From the beginning of organized sports in America 150 years ago, there was a built-in contradiction: There was a myth of inclusion and the reality of exclusion. On the one hand, sports was marketed when it launched as the best possible expression of the free United States. It was a level playing field and anyone, if they were good enough or worked hard enough, would be able to make it.
That was, of course, a fantasy. Sports was a place where women were told to get off the field, and Black and brown people were told to form their own leagues and get out of the way. But no sooner had this exclusion set in than the marginalized started to fight for access. They made sports a contested space, where athletes demanded inclusion and equity and fought to level the unlevel playing field. From the outset, sports has been a space for more than just fun and games. It’s been a contested political space—a clash between inclusion and exclusion. And this battle continues.
Aliyah Boston just had one of the great seasons in the history of college basketball, playing for the South Carolina Gamecocks. During a national championship season, the 20-year-old forward was named Naismith Defensive Player of the Year, SEC Player of the Year, SEC Defensive Player of the Year, NCAA tournament Most Outstanding Player, and, in a unanimous decision, National Player of the Year. And yet, despite the accolades, she was not invited to ESPN’s awards show, the ESPYs, where she was nominated for Best College Woman Athlete. Yes, it’s “just an awards show,” and even by the standards of awards shows it’s a silly one, but the move was exclusionary and deeply disrespectful toward Boston and the sport she dominated for an entire season. Boston’s Hall of Fame coach, Dawn Staley, was outraged, and ESPN was forced to make a public excuse about not inviting athletes for awards that wouldn’t be given out on television, unintentionally raising the question of why women were being kept off the stage. It also said invitations were limited in the cramped 3,200-seat hall. Then, as the uproar became a din, it backtracked and sent Boston an invite. This was all very embarrassing for a network that had spent the last month touting the 50th anniversary of Title IX and the hard-earned progress of women in the sports world.
At this point, Boston could have just been silent and let her coach do the talking for her. She could have decided to go to the dang awards show and hang out with Steph Curry. But instead she made the choice to stand with that 150-year fight for access. In a statement, Boston wrote:
To be nominated for an ESPY this year meant the world to me and my family. While it hurt finding out that they wouldn’t be televising the category despite it being televised last year, and had no intentions for me to attend…it hurt more to see ESPN change course and invite me only after social media caught wind of it. Respectfully, I declined. I’m used to this. It’s just another moment when the disrespect and erasure of Black women is brushed off as a “mistake” or an “oversight.” Another excuse for why our milestones and accomplishments aren’t a “priority” this time, even now, 50 years after Title IX. To every Black girl and every Black woman: no one can take away what God has in store for us. You matter. You are valuable. You are a priority. You are seen, and you are LOVED—don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
What makes these words special, something that should be cut out and put on clipboards or quoted in sports sociology textbooks, is that Boston didn’t take the spotlight for herself but instead shone it brightly on systemic oppression well beyond ESPN. She also reached out to others who feel marginalized, so her disrespect could make them feel less alone. Boston showed that she doesn’t need the ESPYs. But the ESPYs surely need her. ESPN also needs people like her in the rooms where decisions are made. The network has made strides in diverse representation in front of the camera. But representation alone isn’t progress. Progress comes through struggle, and in sports it’s a 150-year struggle, in which Aliyah Boston just made the inclusion side much stronger.