When Gabby Douglas won the Olympic all-around gold in 2012, she was pretty much universally feted for being the first African-American woman to win the most coveted prize in women’s gymnastics. But there would soon be backlash. Douglas and her mother spoke to Oprah shortly after the Olympics and described racist harassment she endured during her time as a gymnast in Virginia. Douglas said:
“I was just, you know, kind of getting racist jokes, kind of being isolated from the group. So it was definitely hard. I would come home at night and just cry my eyes out. Like, ‘What did I do to deserve this?’”
“One of my teammates was like, ‘Could you scrape the bar?’ And they were like, ‘Well, why doesn’t Gabby do it, she’s our slave?’ It was just very offensive.”
There was immediate pushback from the gymnasts and coaches at Excalibur, the Virginia gym where she trained before moving to work with Liang Chow at Chow’s Gymnastics in West Des Moines, Iowa. Gustavo Moure, the owner of the gym, called Douglas a “liar” and asked, “Is Gabrielle a credible person just because she is an Olympic champion? She is not giving any names or dates, leading us to believe that the accusation is fake.” Of course, if Douglas had named names, she would’ve been called out for sending an online mob after these relatively anonymous athletes. Also, Douglas was a kid when this happened. Did Moure really expect her to record every racist microaggression in her date book?
The public dispute between Douglas, her mother, Natalie Hawkins, and Excalibur started before Douglas spoke about racist harassment with Oprah. The back and forth began after Douglas unofficially won the 2012 American Cup. Douglas was entered as an exhibition competitor because she hadn’t qualified for one of the Americans’ two spots; Jordyn Wieber officially won the meet, with Aly Raisman coming in second. Despite the unofficial nature of the victory, Douglas’ performance at Madison Square Garden served notice that after an uneven 2011 season—a disastrous performance at nationals but a very solid performance at worlds—Douglas was a strong contender for the U.S. Olympic team and for an all-around medal in London.
In a story published in the Virginian-Pilot shortly after Douglas’ unofficial American Cup win, Moure and Dena Walker complained about how their work with Douglas wouldn’t get recognized, should Douglas get to the Olympics, because it would be Chow who will be standing next to her on camera. They clearly seemed to feel that they should be getting credit for how well Douglas was doing, even after she left their gym. And they also painted Hawkins as some sort of deadbeat, mentioning that she had twice divorced the same man, that she was collecting disability payments, and that she owed Excalibur money. (Hawkins disputed these statements, and said that Douglas was on a full scholarship.)
Douglas was only 14 when she left to go to train in Iowa; she is not responsible for any financial arrangements made in her name when she was a minor. And my intention isn’t to litigate who owed whom what, in terms of money. There’s no way for me to judge that part of the story. But the way in which Douglas and her talent was written about in that Pilot story—as though she had no agency, as though she was clay to be molded by others, that she didn’t have the right to leave, and that those coaches deserved credit for her success—was saturated in racist tropes.
After the Oprah interview, people were genuinely pissed that Douglas brought up her blackness and how she was treated because of her race, that she played, as they said, “the race card.” I went back and read some old blog posts on the subject—Twitter wasn’t yet the focal point of the gymternet—and yikes. It got ugly.
I think that many people inside the sport were initially pleased about the visibility of a Black athlete like Douglas because they took it as proof that gymnastics didn’t have a race problem. But when that gold medalist had the audacity to speak about how she was treated as a young Black woman in a predominantly white sport, people weren’t having it. We didn’t want to know about that part. We just wanted to keep congratulating ourselves on our supposed progress.
(Side note: In 2008, when gym owners were asked by USA Gymnastics to report their ethnic/racial enrollment in an attempt to learn about diversity in gymnastics, with the aim of increasing it if it was found lacking, some refused, calling it “utter nonsense.”)
Just a year after Douglas’ big win, Simone Biles made her world championship debut in Belgium, winning the all-around and floor titles, as well as bronzes on vault and balance beam. But her wins didn’t end up becoming the biggest story of that championships. Instead, Italian gymnast Carlotta Ferlito ended up inadvertently getting the lion’s share of media attention when she told Italian media that she believed that if she painted her face black, she, too, would earn medals. The resultant controversy led to an apology from Ferlito and even more racism from the Italian Gymnastics Federation. And the racist remarks completely overshadowed Biles’ first big win. I went back and searched through stories about Biles in 2013 and there were definitely more about Ferlito-Gate than about Biles’ victories and the arrival of the sport’s next big star. (And, as we’d soon find out, the greatest of all-time.)
In both of these accounts of racist harassment, the call is coming from inside the gym, so to speak, from inside the gymnastics community.
For a long time, the media’s discussion of race in gymnastics has mainly focused on representation, which is, of course, really, really important. It’s absolutely crucial that young Black gymnasts see athletes that look like them represented at all levels of the sport. (And also as coaches and judges.)
But I feel that the gymnastics community has failed to have other conversations around racism in the sport. Namely: How are Black gymnasts treated once they make the team? What is that day-to-day experience of going to practice like, and what must we do in order to make things better for them?
Racism in the sport isn’t “fixed” just because we now have more Black gymnasts on the roster than we did in the past.
Since the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police and the subsequent Black Lives Matter demonstrations all around the country, several Black gymnasts have spoken out about their experiences with racism while competing for the top women’s college gymnastics programs in the country.
Kennedy Baker, a former national team member and later an All-American at Florida, got the ball rolling, posting her account of her time with the Gators, saying that her teammates were saying racist things to her and she was forced to stay silent. Baker was also critical of the fact that Florida Gymnastics had not yet put out a statement despite the fact that George Floyd had been killed several days prior and the protests had been underway for at least a few days. Florida would put out a statement a few days after Baker’s tweet, explaining that the delay was due to wanting to have all members of the team weigh in on it.
In the replies, Kytra Hunter, another All-American and a teammate of Baker’s at Florida, thanked Baker for her outspokenness. A few days later, Hunter put out a statement of her own, going into detail about the racist treatment she was subjected to by her University of Florida teammates. She recounts teammates asking if her wedding will be catered with fried chicken and watermelon; the liberal use of the N-word; not being invited out to social gatherings with members of the team because they said it wasn’t her “scene.” Some truly awful stuff. I suggest you read her statement in its entirety.
Florida was hardly the only school to come under scrutiny for how it treated Black gymnasts. Tia Kiaku, a former gymnast at the University of Alabama, posted about racist incidents that led her to leave the team and school.
Kiaku posted a long note to Instagram about her experience on the team, which included one of the coaches making a “back of the bus” joke about her and two other Black gymnasts doing vault drills together.
Kiaku said she reported the incident and there was an investigation; it was deemed a “bad joke.” Bill Lorenz, the coach who made the reference, apologized for something that, in his own words, “was meant to be a lighthearted comment.” He is still on the coaching staff.
G. Christine Taylor, Alabama’s vice president and associate provost for diversity, equity, and inclusion, gave this statement to BamaCentral:
“The concerns expressed in this situation were thoroughly investigated. As a part of the university process, I spoke with the student-athlete and the parent on more than one occasion to gather information and provide support for both of them.”
But for Kiaku, the “back of the bus” joke from Lorenz appeared to be the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. As you can imagine, this isn’t the first time that Kiaku dealt with racist micro—and macro—aggressions while on the team. She, like Hunter, also spoke about white teammates using the N-word and then being told it was “just a joke” when she complained. (So many unfunny comedians in this Alabama program.)
Kiaku told BamaCentral said that head coach Dana Duckworth told her that she should take a break from the team. Duckworth also allegedly called Kiaku’s mother to tell her that she heard her daughter has been sleeping around. That’s some pretty classic slut-shaming, made worse by the fact that Black women’s sexuality is often the target of scrutiny and shaming by white people.
Kiaku’s mother also recalled being asked about Tia’s father and why he wasn’t present at meets. (Kiaku was raised by a single mother.) Duckworth was playing several of the racist greatest hits in that phone call—accusing a Black woman of being promiscuous and bringing up the “broken home” trope.
It’s not hard to imagine why Kiaku ended up leaving the program and school.
Duckworth, in a statement posted to social media, said things about growing and learning and inclusivity without mentioning Kiaku by name or saying the word “race” or any of its variants.
This is often the response when a Black person calls out racism; they’re thanked by white people for the opportunity to learn, as if their oppression is not about their own pain and suffering but is a growth opportunity for others.
The program didn’t handle Black Lives Matter any better than Duckworth did. In addition to posting a black square for #BlackoutTuesday, Bama Gymnastics created this video that, as many noted, felt like promotion for the program and was lacking anything resembling introspection on the issue of race.
Alabama, however, was hardly the only school that failed to mention race or racism; Black people; or police brutality in their statements. (More on that later.)
While the leadership at Alabama might not have done right by Kiaku, at least Lexi Graber, one of Kiaku’s former teammates stepped up to the plate and offered a genuine, unequivocal apology that addressed Kiaku by name and acknowledged that, intentionally or not, Kiaku was harmed.
Three Auburn gymnasts also spoke out on social media about racist harassment in their program: A’miracal Phillips, Telah Black, and Kennedy Finister. In their posts, the gymnasts mentioned that their teammates used the N-word quite freely and without repercussions; that team staff referred to Black gymnasts as “thugs”; that one gymnast was actually suspended for calling over other Black gymnasts during practice while pointing out that white teammates weren’t so severely punished for blatant rule violations, such as getting caught for underage drinking. Black said she was dismissed from the team and wasn’t told why.
Auburn head coach Jeff Graba posted this note to Twitter in response to the statements from three former Tigers. On the whole, Graba’s note is disappointing in the way that many of these statements are: vagueness about what was alleged, failure to mention the words “black” or “racism” or any of its variants.
This was something of a recurring problem in the statements put out by several collegiate gymnastics programs.
University of Georgia head coach Courtney Kupets Carter put out a statement that managed to avoid using the words “black,” “African American,” “racism,” “police,” “brutality,” or “injustice.” Also, for a statement that is ostensibly about what the Black community is enduring, it makes heavy use of “I.”
LSU head coach DD Breaux’s statement did mention “people of color” and nodded to protest as a means of enacting change, but that’s as far as it went.
While KJ Kindler, the head coach of defending NCAA champs at the University of Oklahoma, did mention “racial injustice,” her statement was light on anything that was specific on the situation currently unfolding and against whom the racial injustices were being perpetrated. (Kindler, along with OU men’s head coach Mark Williams, did march in a Black Lives Matter protest and Williams has been tweeting a lot on the topic in recent days.)
Utah’s statement was somewhat better than the aforementioned ones—they used the word “racism” or its variants more than once and even said things like “criminal justice reform.” But the Black/African American community wasn’t mentioned at all and that’s a pretty big omission.
What all of these statements lack, to varying degrees, is any sense of who or what is doing the racism. (If they even bother to use the word at all.) It’s a lot of kumbaya “inclusion, everyone should be equal, let’s be there for each other,” which are lovely sentiments, to be sure, but do not truly address what is happening. As far as these statements are concerned, racism—or “inequality” for those who couldn’t even bring themselves to write “race”— sort of just exists instead of being perpetrated on Black people by white people and backed up by our racist institutions.
If you go to the protests, there’s no ambiguity as to what this is about. The chants are straightforward. “Defund the police.” “No justice, no peace/No racist police.” And, of course, “Black lives matter.” (For some New York flavor, there have also been many chants of “NYPD, suck my dick.” God, I love my hometown.) The protesters have no trouble saying who is doing what and to whom and what needs to be done about it.
I didn’t expect the coaches to use profanities the way the protesters do or call for defunding the police. (But yes, let’s defund the police. And don’t listen to those Vox nerds— defund the police means defund the police.) But I did expect them to center Black people, to mention the reason we’re out in the streets, which is the state-sanctioned murders of Black people. You can’t fight the evil if you’re not willing to name it.
And simply naming it isn’t nearly enough either. We don’t say, “Gymnastics is a dangerous sport” and then call it a day. We acknowledge the risk and we do our best to mitigate it. We place mats everywhere. We have all kinds of training aids and techniques intended to make performing skills safer. We have spotters. Acknowledging the danger is a start, but that’s all it is.
We have to do something similar with racism in our sport. We can’t just call it out; we have do something about it. We have to be proactive in making our gyms safe places, in all sense of the word, for Black gymnasts. Because it should be clear we aren’t doing nearly enough.
“There’s no room for neutral. There’s no room to be nice about things anymore because nice did not work,” Alexis Brown, a Black alum of UC-Davis’ gymnastics team, said during a recent GymCastic interview. Brown took a knee during the anthem for most of the 2017 and 2018 season. She said in that interview that she wasn’t supported in this by her teammates or coaches. And Brown was told that she would miss out on opportunities if she continued with the protest but she did it anyway.
“I just went and I did it...I don’t regret it,” Brown said.
I wrote a lot of words about who got it wrong. I think I should also mention who got it right. UCLA was one of the first out of the gate to post a statement; the gymnastics program’s first tweet went up on May 30. It specifically mentioned the Black community, which is something that some of the other statements lacked, and which is absolutely crucial. This is not simply a fight against generalized bigotry and injustice; it’s a battle against anti-Blackness and that has to be kept in mind at all times. Here’s head coach Chris Waller:
And UCLA Gymnastics wasn’t one and done the way some of the other programs were. They’ve tweeted out many times since then in support of Black Lives Matter. They have even tweeted out links for where people can donate or otherwise help the protests and the movement. Soon-to-be junior gymnast Margzetta Frazier narrated a video about Black UCLA gymnasts from the start of the program to the present. She also appeared in this BBC video talking about being a Black gymnast.
And this from the University of North Carolina gymnastics team is perhaps the strongest and most unequivocal of all the statements put out by any of the women’s programs.
In my free newsletters, I usually include a request to subscribe but right now, if you’ve got the funds, please use them to support the protesters and other people on the ground who are fighting for Black lives. Money is needed for all kinds of things—masks, medical, supplies, water, and, most importantly, bail. With police arresting protesters and with many people unable to make bail, it’s vital to donate (if you can) to help get them out of jail and cover their legal costs. Cash bail is unjust in even the best of times but it’s much worse now in the age of COVID-19 when our jails are experiencing some of the highest rates of transmission.
This site has links so that you can donate to bail funds all over the country. Their site has loads of other resources and links. There are ways you can help even if you can’t afford to donate and even if you can’t join the protests.
Finally, let me leave you with this Yiddish/Russian—don’t worry, there are English subtitles—anarchist song that is over 100 years old but feels very relevant. It’s called “Daloy Politsey,” which translates to “Down with the Police.”
Just replace “Little Nicky” (Czar Nicolas II, the last Russian czar before the Russian Revolution and overthrow of the monarchy) with “Little Donny,” our present autocrat.