Professional & Collegiate Athletes Host ‘Black Women’s Athletic Activism’ Panel

A powerhouse group of women came together Wednesday night for a “Black Women’s Athletic Activism” panel sponsored by Penn State’s College of the Liberal Arts.

The panel consisted of collegiate athletes, current star players, and retired legends of their respective games, who spoke about their experiences in fighting for social justice as Black women.

The panel was hosted by Penn State professor Amira Rose Davis, whose work focuses on the intersection between race, sports, and activism. She also co-hosts a podcast, “Burn It Down,” that features most of the guests on the panel.

Seven panelists spoke from all over the sports world. There was three-time Olympic gold medalist Wyomia Tyus, former college basketball player Toni Smith-Thompson, Pan Am gold medalist Gwen Berry, softball player AJ Andrews, WNBA and UConn Huskies legend Tina Charles, University of South Carolina track and field athlete Anna Cockrell, and Penn State swimmer Olivia Jack.

Members of the panel talked a lot about their personal experiences that resulted from their form of activism. Some people had positive stories while others did not, which ultimately culminated in a powerful message that institutions need to be doing more to support its minority athletes.

Tyus, who was a part of the 1968 Olympics, talked about her own form of protest. During the 100 meter race, she had worn black shorts to make the world aware of the racial injustice occurring in the United States. However, most people remember those Olympics for Tommie Smith and John Carlos’ protests, which is something that the other panelists noted as something that is common among women’s activism.

Andrews shared how painful it was that in softball, people still need to be convinced that Black lives matter and that her life matters.

“On these teams [as the only black woman], you feel like those are your girls,” Andrews said. “That in this game, anything can happen, and they would have your back no matter what. But this past year, with everything that’s happened, you begin to realize all you are to them is a teammate. You’re just a teammate on the field and not a teammate in life. The extent of having my back ends when we step off the field.”

Jack shared similar experiences with her teammates and said she needed to have these conversations to get them to understand where she is coming from.

“I am the only black swimmer on the Penn State swimming and diving team, on both the men’s and women’s sides,” Jack said. “My teammates preached being family members with me both in and out of the pool, but the second any conversation regarding Black Lives Matter came up, I had to and still have to convince them that it’s a valid argument.”

Cockrell noted that the mobilization of creating groups that spoke out about race and racism is extremely difficult because athletics is so fast-paced. Everything is all about the future, whether it be playing at higher levels, getting endorsements, or anything else that an athlete deals with. But these issues are more important because Black athletes can’t focus on the future if racism keeps holding them back.

There were a lot of great and powerful conversations, including Smith-Thompson sharing her National Anthem protest from 2003, as well as Berry sharing the way she was raised and how it impacted her view on the world. There were also some fun moments, such as Cockrell fangirling over Tyus, knowing her birthday (which are both one day apart, for your information). Jack also shared a project she had been working on, called “Athletes for Equal Rights.”

Everyone knew what everyone else was going through, which shows how similar Black women’s experiences are when dealing with racism in their own sports. The panel showed that different generations of activists need to have these conversations, which is powerful but also sad at the same time.

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About the Author

Owen Abbey

Owen Abbey was a Secondary Education major before he graduated from the wonderful institution known as Penn State. When he was not writing for the blog, he enjoyed rooting for the Baltimore Orioles and Ravens, supporting Penn State basketball and softball, dreaming of all of the ways he would win the TV show "Survivor," and yes mom, actually doing school work. All of this work prepared him to teach his own class of students, which was always his true passion. He still can be found on Twitter @theowenabbey and can be reached for questions and comments at [email protected]

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