Misogynoir in sports: How Black women athletes are devalued

This is a world of anti-Blackness, one where the contributions of African people and of the African diaspora are erased, stolen, or undervalued. This is doubly so for Black women across the globe and it is quite apparent in the way Black women athletes are treated. Their achievements cannot be celebrated without a hypercriticism of their athletic flaws, or without an extensive critique of their looks or their alleged lack of femininity.

The imprisonment of American basketball player Brittney Griner is one recent example. Her six-foot-nine frame (206 centimetres tall), her queerness, and her Blackness already stood against her in an anti-Black, anti-queer, and misogynistic world. As an all-time-great in the WNBA, she earned just $250,000 a year so she had to travel to Russia – where racism and homophobia abound – to play in a local basketball team for an additional $1.5m.

In February, just before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Russian authorities imprisoned her to use her as a political pawn in their conflict with the West, without regard to her physical, psychological, or spiritual health. The US hasn’t valued Griner as a person either, missing scheduled telephone calls and infrequently checking in on her. That President Joe Biden finally met with her wife, Cherelle Griner, in mid-September does not negate the lack of value placed on her mental health, career, and life in the serious game of geopolitical posturing.

This isn’t just the problem of one uniquely gifted Black athlete. The misogynoir that women athletes face the world over devalues their successes, the difficulties they have experienced, and the hard work they have put in to compete domestically and internationally.

I became aware of the underappreciation of Black women as athletes growing up in the 1980s. I did not learn of my mother’s time as a successful high school basketball player in Jim Crow Arkansas until I was almost 16 years old. “Yeah Donald, I played,” she said nonchalantly during a call with her brothers and parents on Thanksgiving Day in 1985.

Even with that, I still wouldn’t learn until I was 23 that she helped lead her team to the 1965 segregated state quarter-finals. She undervalued her scoring 30 points in some of these games, she undervalued her team, and she undervalued the impact that learning this at five or 13 would have had on me as an athlete or as a Black person.

My mom downplayed her athleticism and achievements as if they didn’t matter because, in a Jim Crow world of white racism and Black patriarchy, to so many, they didn’t matter. That lesson has stuck with me in the 37 years since I first learned about my mom’s athletic success and has framed how I think of the devaluing of Black women athletes in all sports.

I remember how in the 1980s US commentators portrayed the two-time US Open singles winner Tracy Austin as the blonde symbol of a quintessential tennis player who could do no wrong, a younger Chris Evert, herself a so-called “girl next door”.

I also recall how around the same time, the same commentators only discussed Zina Garrison, a Black American tennis player, in vague athletic terms, carping about her hamstrings and thighs, and speculating about whether she could win on tour, being that muscular.

These criticisms came despite Garrison being ranked among the top 10 women’s tennis players in the world between 1983 and 1990, despite her beating Evert, Martina Navratilova, and Steffi Graf when they were at or near their prime. The contrast in coverage between white and Black tennis players in terms of looks and competitive expectations was galling for me.

Then came the 1990s, when Venus and Serena Williams conquered the court, dominating the sport for the next quarter of a century. But even with them, white women continued to be favoured in media coverage. Despite the cover stories in Vogue and Time magazines, Serena has never really gotten her full due during her long, stratospheric career, in which she won 23 Grand Slam singles titles.

Venus also has never gotten her due as an all-time great, with seven Grand Slam singles titles to her own credit, including five Wimbledon wins. Together, they also have 14 Grand Slam doubles titles. That makes for a mind-boggling 44 combined titles at the four Grand Slam tournaments since the 1990s.

The criticism of their hairstyles and especially their beaded braids, of Serena’s post-pregnancy catsuit, of the “I mean, I’m just Serena” swagger, of their on-court complaints over questionable umpire calls, of their muscularity has persisted over the years.

There have also been the forever comparisons between Serena and all-time women’s champion (and homophobe) Margaret Court, even though more than half of Court’s 24 singles victories in the Grand Slams occurred before 1968 when they were considered competitions for amateur players.

Then there are the Anna Kournikovas and Maria Sharapovas of the sport who have received much more acclaim (and modelling contracts) as young and relatively thin white women, despite their flaws and –  in Kournikova’s case – very limited ability to compete professionally.

When Black women have not been able to succeed in white-dominated sports or have taken time off to preserve their mental health, the critics have been there to deride them. Garrison certainly faced much criticism of her game and her thighs because she never won a single Grand Slam singles tournament, and coped and struggled with bulimia for much of her career.

Former number-one-ranked Black Japanese tennis player Naomi Osaka, with four Grand Slam singles titles to her credit, faced an avalanche of criticism for her critique of press conferences and her eventual withdrawal from the 2021 French Open due to her anxiety and depression.

In the US, conservative pundit Charlie Kirk called four-time Olympic gold-medal gymnast Simone Biles, arguably the greatest gymnast of all time, “a selfish sociopath” for pulling out of the Olympic Games in Tokyo last year. She took this decision after she lost track of herself in midair during a complex routine, something that could have led to a terrible injury. This constant gaslighting has diminished these powerful athletes, perhaps even shortening their careers.

Many Black and African women have also faced institutionalised discrimination in the form of gender norms and high testosterone (high T) limits and bans in athletics. Recent science on this issue indicates that high T alone does not provide an athletic advantage to female, transgender, or intersex athletes.

Despite the evidence, the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) has insisted on excluding athletes with high T. If high-T athletes want to compete, especially in track and field, they would have to do hormone therapy to suppress their natural testosterone production. Even the International Olympic Committee backed off from this stance after the Tokyo Olympics, ultimately ceding decisions to restrict the participation of high-T athletes to individual sports organisations.

The athletes most greatly affected by these arbitrary distinctions are Black and African women, like intersex middle-distance runner Caster Semenya of South Africa, a two-time Olympic gold-medal winner in the women’s 800m event. She is banned from competing internationally unless she reduces her testosterone, a ruling Semenya has appealed at the European Court of Human Rights.

There are a host of others who face similar exclusion and discrimination, including Beatrice Masilingi, Christine Mboma, Francine Niyonsaba, Aminatou Seyni, and Margaret Wambui.

At the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio, where Semenya won gold, Burundi’s Niyonsaba won silver, and Kenya’s Wambui won bronze in the 800m, Polish runner Joanna Jozwik, who finished fifth, uttered the real reason so many Europeans support the high-T bans.

“These colleagues have a very high testosterone level, similar to a male’s, which is why they look how they look and run like they run…I saw [Canada’s] Melissa Bishop who was very disappointed…I think she should be the gold medallist…I’m glad I’m the first European, the second white,” Jozwik said after the event.

For her and for much of the world, Black and African women athletes do not look like or act the part of white and European women and deserve the trauma of withering scrutiny over their testosterone levels. Even more so than Black men, Black women are the scapegoats for a white-dominated world of unfair advantage.

It is within this world context that an athlete of Griner’s stature must suffer away in a Russian prison cell for what is at worst a minor offence. And it is in this context that only now, at the threshold of retirement, does the world outside of sports appreciate a quarter-century of Serena and Venus’ Black women’s excellence. And it is this anti-Black-woman context that continues to limit femininity and womanhood to heteronormative white and European girls and women and makes every Black woman’s international athletic participation a precarious endeavour.

It is shameful and unacceptable that the world continues to devalue Black women athletes and their humanity.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.