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When American hammer throw star Gwen Berry took to the podium to receive the gold medal at the 2019 Pan American Games in Lima, Peru, she knew she had an opportunity to make a statement. She raised her right fist during the playing of the anthem and became a central figure in the discussion over athlete protest rights at the 2020+1 Olympic Games in Tokyo.
She shared that moment as part of the second session of the LA84 Foundation’s 2020 Youth Summit for #PlayEquity, focusing on athletes using their voice for social justice:
“I feel like the main thing that was in my heart was the fact that, you know, when I put on my uniform, when I wear the flag, I’m very proud. I’m so proud. I sacrificed my life, I’ve sacrificed time with my family, I’ve sacrificed things and memories that I can’t get back.
“So, on the podium, when I stood there, I just knew that everything that I sacrificed and everything that my country says it stands for, is not necessarily true or fair to everybody in the country, especially people who look like me. People who live like me. People who are part of the American system. And I am that individual: I’ve lived it, I’ve seen it, I’ve learned it.
“Every time I go back home to St. Louis, I see how Black people live. And it just broke my heart and it hurt my feelings, so on the podium, I just knew that something had to happen. I had to make my stance in history, to let people know where I stand and how I feel, because I was not at peace with myself. It was just traumatizing to me to just not say anything, when I knew that my voice had power.”
Now 31, Berry is a significant contender for medals in Tokyo. Her lifetime best of 77.78 m (255-2) ranks no. 5 on the all-time world list and no. 2 all-time U.S. behind reigning World Champion DeAnna Price. Asked about Tokyo and the International Olympic Committee’s Rule 50 that bans protests during ceremonies, you might think she would be all-in for unlimited, free speech.
But the former Southern Illinois standout had a much broader perspective:
“I feel like, as far as the NFL, NBA, WNBA, it’s easier for them because it is a smaller organization. It is just in the United States, whereas the IOC, they deal with athletes worldwide, it’s international.
“So every country is different, they have their own morals, their own objectives, their own religious beliefs or beliefs in general, their government is different, their policies are different, so I feel like the IOC has a lot of work to do and they have a lot on their plate because they have to appease to everyone.
“That’s their job. They have to create the best entertainment in the best sporting event in world history, the Olympic Games. So I feel like, for them it’s going to be hard to create reform immediately, but like going forward to 2021, they can do small things that will make a big impact. And it can start there.
“I don’t know what those will look like. I figure like, if they allow athletes to wear pins representing what they want to represent, T-shirts, some of those things like the WNBA is doing, I feel like that could be something that they could do to help with the cause, and help say that ‘we believe in this, we believe that Black lives matter, we believe that everyone is important, so we want to show that.’”
Berry was part of an online panel moderated by Fox Sports Senior Correspondent Pam Oliver and included Los Angeles Dodgers manager Dave Roberts, four-time Paralympian Rudy Garcia-Tolson and Lindsay Kagawa-Colas, the Executive Vice President-Talent for The Collective-Wasserman.
Asked about the difficulty in making a public protest in light of possible blowback, Berry was clear about the dangers:
“I think the biggest challenge the athletes face is being defunded. Major corporations, major sponsors, major companies, they don’t necessarily want to take risks when there’s conflict. I feel like they want everything to be, you know, ‘kumbaya,’ they want everything to run smoothly, so when athletes protest they see that as, you know, ‘oh, you’re interrupting something,’ or ‘you’re disturbing something,’ or you’re bringing life issues that we don’t want to talk about right now. We want to keep this playing field equal for everyone, we want to keep it safe for everyone and we want to keep politics out of sports.
“So I feel like most athletes feel like, they can’t say things that they want to say, or that they face or endure all the time coming on the field of play because no one wants to see it, no one wants to hear it. All they want us to do is perform and entertain. And it’s not fair to us. So we lose a lot and we sacrifice a lot.”
Kagawa-Colas noted that the environment is beginning to change:
“Four percent of sports coverage is about women. As that changes, it is easier for sponsors to make choices. As the demographics of who is spending the money for sponsors changes, that then changes who gets sponsorship, right?
“So I think the movement that we’re seeing is the diversity and the inclusion and people waking up to understand that they need to align themselves with athletes that advance the values that they want their brands to stand for, and so we’re starting to see that spend on athletes who do stand for something.”
Berry followed up on sponsorships:
“Like Lindsay said, these companies are starting to wake up because they honestly have no choice. Like the times are changing; it will never go back to normal. Like this is the new normal. It’s beginning to become the new normal. So I would tell the children: make sure you are educated, make sure you are encouraged and if this is something you want to do, make sure you go in 100%, just like you do anything, your athletics, with your discipline, with your regimen for the day, make sure it is something you really want to do and make sure you put your best foot forward because it can change somebody’s life. And it’s worth it.”
Roberts concurred on the next steps:
“The question is – what I hear is – you know, what can we do as an organization and as an industry? It’s like: hire more people of color, and hire more women, you know, and that’s what we need to do.
“We can’t keep talking about it, because people feel comfortable with people that look like them, that’s just the way it is. And so you can talk about it all you want, but I think that being with the Dodgers and I think that now people are feeling that – whether it’s obligation or guilt, whatever it might be, I don’t really care – it’s like now they’re being more intentional about the conversations and doing better.”
Oliver asked Berry about the divisive nature of U.S. politics and how that impacts her:
“I feel like, in this country, our biggest problem is we don’t focus on what everyone can agree on. We always focus on each other’s differences, and that causes anxiety, trauma, disagreements. It doesn’t help our core progression as a country. And so it can be quite frustrating. Sometimes I get disheartened, when I have to put on the American uniform, you know even though I am proud and I’ve worked for this, it’s like at the end of the day, I still feel some type of resentment because I know that I’m representing a place that does not care about my people.
“You know, I see it. It’s like I’m evidence of it. You know I was pregnant at 14 years old because my family had to work, lived in a house with 13 people. Like I was that kid. I am that kid. And so I feel like, you know, it can get disheartening. I think the systemic oppression and the systemic racism, it speaks to a lot of athletes, it speaks to a lot of non-athletes, it speaks to all of us, a lot of people from a lot of different demographics and, you know, it’s the most challenging thing.
“The political aspects of America is the most challenging. Like I said, because it’s a democracy, it’s always hard to agree on something and we don’t focus on that. And I feel like, that’s where we need to go. We have to agree on something, so that everybody can be honestly equal, and free and have equal opportunity and, I don’t know, we’ve got a lot of work to do.”
Berry summed up her message thus:
“So I feel like we have to keep protesting, we have to keep speaking, we have to keep making statements, we have to keep putting ourselves out there so that eventually the world has no choice but to continue to change, and to change indefinitely, especially here in the United States.
“There has to be more opportunity for these Black kids. There has to be more help for these places that are, and these people that are marginalized and discriminated against, like we have to see more help. Because the only way this country will truly be equal is that equity and equality is given to the people who are lesser than. And that’s just what it is.”
The 2020 Youth Sports Summit has three more sessions scheduled for 23-30 September and 7 October, focusing on coaching, careers in sports and progress and equity in women’s sports; you can sign up to see them here.
(Apologies to those readers who received yesterday’s e-mail with the wrong headline. It should have read: “Crouser awesome again in Zagreb; Lake Placid loses IBSF 2021 Worlds; WADA still concerned by U.S. noise & Rodchenkov Act”)