Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher once said, “If you want something said, ask a man; if you want something done, ask a woman.” Since the beginning of time, women have held it down in many capacities. The various hats worn daily include: wife, mother, teacher, chef and chauffeur, to name a few. You can add sports mavens to that list as the tide has begun to shift. Gender stereotypes and social norms are dissipating, and the sports world is better because of it. That progress is not limited to playing venues — more women are calling the shots as coaches, officials, front office executives and team owners.
Women have fought for equality for over a century and when it comes to specifically being a Black woman in America, well — “life ain’t been no crystal stair.” The road to success has been littered with the tacks, splinters and torn boards that Langston Hughes’ mother told him about in his famous poem “Mother to Son.” However, discrimination and systemic barriers are no match for the resilience of our sisters.
Our generation is familiar with Colin Kaepernick, and generations before us were blessed to witness the bravery of John Carlos and Tommie Smith as they stood on the Olympic medal stand with their black-gloved fists raised to the heavens in 1968. They witnessed Muhammad Ali fight outside the ring as he advocated for racial equity and put his career on the line by refusing to be drafted into the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War. All of the aforementioned are rightfully etched into the hearts of African Americans, but there are a few unsung heroes that deserve their flowers as well — and many of those overlooked leaders are Black women.
Although the U.S. Olympic track and field team has been billed as “the toughest team in the world to make,” the sport isn’t showcased nearly enough stateside and athletes often travel abroad to compete and earn a living. Low visibility is likely the culprit when it comes to recognizing the efforts of Eroseanna Robinson; a highly skilled high jumper who sought to leap over segregation with the same moxie she approached the high jump bar with. 57 years before Kaepernick, Robinson sat during the national anthem at the 1959 Pan American Games. She bucked the government by refusing to pay taxes in defiance of the U.S.’ handling of foreign policy and refusing to compete internationally during the Cold War. Robinson ushered in a marriage of Black female athletes and activism that was unheard of at the time. In other words, she walked so that Naomi Osaka could run.
During what has been billed as “the summer of reckoning,” the soft-spoken Osaka put her money where her mouth was — literally. In protest of racism and police brutality, she wore face masks emblazoned with the names of those we lost at the hands of police for every round of the 2020 U.S. Open (which she went on to win). Heavy is the head that wears the crown, however, as the 24-year old shockingly withdrew from the 2021 French Open and forewent that year’s Wimbledon. In a moment that added mental health to her advocacy, she revealed the media triggered her anxiety and she had also suffered bouts of depression. Osaka’s vulnerability was again put on display at this year’s BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, California. Crowd heckling triggered tears as the young champion flashed back to the 2001 heckling of her idols Venus and Serena Williams during the same tournament. “To be honest, I’ve gotten heckled before, and it didn’t really bother me,” Osaka stated after her second-round loss. “But, like, heckled here? I watched a video of Venus and Serena getting heckled here, and if you’ve never watched it, you should watch it.” This occurrence served as a stark reminder of how far we still have to go as Black women to gain the respect we deserve. This also served as notice that perhaps we need to “pull up” as a community to protect our Black women icons in the heat of battle.
To be honest, Black women have never had their own “space,” so to speak. Instead, we have had to go in and make our place at the table or construct said table ourselves. That’s just what Jayne Kennedy Overton did when she broke into sports broadcasting in the late 1970s. Crowned Miss Ohio in 1970, she went on to become the first Black pageant queen to cover a Super Bowl. After winning an Emmy in 1977 for her Rose Bowl coverage, the D.C. native also became the first Black woman announcer when she joined NFL Today in 1978. Although she was pleasing on the eyes, it was her knowledge of the game — groomed during her cheerleader and fandom — that allowed her to connect and relate to athletes. Sis clearly didn’t believe in glass ceilings, and she went on to execute many “firsts” throughout her career. Not only was Overton an actress that appeared in several television hit shows, she was also the first Black woman to grace the cover of Playboy. Although the magazine is infamous for being risqué, Overton kept her clothes on and made history with a modest centerfold. She also appeared on several covers for both Ebony and Jet magazines. Had it not been for pioneers like Overton, we may not have Cari Champion, Jemele Hill, Pam Oliver or Taylor Rooks — just a few of the women making moves as sports professionals today.
One of the main reasons that we are starting to see a surge of melanin on sports sets and on the sideline is visibility. Champion told Coveteur, “While they didn’t know who I was or where I came from, to see a brown face was special for those who love sports, sitting in rooms and on platforms that we don’t normally sit on — especially as a woman.” Through her program, Brown Girls Dream, Champion is working to “level the playing field by pairing young leaders with multimedia industry veterans who are committed to helping them navigate through the early stages of their careers.” BGD targets young women of color between the ages of 18-27 who are looking to become the “next generation of multimedia badasses.” After both of their departures from ESPN, Champion and Hill became the first Black women to host a late night cable news and information show with their VICE effort “Cari & Jemele: Stick to Sports.”
Also helping to amplify the voices of women of color in sports is the increased presence of estrogen in front offices. Valerie Daniels-Carter, an HBCU alum, is a minority owner of the Milwaukee Bucks. She, Jada Pinkett-Smith and BET Co-Founder Sheila Johnson are the only Black female minority owners in the NBA. After finding success in the fast food franchise world, Daniels-Carter was a part of a potential sports ownership group, along with Michael Jordan who first tried to purchase the Bucks in 2003. The deal fell through and another opportunity did not present itself until 2014. “There’s so many opportunities in sports … and being able to have individuals of color, diverse individuals, operate in those spaces, is critically important. I can just go down a list of opportunities within the sports world that we need individuals that look like you and me … to be a part of,” Daniels-Carter is quoted as saying. Former and current athletes like Renee Montgomery and Serena Williams have taken their talents to the front offices as well, becoming team owners in the WNBA and NWSL, respectively. Additionally, Destiny’s Child’s Michelle Williams is part-owner of the WNBA’s Chicago Sky. This past season, Maia Chaka also made history as the first Black woman to officiate an NFL game.
With the sisters flourishing at every level, pretty soon the presence of melanated women on the sidelines, behind the sports desks, and in the board rooms of professional sports associations will become the rule rather than the exception.