they chose.
“It means a lot to me. I’m a fan of basketball. I eat, sleep and breathe basketball. I’m a historian within basketball. I am a fan of basketball. I commentate basketball. I play video games,” she said. “It was really the perfect storm because there are a lot of other people well deserving of this and I know that.”
Parker joins Luka Doncic, who was named cover athlete for the game’s regular edition, and Kevin Durant, Dirk Nowitzki and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar who were recognized as cover athletes for the NBA 75th Anniversary Edition.
“I think it’s a signal and a sign of the momentum around our players, our players’ story,” WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert said. “Candace has been such a great representative of the league -- what she does in broadcast, what she does as a mom. I just think as a role model, I get chills just standing up here talking about her on that cover.”
While the WNBA will be on an Olympic break for the next month, Parker will be busy. The two-time Olympic gold medalist will be commentating the medal rounds at the Tokyo Games.
“I had an opportunity to go earlier, for me I wanted to be with my team as long as I can,” she said. “Wanted to do both, and this was a great opportunity to me. I remember Craig Sager interviewing me and it was unbelievable. The broadcast does amplify the game. To be a part of the experience of the Olympics, I’m really excited about.”