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African American Female Athletes: Beyond Althea Gibson


Blog written by Kinesiology doctoral student, Emily Houghton.

2011 marks the 35th year of Black History Month. During February, sport media outlets offer narratives on Black History Month varying from athlete biographies, to social commentary on sport as a site of racial harmony, to Top 10 lists.  While celebrating African American contributions to sport, journalists and sport sociologists have often focused on men. When women are included, attention has been paid to a select group of athletes primarily Wilma Rudolph, Althea Gibson, Venus and Serena Williams. Biographies of these professional African American female athletes do contribute to our understanding of an elite group. Beyond the visibility of a select few professional athletes, however, research has indicated that little scholarship has been dedicated to African American female athletes at the youth, high school or collegiate levels. This is troublesome for several reasons.

Despite significant participation rates in collegiate track and basketball, African American women are underrepresented in leadership positions within NCAA institutions. We also know little about the their experiences (social support, academic achievement, motivation or barriers) as student athletes or sport managers. Furthermore, the constricted media coverage of African American female athletes as well as the small numbers of women in leadership positions has led to fewer positive athletic role models for African American girls. Ultimately, failing to include African American female athletes in sport media coverage or sport sociology sends the message to society that their experiences and achievements are not valued.
How do we change the pattern of exclusion? One idea is for researchers to make a concerted effort to work with African American female athletes. For example, we are presently collaborating with a group of six women who competed in high school or collegiate sport towards the latter part of the Civil Rights Movement here in the Twin Cities. Through interviews, we hope to gain a better understanding of their lived experiences including their relationships with sport and each other, with one goal being to produce some educational pieces that can be utilized by schools. This is our attempt at breaking the pattern and writing African American female athletes into history.  What are you going to do?

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