Sports Injuries

Photo by Frans Van Heerden on

I can see how it must hurt inside for Simone Biles.

I remember when tennis players and fans complained about the noise of the beads on the Williams sisters’ braids. There was nothing else to complain about – they were outstanding players who stuck to the rules of play and rules of decorum. But they were Other and the braids were the symbols of Other that the tennis establishment wielded against them.

The press and the fans waited and waited for those girls to explode into scandal. They never did. They just excelled. What did it cost them to keep their bad days and bad moods hidden from the view of scavengers hungry for strange fruit?

I remember Debi Thomas. Pre-med at Stanford and one of the best figure skaters in the world. She went head to head with East German phenom Katerina Witt, American versus Communist, West against Eastern Europe. She was the first Black American woman to win a figure skating medal in the Olympics. She was featured in sports media of the time, an athlete who had to be the best at everything to earn a place on magazine covers.

She became a surgeon after she retired from skating but something in her shriveled over time. After decades of excellence, she retreated into a world of her own making, riddled with conspiracy theories. She lives in a trailer in Virginia now, broke and unemployed.

I remember Laura Ingraham telling LeBron James – LEBRON JAMES – to “Shut up and dribble.”

I remember young men who wrestled at Ohio State coming forward to say their team doctor molested them. Their assistant coach knew. His name is Jim Jordan and he is a Member of the US House of Representatives.

We know what it costs women to share stories of sexual assault. Can you imagine what it costs men? Strong men, athletes, men who believe they should have been able to avoid such trauma. Can you imagine what they feel when they see an abettor of their pain rising in Republican power circles?

I remember Junior Seau ending his life at 43. A much-loved player on San Diego’s championship football team, a linebacker with the Patriots when they went undefeated in 2007, he was dripping with NFL honors. After he died, researchers found distinct evidence of CTE trauma to his brain from years of high-impact football play.

I remember last week when Donald Trump led a crowd to boo the US Women’s Olympic soccer squad. He said they were so “woke” that they deserved to lose. Their crime is demanding equal pay to the men’s squad, an inferior squad with an empty trophy case shrinking in light of the gleaming World Cups the women bring home.

I remember Collin Kaepernick, down on one knee on the NFL sidelines, proposing racial justice. He’s an ex-football player now and justice is still delayed.

I remember Naomi Osaka telling the tennis press that their questions affect her mood and damage her playing. She declared she would rather not compete than answer then. I remember her critics saying “How dare she?” instead of asking fans how dare they demand her entrails on the page.

I remember Simone Biles telling the world that she keeps flying across the gymnastics arena because she knows she’s impossible to ignore. If she doesn’t leave the room, she hopes the powers that be will be forced to reform a sport that has damaged girls for generations.

We ask so much of athletes. We demand they be everything or nothing, depending on our whims. We demand that they show us their best on the field but reject them in the other spaces they occupy. We turn blind eyes to the way sports hurt them and wonder why they are too hurt for sports.

So, I understand why the pain was too much for Simone Biles today. And we should understand the ways we helped to cause it.

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