In climbing the ranks to become the greatest women’s tennis player of all time, Serena Williams overcame many hurdles along the way. Among them: racism and body shaming. As her athletic talent and financial wealth elevated her to iconic status, Williams shed the cloak of invisibility that surrounds many Black Americans.
“To be Black in America is to be invisible unless they monetize you,” said St. Mary’s College professor Sherice Nelson. “Serena was invisible. And then she become hyper-visible. . . They either make you deal with your identity all by yourself or put you out in front of everybody else. There is no middle ground.”
Nelson spoke at UT Austin’s fifth-annual Black Student-Athlete Summit, which kicked off Wednesday, Jan. 9 at the AT&T Conference Center. During the three-day event, athletes, coaches, administrators, athletic directors and professors from around the country will address issues ranging from the literacy development of Black males, the prevalence of racial stereotypes in the NFL, mental health, athletic activism, and the impact of HBCUs.
The theme of this year’s summit is “The Awakening of the Black Student-Athlete.” Other Day One sessions included:
Keynote luncheon speaker and Prairie View assistant professor of health and Kinesiology Akilah Carter-Francique discussed the representation of Black women in sports. UT athletic director Chris Del Conte attended the luncheon and told audience members that sports enables people at a young age to establish their identity and “fulfill your dream.”
Vice President for Diversity and Community Engagement and George W.
Littlefield Professor of American History Leonard Moore, who leads the summit, delivered a powerful message to educators about challenging and uplifting Black student-athletes. “Pursue mission over money, significance over status, and impact over impression. Don’t treat Black athletes like lab rats,” said Moore, who added that “UT Austin has the best support system for Black student-athletes in the country.” Moore also advised the audience members, “Don’t chase titles, you have to chase purpose.”
Duke professor Jen Fry led a discussion about encouraging black student-athletes to apply for prestigious fellowships such as the Knight-Hennessey, Fulbright, Marshall, Mitchell and Rhodes. Fry encourages her Duke students to put aside their fears and use their leadership and team building skills gained as athletes to pursue fellowships. “I have met with students who said they didn’t know (fellowships) existed,” said Fry, who said she tells them “don’t put obstacles in front of you.”
UT Austin PhD student Latrice Sales, who spent seven years at the NCAA Sports Science Institute, dished out some eye-opening statistics regarding black women in college athletics. Sales reported that although 31 percent of black women play college basketball in all three divisions – the highest participation percentage for black women in any sport – only 10.5 percent of black women are head coaches. At the administrative level, black women represent 1.6 percent of athletic directors compared to 15 percent for white women and 83 percent for men. “What is the state of black women in college athletics? Still a lot of work to be done,” Sales said.
Trinity University professor Dominic Morais and student-athlete Gavin Huse used Critical Race Theory (CRT) to determine that the NFL along with the national media describe black and white football players in racial terms, identifying black players by their physical characteristics and white players by their mental capabilities. Morais said the longstanding practice results in college and high school coaches focusing more on black players as athletes than students. Morais added that the media’s portrayal of black athletes leads to boys viewing athletics as their only career option from a young age. “These players are being stereotyped,” Morais said. He explained that in scouting reports, 87 percent of the time a (NFL) player was compared to a (college) prospect of the same race even if they did not play the same position or have the same physical attributes.
Cal-Berkeley Sports Information Director (SID) Akilah Laster is one of only nine Black SIDs out of 65 Division I Power Five conference athletic programs. The lack of diversity among professionals assigned to create publicity for their athletic programs has resulted in a negative portrayal of Black student-athletes and their families along several media platforms. Laster suggested that SIDs should equip student-athletes to tell their stories as well as reach out to internal staff members who have more interaction with student-athletes to get well-rounded portrayals of the students.
Prime U Founder Jarrod Barnes, a former student-athlete who was the only Ph.D. student to ever play football at The Ohio State University, discussed “hypermasculinity” among Black male student-athletes. “It’s acceptable to be emotional, as long as it’s in the prescribed concept,” said Barnes, who added that coaches, whom he described as the main “stakeholders” in big-time college athletics, need to be educated in order to help their players. “Until we teach and train those who are investing in [athletes], we’re not going to see positive results,” Barnes said.
Prairie View Interscholastic League chairman Robert Brown (pictured on the far left), who was on a panel of Black coaches and administrators who led their high school football and basketball teams to great success during segregation in Texas, said Black schools were hit hard by integration. “As a person and a group, we did not think we were going to lose as much as we did,” said Brown, who received the Legacy Award during Wednesday’s luncheon.