“As student-athletes at Cal, our young women have a voice and a platform, and they chose to use it today.” pic.twitter.com/2Xy8Vt6tug
— Cal Basketball (@CalWBBall) December 14, 2014
Before discussing the importance of seeing women’s basketball players at Notre Dame and Cal-Berkley join the on-court #BlackLivesMatter movement, let’s remember the story of the legendary Wyomia Tyus.
Wyomia Tyus was the first person in history to win the 100-meter gold in consecutive Olympics, accomplishing this feat in 1964 and 1968. Tyus also showed a remarkable bravery in the tumultuous, dramatic Mexico City Olympics of 1968, when Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists on the medal stand. After anchoring the women’s gold-medal winning 4×100 relay team to victory, Ms. Tyus said, “I’d like to say that we dedicate our relay win to John Carlos and Tommie Smith.” She did this at tremendous personal risk, and despite the fact that the “revolt of the black athlete,” as it was known, made no outreach to those black athletes who happened to be women. Tyus commented years later, “It appalled me that the men simply took us for granted. They assumed we had no minds of our own and that we’d do whatever we were told.” She was one of several black women who were supportive of the athletic revolution in the 1960s, but denied a seat at the table.
As we find ourselves at the start of new black freedom struggle that’s ricocheting into the world of sports, the voices of athletic women had before this weekend largely been silent. This despite the fact that the first athlete to speak out on the field of play wasn’t Derrick Rose or LeBron James. It was Ariyana Smith at Knox College, who on November 29 lay down on the court for four and a half minutes before the start of a game to symbolize the four and a half hours Michael Brown was left in the street after being killed by Officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson. This despite the fact that there would be no #BlackLivesMatter moment without the fearless leadership of black women. If you only know of this struggle from snippets on the news, please know that Al Sharpton is not leading this struggle. It is young black women in Ferguson on the front lines. It is young black women at Howard and young black women leading groups like #ThinkMoor sitting in at Union Station and blocking freeways in DC. It is young black women who led the organizing at Saturday’s march in New York City. It is young black women taking the mic in DC from Sharpton and demanding to be heard.
Yet other than Ariyana Smith and a tweet from Serena Williams, women athletes had not been heard. This changed in dramatic fashion on Saturday, first when the women at Notre Dame took the court wearing the now iconic “I Can’t Breathe” shirts. This was organized by forward Taya Reimer, who said that the team felt pushed to act after a die-in took place on their South Bend, Indiana, campus.
“A few of us talked about it and we thought wearing these shirts for the game would be a cool way to show our support and give our condolences to families that have lost someone,” she said.
Notre Dame’s renowned coach Muffet McGraw then spoke out in support, using words that should be put on a poster.
“I was really proud of our team, especially Taya, to publicly stand for something you believe in. I think one of the things I try to teach them is you’ve got to fight. You’ve got to fight for playing time. You’ve got to fight to win a national championship. You have to be willing to stand up and fight and you have to be accountable…. I want to have strong, confident women who are not afraid to use their voice and take a stand.”
McGraw and her staff wore all-black in a show of solidarity with their players.
Then there were the women basketball players at Cal-Berkeley. After a full week of intense protests in Berkeley, complete with tear gas and undercover police brandishing guns amidst demonstrators, the players felt compelled to act.
As forward Brittany Boyd tweeted, “Planned to wear shirts at home next wk.After today’s events in Berkeley,entire team came 2my hotel room&said we need to act 2day.”
They also had full support from their coach Lindsay Gottleib, who tweeted, “Proud to coach a group with a social & moral consciousness.They proactively seek ways to find their voice and use their platform.”
The Cal players did not wear “I Can’t Breathe” shirts. Instead, they did something both deeply affecting and more in the old DIY activist traditions of their school. On the front of their T-shirts, they put silver duct tape and wrote the name of a black person killed by either police or by lynching. On the back, they wrote “Black lives matter” and “We are Cal WBB.”
After the game, a loss to Long Beach State, Coach Gottleib released a statement that read:
I’m a basketball coach, and I’m competitive and winning is important. Our standards at Cal are high, and of course losing this game is disappointing. That said, however, I’m not sure I’ve ever been more proud of these players or our whole team and staff. As student-athletes at Cal, our young women have a voice and a platform, and they chose to use it today. They want to be part of a solution, and they took the steps that were in their power today.
The proud push by women athletes to project #BlackLivesMatter should be a cause to recognize the indispensable leadership role of black women in this movement. It should also push us to remember all the sports women in history who sought a place in the struggle only to be disrespected and dismissed. Wyomia Tyus arguably ran the best anchor leg of any sprinter in US Olympic history. Finally, after forty-six years, she gets to pass the baton.