Black Lives Matter: Shining a Light on Racism in NCAA Gymnastics

The editors at College Gym News are dedicated to supporting the Black community and the Black Lives Matter movement by using our platform to amplify marginalized voices. One way we pledge to do this is by having ongoing conversations with Black gymnasts and coaches about the issues that are important to them. 

This will be the first in a series of features derived from our debut roundtable session. Special thanks to our participants—Erynne Allen (Penn State ‘20), Sierra Brooks (Michigan ‘23), Alexis Brown (UC Davis ‘18), Darian Burns (Seattle Pacific ‘20), Dymiana Cox (Penn State ‘22), Kytra Hunter (Florida ‘15), AJ Jackson (Oklahoma ‘18), Zahra Lawal (Seattle Pacific ‘20), Nya Reed (Florida ‘22), Paige Williams (Minnesota ‘20) and Gabryel Wilson (Michigan ‘23)—for their involvement. 

If you are interested in participating in future round tables, please contact associate editor Kalley Leer at [email protected].

Minnesota gymnast Paige Williams had been back in her home state of Texas for barely more than a week when George Floyd’s murder shocked the world and forced all eyes onto the city of Minneapolis. “It was crazy to see because I was just here not even two weeks ago. To see the looting and buildings burning,—literally—it was just really difficult.”

Floyd’s murder was the flash-point that ignited impassioned protests throughout the United States, with millions of voices screaming for justice and demanding equity for Black citizens. Social media quickly became a hotbed of emotion, and NCAA gymnastics programs were not immune. 

The content of the teams’ responses—both official and unofficial—was heavily scrutinized, with many drawing harsh criticism from the gymnastics community for being too generic or too anemic. The gymnasts on the teams, however, were acutely aware that silence could be construed as a response in and of itself. 

“We felt the statement needed to come out immediately,” Darian Burns, a recent graduate of Seattle Pacific University (whose gymnastics program was unceremoniously dismantled in June), said. “It needed to be timely because it’s so important. This isn’t something we just sit on. Literally, people are dying.”

Florida alumna Kytra Hunter,  whose collegiate career is all the more inspiring for the mistreatment she endured, was pleasantly surprised by her former team’s statement. “[Head coach Jenny Rowland] actually let the current Black girls on the team come up with the statement, and it got released right away, for which I was very surprised,” Hunter said. 

Nya Reed, a rising junior at Florida, was similarly pleased. “[The team] worked on our mission statement together. I know it took longer, but it’s because it was what we wanted to say, not what the university wanted us to say.” 

While most teams were quick to put together a statement, many were delayed by institutional bureaucracy: Approval from various administrators was needed before their release, and some teams were required to edit their original statements to appease the higher-ups. 

“We did it kind of late because we had to get it approved by the school, and that took a while,” Dymiana Cox, a rising junior at Penn State, said. “We also had to revise it because they said ‘certain language’ in the script wasn’t appropriate.” 

Per Cox’s teammate, senior Erynne Allen, “One of the girls was going to say, ‘I acknowledge that I have white privilege, and I want to figure out how I can use my privilege to help Black people who don’t have that.’ People in [the] offices didn’t want her to say ‘white,’ they just wanted her to say, ‘privilege.’ The route that it took, and the obstacles we had to overcome to just get that out, opened my eyes.”

Oklahoma alumna AJ Jackson noted similar constraints shaping her former team’s statement. “I thought they could have said more, and I know a lot of people were kind of disappointed in what they said. I was even talking to [Oklahoma head coach K.J. Kindler] and she said, ‘That’s really all I could say just because of all the people above,’” Jackson said. “They didn’t want her to say something that would cause too many problems, but they did want her to put a statement out. It sucks that we weren’t able to put a bigger statement out and respect people more, but it really wasn’t her decision, which is disappointing.” 

Alexis Brown, a 2018 UC Davis alumna who recently spoke on the Gymcastic podcast about her decision to kneel during the national anthem, echoed that disappointment: “It just makes me so frustrated—all that tone policing. It shows that athletic departments around the country have systemic racism. It’s not just one coach or one teammate or even just one team, it’s all the way up the chain, but no one wants to be accountable or transparent.”

While it may be no surprise that athletic programs are beholden to their respective administrations, it is indicative of the deeply rooted racism within collegiate sports that programs seem either unwilling or unable to address. Unfortunately, athletes of color are often burdened with teaching their coaches and teammates about that racism. 

“I don’t think our coach realized how big of a thing that is for us to do,” said Sierra Brooks, a rising sophomore at Michigan, who was tasked—along with classmate Gabby Wilson—with leading a question and answer session about their experiences for their non-Black teammates. “That was a very big load to ask us to do.”

While Brooks noted the conversation “went fine,” she also said it went exactly as expected and wasn’t one that moved the team forward in any significant way.

Wilson also found the experience unproductive. “Even if they [didn’t] want to talk, just saying that, ‘I’m listening. I’m learning,’ and things like that to get some feedback… But it was just silent,” she said. “And it’s like, ‘What are we supposed to do?’”

For others, simply the prospect of having these conversations was difficult to reconcile. “I don’t really feel comfortable doing that,” Williams said. “Because I don’t feel like it’s my job to sit here and educate everyone and share my experiences on being the only Black girl on the team for the last 2 years.”

Burns was similarly hesitant. “It was overwhelming, and I didn’t want to be a part of it,” she said. “But, at the same time, I wanted to be there because I’m really passionate about education, and I like the idea of educating, even when it is really exhausting.” 

Burns’s former teammate and fellow 2020 Seattle Pacific graduate Zahra Lawal suggested the onus should be on each individual. “[People] have to educate themselves and understand and ask questions. Not just, ‘I’m here for it right now because it’s trendy!’ Keep doing your research and asking questions.”

Lawal’s charge begs the question: How do teams continue to progress and support gymnasts of color in lasting, meaningful ways? 

Prior to graduating, Brown identified numerous ways her team could begin dismantling its systemic racism and submitted a formal “plan of action” to her former athletic director and head coach.

“I want to see a committee of different intersecting identities within the [UC Davis] athletic department; and if they can’t hire positions right now, I requested that [BIPOC] professors, staff and faculty would be brought on in paid positions.” 

“Being a Black man is different than being a Black woman is different than being cisgender or transgender. We have to talk about all of these different intersecting identities to really understand where all of us are coming from,” Brown said. “We have so many different parts of us that make us beautifully unique, but also make us have extremely different experiences, especially in white spaces.”

Burns suggests that any solutions must be interdisciplinary as well as intersectional. “It’s going to be really hard because you can’t just go to every single person at an institution and make sure they have [the knowledge] they need in terms of history and current events, parallels between history and what things look like today,” she said. “If we can get curriculums to be more interdisciplinary, I think that’s one way we can go after it and make sure all athletes and students—regardless of their major—are getting similar information.”

Cox also believes that education is key to progress. “[Student athletes] have to go through those hazing and child safety trainings, so [anti-discrimination training] should be mandatory for all coaches, faculty and students every year. That would help people who say they’re not educated…[or] don’t want to do it on their own,” Cox said.

Burns also noted that, ultimately, the coaches are responsible for the culture of their respective teams. “Being really direct from the get-go [is necessary]—setting the tone of what they expect from the team: ‘This is what we’re not going to tolerate,’ and actually say what you won’t tolerate—like microaggressions, macroaggressions, hateful language, appropriation,” she said. “It’s on them to be intentional about fostering safe environments for everyone they decide to welcome onto their team.” 

Racism and discrimination are nothing new, and certainly not within college sports. What is new is that ignorance and indifference are no longer valid excuses for those abuses. As more and more voices—and more and more kinds of voices—speak out against injustice, it becomes that much harder to maintain an oppressive status quo.

For Hunter, there is hope created by the chorus of voices now speaking out. “I am proud of everyone. I know it’s hard, but I feel like we are now creating a sisterhood, which is awesome, too.”

As part of this ongoing series, we want to highlight the organizations that are important to the participants. Please see the links below for opportunities to get involved:  

Article by Claire Billman and Kalley Leer

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