Compete Like a Girl: Why We Need to Cheer on Our Young Black Women Athletes

by Raisa Habersham

Mo’Ne Davis was a hot commodity among the sports circuit last year. The 13-year-old baseball phenom was the first little leaguer on the cover of Sports Illustrated and was also named Associated Press Female Athlete of the Year. Davis’ success is much to be celebrated as the athletic child prodigy sits in good company with the Williams’ sisters, Dominique Dawes, and Gabby Douglass—all of whom started their sports careers in their youth.

It’s refreshing to see a young black girl succeeding in a field traditionally dominated by men. Davis’ success reminds me of the female basketball team at my former high school. The female basketball team would excel in advancing in their tournaments, playing better than our male team. This year they participated in a nationally ranked tournament in Washington, D.C., but there was very little support for them and their success on the alumni page when compared to that of our football team, who advanced to the state championships.

That’s not to say the girls weren’t supported in their athletic endeavors: we had spirit buses for them, and they were lauded among peers in particular. But as far as their accomplishments making it into the sports section? It was rare and when it did happen, the publicity would still go largely unnoticed.

I’ve long been aware that the accomplishments of female athletes often go unsung, specifically for young black girls. It’s disheartening considering I have several women friends who are active in various sports and have been since their youth. My 9-year-old sister is also an athlete and I don’t want her to grow up not being praised when she scores a point, makes it to the finals, or wins a gold medal—simply because there are those who believe her skin color and/or gender deem her unworthy of such acknowledgment.

Lack of encouragement within sports can lead to low self-esteem and body image issues for young black women. According to the National Women’s Law Center, despite increased sports participation among elementary and secondary-aged girls, there are still fewer opportunities for them to play high school sports. This further marginalizes black girls as they play at a lower rate than their white counterparts at 54 percent.

There are several positive benefits to encouraging athleticism among young black girls and women. For one, it encourages a healthy appreciation for competition, which can be a motivator. It’s time we stop thinking that women cannot or should not be strong competitors, especially if we’re focusing on something beyond their physical appearance. So much emphasis is placed on a woman’s looks, which we know negatively affects women’s sense of self-worth. Encouraging athleticism instead focuses on personal health and fitness, which has life-long benefits.

Obesity is a high epidemic among black girls with at a 25 percent rate for girls aged 6 to 11 and 24 percent for girls aged 12 to 19. Simply telling girls to look cute isn’t eradicating the health issues they’re facing at a young age. Studies have also shown that playing a sport is better for girls’ physical and mental health compared to girls who don’t play.

In addition to fostering positive self-esteem, black women competing on the collegiate level are 15 percent more likely to graduate from college compared to their non-athletic peers. Despite these statistics indicating academic success among black women, women athletic programs continue to receive less funding compared to their male counterparts and face more program cuts.

For these reasons, we should continue to support the Mo’Ne Davises, Gabby Douglasses and Serena Wiliamses of the world. It’s a natural step in ensuring our young black girls know their worth, love themselves, and strive for greatness—whether it’s on the field, in the classroom, or any other area of life they choose to excel within.

Raisa Habersham is a regular contributor at For Harriet.

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