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Olympic Pressure And How Black Athletes Balance Being Applauded Yet Feared

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Last night, gymnast Simone Biles said this on Instagram. I truly do feel like I have the weight of the world on my shoulders at times. Shortly after that post, Biles withdrew from the women's gymnastics final. She says she did so to focus on her mental health.

That weight of the world Biles is talking about, it's something Black athletes have described for generations; an expectation of Black excellence under extreme pressure. Sociologist Harry Edwards first wrote about this more than 50 years ago in his book "The Revolt Of The Black Athlete." He's a professor emeritus at UC Berkeley, and I spoke to him earlier today.

Welcome.

HARRY EDWARDS: Thank you. Thank you very much for having me.

SHAPIRO: What do you think the experience of Simone Biles says about the bigger picture here regarding the expectations and pressures that are put on Black American athletes?

EDWARDS: I think that it is indicative of something that has existed since Blacks began participating in mainstream sports. From that point, they became the focus of not just athletic performance and excellence but also of all of the aspirations of Black people in this country and many of the fears of mainstream white society about Black excellence. That's a lot of weight on the shoulders of people who, in many instances, are just barely young adults while at the same time focusing on their principal goal, which is athletic achievement. That's a lot of pressure.

SHAPIRO: So you describe top-tier Black athletes, Black Olympians, as carrying the aspirations of Black America, the fears of white America, the expectations of both. How does that tie into the broader Black American experience beyond Olympians?

EDWARDS: Well, the reality is that all of these efforts at protests and so forth involving athletes have always been framed up by the broader struggles in the society. The Double V effort - victory over racism abroad and victory over racism at home, which was carried into World War II - was framed up by abject segregation. Segregation framed up the struggles of Jesse Owens and Joe Lewis and Jack Johnson and Paul Robeson and that whole first wave of athlete activists.

The civil rights movement framed up the second wave of athlete activism with Jackie Robinson and Larry Doby in baseball and Kenny Washington and Woody Strode in football. And of course, the Black Power movement at the end of the civil rights movement framed up the actions of Smith and Carlos and Arthur Ashe, who took it international in terms of his concerns over South African apartheid and its role in perpetuating racism at the international level.

So there's a direct connection between perceived legitimacy of athlete activism and the extent to which they are interpreted through and embedded in the broader struggles for freedom and justice and equality in American society. That has always been the case.

SHAPIRO: So let me ask you about the toll that this takes on the individual athlete. I mean, earlier this year, Naomi Osaka spoke openly about her struggles with mental health. Sha'Carri Richardson was disqualified for a positive marijuana test, which she says she used to help cope with the death of her mother. Mental health challenges are obviously nothing new. But do you think the discourse around it has changed?

EDWARDS: Yes, it has. The discourse has changed principally because of the social media. The athletes are no longer stuck with the mainstream media interpretation and definitional context. The reality is that athletes have always been seen principally as physical. They are - have not been recognized in terms of the legitimacy of their social, psychological or even spiritual concerns, as Muhammad Ali found out. The dumb jock is the classic imagery used in terms of athletes. They're simply physical.

And now, with the social media, athletes have taken control of their own definitional context. And so Naomi Osaka can go online and make her case. She doesn't have to sit up and argue with some reporter who doesn't know her, who doesn't know her community, who doesn't know her family, who doesn't know her issues, her challenges, her outlook. They're simply concerned about, why can't you just shut up and play tennis? Why don't you just shut up and dribble? What's your problem? The social media has made a tremendous difference, and that has changed things phenomenally.

SHAPIRO: You're talking about the pressure on Black athletes, but so many of the Olympians we're talking about today are Black women. Does that add another layer here?

EDWARDS: Of course. The women of the Olympic Games have always carried a triple cross of race, gender and the fact that they have been disrespected as athletes. Women, like Black people, like other minorities in American society, have never been considered creditable witnesses to their own circumstances, outcomes and challenges. When they said something, they were simply not heard. So because of that triple burden of gender, race and being athletes, women have never been accepted as total and complete athletes, even the greatest of them.

SHAPIRO: That's sociologist Harry Edwards, author of the book "Revolt Of The Black Athlete," which was first published in 1968. He's professor emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley.

Thank you so much.

EDWARDS: Well, thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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