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No Ceilings

The struggle is real: The unrelenting weight of being a black, female athlete

The cultural messages can be harsh, dehumanizing and constant

The athletes, former athletes and coaches had gathered at Temple University to tell war stories. But the conversation wasn’t about diving catches or buzzer beaters, heated rivalries or fearsome opponents. Instead, they detailed the other defining aspect of their playing days: what it felt like to compete while black and female on the tracks, fields and courts of America.

They talked about the need to find a supportive community and the feeling of always having to be an ambassador for the race. They detailed the heavy weight of assumptions about how fast, strong or aggressively they played—and how their hair looked while they were doing it.

The women spoke of “an overcompensation of composure because you’re in a hostile environment—even on your own side at times,” says Marirose Roach, an attorney and former scholarship track and soccer athlete at Temple who now plays semiprofessional football in the Women’s Football Alliance.

There’s “constant pressure not to act out,” she says. Not to get stigmatized or kicked off the team. “You have to keep your composure so you can excel and get to the next level. It’s just like an added obstacle.”

It feels like carrying the weight of black history strapped to your back. Which, for athletes, can mean the difference between being a champion and an also-ran. Or even taking the field at all.

For black women, navigating the obstacles of race and gender, stereotype and burden, requires a dexterity that constitutes a whole other layer of athleticism—an ability to contort in plain sight, often without being seen. That is one of the findings of a new study by Morgan State University that details the history of black female athletes and the myriad coping mechanisms they’ve come up with to get themselves, body and soul, across the finish lines of sport and life. It’s a guide to the game within the game that they have played for more than a century and, despite great successes and modern adaptations, one that continues to this day.

Kayla Cohen, a graduate student in sports business at Temple University, and an accountant for the Philadelphia Flyers, says her time as a field hockey player was brief because she was told she was too aggressive.

Hannah C. Price for The Undefeated

The findings are given voice by athletes who compete in different lanes or fields of play but who share common experiences that can include alienation, uneven opportunities and simply a self-doubt that comes from wondering whether you should be there at all.

Kayla Cohen, a graduate student in sport business at Temple, recalls her brief time as a field hockey player at a largely white high school. “I was playing predominantly against white girls as well, and I remember I was being really aggressive, and I know my team was behind me—they loved it.” But after one game, as the opposing teams exchanged high-fives, every girl Cohen passed said, “You need to calm down,” “You need to calm down,” “You need to calm down,” one after another. The opposing coach apologized, but Cohen remembers getting really quiet and feeling sad.

She never played with that same intensity again. The following year, she quit the team.

Her story is a typical one and part of why the Black Women in Sport Foundation was founded in 1992 to provide after-school programs and access to fields and equipment throughout the Philadelphia area, especially for black girls and women involved in predominantly white sports such as lacrosse, field hockey and fencing.

The Morgan State study shows how such organizations are part of a long tradition in black communities to provide places for girls to participate in athletics away from the harsh gaze of white society that can shut them down before they even get going.

Roach recalls that as a soccer player, “right off the bat, myself and the other black girl” were steered to forward, the speed position, even though she sometimes wanted to be the on-field general and play in central midfield. “That right there was frustrating. We weren’t even trained for the other positions. It’s one of those things where we are more than capable,” she says, but they didn’t get the opportunities white girls got to round out their game.

Having a community means having a place where there are people like you who understand the issues, says Dr. Nikki Franke, a co-founder of BWSF and head fencing coach at Temple. She remembers that when her daughter played softball, “as soon as a black person got on base, all we heard was ‘wheels, wheels, wheels’”—a belief that any black girl was going to tear it up running the bases. It was just one more expectation they felt compelled to live up to.

There are, of course, harsher assumptions that follow black female athletes, Franke says. “I’ve heard administrators and I’ve heard trainers talk about, ‘Those girls have such an attitude.’ … Those labels are going to jump on you much faster if you’re an African-American athlete.”

Marirose Roach is an attorney and former scholarship track and soccer athlete at Temple University who also plays semiprofessional football in the Women’s Football Alliance.

Hannah C. Price for The Undefeated

Especially for black female athletes, the messages around the courts can be harsh, dehumanizing and constant. There’s no getting around the ugliness. It hurts even to type the words.

Remember in 2007, when radio personality Don Imus called the Rutgers women’s basketball team “nappy-headed hos”?

Remember after Serena Williams’ French Open win in 2015 when someone on social media said Williams, who has consistently suffered racist and sexist insults, was a “gorilla”? Remember all of the criticism Gabby Douglas got about her hair in 2012 and 2016—that it was unkempt, that her edges weren’t laid—despite being the first black female gymnast to win an all-around Olympic gold medal? And much of that shade came from black people.

On and on, these are the cultural dynamics black women compete under before they ever suit up. (And don’t even get me started on the club fees, access to facilities, time off work and other economic disparities.)

“Being a woman of color, you have the sense that you have to stay very feminine,” says Lynsey Jae Grace, athletics coordinator at the Community College of Philadelphia.

A softball player at Temple, she went on to play professional softball and coach college softball and volleyball. She always felt the paradox of her sport calling on women to play in tight pants, with long hair and headbands, “to sell sex and bring in the fans,” Grace says. “Well, softball is not that type of sport. You’re strong, you’re hitting home runs, you’re hitting doubles, you’re running.” Grace was more comfortable in baggy clothes. But especially for black women, “the correlation is, ‘Oh, you’re masculine, you’re rough.’”

She wondered constantly, “Am I being too masculine? When I run, I’m aggressively running. When I’m high-fiving or slapping, I’m aggressively doing it. Why can’t I just be me? I’m Lynsey Jae Grace, a child of the most high god, fearfully and wonderfully made. I’m me, but we get pigeonholed.”

Young black women are victimized by white standards of beauty that exclude them and are at an age when feeling attractive and fitting in weigh heavily on their minds, says Dr. Margaret Ottley, who teaches sport and exercise psychology at West Chester University. Ottley is a sports psychologist for USA Track & Field and was a player on the Trinidad and Tobago national field hockey team. These aesthetic issues hold true for black women worldwide. You have “to do more work if you’re trying to adhere to a mainstream beauty standard,” she says.

A whole lot of that work centers on the tangle of black hair. Hair issues for black women are like weight issues for white women—closely tied to feelings of identity, public perception and how you feel about yourself on a daily basis. Many black women don’t grow up hearing about bad hair days; they hear about having “bad hair,” a compound noun (like its cousin “good hair”) loaded with historical freight. All women are victimized by a tyrannical beauty industry, but black women are the ones with the specific twist of black women’s hair.

“You have practice—swimming, for example—so you are in the pool and then you have the chlorine and your hair is all dried out,” Ottley says.

You don’t want to keep washing it and putting heat or chemical relaxers on it (on top of the chlorine) because you don’t want your hair to break off. But you don’t want to walk around looking any kind of way either.

A revolution in natural black hair in the past several years means there are more proud waves, curls and kinks flying across the fields and down the lanes, or you can throw it into a ponytail weave.

Still, black women’s styling routines are often steeped in a strictly enforced, at times retrograde, I-paid-$70-for-this-hair ethos—so this blowout, this press and curl, this fresh flatiron has to last until next Friday, until picture day, until church on Sunday or school on Monday. The list is long and prosaic. The struggle is real. Whatever is happening on the field, you can’t mess up your hair. Those edges gotta lay, that kitchen gotta go.

Jazmine A. Smith founded the Eyekonz Sports League in Philadelphia for girls to compete in field hockey and lacrosse at the club level. Smith played basketball on scholarship and club field hockey at Kutztown University.

Hannah C. Price for The Undefeated

Jazmine A. Smith founded the Eyekonz Sports League in Philadelphia for girls to compete in field hockey and lacrosse at the club level. She played basketball on scholarship and club field hockey at Kutztown University. She grew up feeling alienated by her white teammates for being the only black girl on the field and teased by family and friends for playing “white” sports. She has thought long and hard about strategies for supporting black female athletes, including dealing with their hair.

“This is one of the biggest concerns,” says Smith. Black mothers are warning their daughters that you’d better not sweat out your hair. “You have that recurring theme in your head of ‘OK, I’m not going to run as fast as I want to because I’ve got to keep my hair laid for another month.’” And that’s not the only waterborne menace black girls face.

Smith recalls a rainy-day game at West Philadelphia High School. “I told one of my assistant coaches, ‘You’ve got to go get shower caps.’ She was like, ‘For what?’ I was like, ‘’Cause these girls are never going to play in this rain,’” Smith says.

The shower cap idea came from Smith’s grandmother when Smith was in ninth grade and it was drizzling before a game. Picture day was the next day. “She said, ‘Oh no!’ She’s like, ‘We’ve got to figure something out,’” Smith says. Her grandmother drove to Rite Aid, bought a shower cap, put it over Smith’s head and secured it with a bandanna.

“From that day forward, in my gym bag, I always had a shower cap and I always had my bandanna to fit over for just that purpose.”

Black girls worry about their hair because they don’t want to be called ugly, or feel ugly, or be compared to animals by the white people on their team, the other team or watching from the stands. Or they don’t want to feel the anxiety of that potential judgment reflected in the black people closest to them—it’s distracting. Because can you imagine being an athlete who will get in trouble if you sweat?

It can keep black female athletes from playing their best, because doing so might make a sister look rough. And that brings up a whole other set of stereotypes, considerations and perils.

Roach mentions an Instagram post she saw of a black woman juggling a soccer ball. Then the woman started twerking. “We’re sitting here, respecting the fact that you have soccer skills, the next thing you know, you’re twerking and being sexual about it,” Roach says. “I do think there’s again the contrast between having your sexuality, being flattering but not being sexual, you know what I mean? I think that’s a challenge.”

That kind of behavior exists on the continuum of performance heterosexuality—and is perhaps a bit of overcompensation. On one hand, the fact that gay women can now be more out represents freedom. On the other hand, cultural stigmas remain, and heterosexual women sometimes feel pressure to push back against a perception that they are gay simply because they’re athletes. Those stigmas can be particularly acute for black athletes since black culture is underpinned by a religiosity and respectability politics that often censor LGBT expression.

Grace remembers a basketball player with scholarship potential who’d been discouraged by her boyfriend. “The guy said, ‘Why are you playing on that team? There’s a lot of gay women on that team.’” You’ll be gay if you keep playing, he told her. “And I never once saw her in the gym again,” Grace says. “She quit the team because of what? I wanted to find that guy and pummel him.”

Sometimes, different standards of physicality are more accepted, Roach says. She calls Brittney Griner, the openly gay center for the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury, an icon. “She’s extremely popular. She stands for someone who would be seen as masculine but very much accepted,” she says.

While there’s been progress, there’s still “a whole lot of otherness that’s going on,” Ottley says. There are women who can say, “I’m going to go hard and I don’t care what people think I do in bed.” But there’s still a significant stigma that weighs women down in other spaces. “I have been in some black churches that would say, ‘Hey, listen, this is wrong,’ and they would tell their population that,” Ottley says. And the weight gets heavier.

Let’s bring this home: Black female athletes don’t labor under radically different stereotypes than black women in any other strata of society. But they do it on a field of play or court or pool, under more intense scrutiny, for a concentrated period of time, in the gaze of fans who might be drinking and who often feel entitled to take everything they do personally.

Smith says she eventually was able to fuse her worlds as an athlete and a black woman. Now, before they take the field, she teaches her athletes black history and makes them say daily affirmations. “I tell my kids, ‘I can’t teach you a sport if you don’t have a sense of self, because when you get on that field, if you don’t know who you are, they’ll tell you.’”

Liner Notes

This story appears in ESPN The Magazine’s 10th Anniversary ‘The Body Issue‘. Subscribe today!

Coming next month: A new anthem for black female athletes. (Yes, you can dance to it!) And three world-class athletes talk about the personal side of being a black woman in sports.

Lonnae O’Neal is a senior writer at Andscape. She’s an author, a former columnist, has a rack of kids and she writes bird by bird.