Black Female Athletes and Mental Health

Black Female Athletes and Mental Health (Photo: Courtesy of A'Mareah Howard)

Flossmoor; IllinoisMental health is forcing us as a society to shift our paradigm when we consider health reasons for exemptions from certain activities. Furthermore, it has highlighted the athletic sector of our community when it comes to who is allowed to be excused for mental health reasons versus those ridiculed for it because it was considered an inconvenience to others.

Tennis champion Naomi Osaka withdrew from the 2020 French Open and 2020 Tokyo Olympic elite gymnast Simone Biles sat out several team and individual competitions. Both women chose their mental health and well-being over the pressure to perform and faced the support and backlash that followed. And it’s not just happening to celebrity athletes.

A’Mareah Howard participates in both track and basketball at Urbana High School in Illinois. The senior enjoys both sports, but track is the one with less leniency for its runners.  As a result, Howard felt the pressure to compete. 

“Sometimes in track, I was in a very important running event. But if I couldn’t run it, I felt like they were mad at me. But, at the same time I’m not going to put my mental health in jeopardy for a sport if it’s not needed,” said the 17-year-old. 

She explained that because she’s a valued player with great speed, she’s often encouraged to participate despite being in pain and mentally exhausted. She recalled a track meet where she had shin splints so bad the pain prevented her from competing in a long jump event. Howard said her teammates were angry with her although she was in too much pain to run. 

After the competition, Howard said the coach had a meeting and told members not to withdraw from events. Howard thought the meeting had an ulterior motive. It was disguised as an informative meeting for the whole team but Howard said she felt it aimed at her. The coach then penalized Howard by taking her out of 4 x 400 relays indefinitely. 

Despite that outcome, Howard continues to advocate for her mental and physical health.

Dr. Delia Douglas, a sociology professor from the University of Manitoba, said it is a matter of Black female athletes fighting for autonomy as human beings.  

“It’s a denial of all the rights and privileges afforded to those deemed human. They are deemed outside the parameters of that,” she said.

Douglas addressed the matter of sports being shaped by the racially charged history of America and that backlash by stating that it goes back to who is valued in our society versus those seen as expendable. 

“Their [White female athletes] are deemed more valuable. They are celebrated and affirmed. It still comes back to who matters,” she added. 

She also explained that the response to Black female athletes sticking up for their mental health can differ depending on whether they are in a sport that is dominated by white female athletes or other Black women, which causes expectations for female Black athletes to vary. Furthermore, the industry of sports remains a patriarchal sector. 

Black female athletes should be permitted to exercise self-care and mental health whether it is due to mental exhaustion, disorientation or recovering from race-related trauma. An athlete’s needs shouldn’t be treated as an inconvenience because a team wants to win, or money will be lost. An athlete is a human being who deserves autonomy. 

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