Black Athletes Matter

Part II: Preconceived Notions of Black Athletes in the World of Sports

By Nerissa Periola

Preconceived notions are inevitable. They are born from opinions without proper thought or evidence. Preconceived notions are the manifestations of opinions of a dominating group that directly affect the society in which they reside. Thus, the result of these assumptions creates a divide in the people, categorizing them in every little detail as others use these preconceived notions to create a stereotype that validates how to treat others. 

On his first day of college, Emmanuel Calton, a basketball player, couldn’t walk around campus without countless students staring at him. The one comment that stuck with him went like this, “I’m sorry if I’m staring I’ve never met a black person before in real life.” The black sheep in a sea of white. It didn’t stop there. Campus safety was vigilant in following him around, but for what?  “Once, I was locked out of my room and the campus officer questioned if I actually lived there for like 20 minutes,” Emmanuel recalled.

Do black students have to be on high alert for their own safety? Do black students have to validate their existence as a student, or even just a human being?

These assumptions cause further separation on what it is to be a black woman in the eyes of the public. Helen Onyenso felt the pressure of a certain type of black woman who is “ghetto” and “ratchet” that is perpetuated in music, television, movies and social media. Black women are more than an item to be marketed; they are doctors, activists, artists, writers, CEO’s capable of taking the world by storm. Yet, in order for others to feel validated in how they perceive others they will pressure someone to be someone they’re not. Thus, as an athlete Helen felt the pressure of having to be an overly exceptional player just because of her skin color. Not only that, but according to the media Helen should embody the “ghetto” and “ratchet” black woman. Thus, she had to assimilate herself into these roles in order to navigate her way through college. 

Michelle DeCoud recalls her time in high school when she didn’t fit the mold of what a black athlete “should be.” The sound of rap music to hype her up before a game, the dream to be a professional athlete, the bragging rights of being able to participate in multiple sports because of her physical and athletic dominance should be the primary goal for a black athlete, right? Michelle continuously battled these assumptions in social settings surrounded by her fellow students.

These battles don’t stop there, for black athletes are assumed to only participate in certain sports. Kadee Sylla knew well she was the outlier on her rowing team. She was a black person entering a sport dominated by white people. Although she personally didn’t feel these preconceived notions affect her, she did feel the pressure to alter the way she acts and portrays herself in order to cater to a white-dominated sport. She was well aware of the societal pressure to copy the image her white counterparts showed because of their privilege. 

Stereotypes of black people are conceived from an opinion that was made without complete information. Preconceived notions give way to isolate black people into a box that categorizes them as different stereotypes that others assume they should be in. In order to combat this, we all must be well aware of our opinions of black people. Do we assume black people are one way or the other due to an experience with one person? Do we wrongfully assume the personality of a whole group in order for it to make sense for us? Are we swayed by others’ opinions of black people in order to follow the status quo? 

As athletes, coaches, and administrators we are not immune to the social norms outside of sports. Preconceived notions can cause us to wrongfully judge others, assume an athlete’s skill level or a coach’s credibility, and destroy the safe space black athletes find whether it’s on the court or on the field. As participants in sports, we must set aside our differences and help build a community where black athletes can thrive as such without the constraints of hundreds of years of oppression, prejudice, and discrimination. Tune in next post as I explore the experiences these black athletes have had that made it clear they were and will be treated differently.