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Simone Biles embodies both the aspirations and struggles of Black America

When U.S. gymnast Simone Biles pulled out from an Olympic competition over concern for her own mental well being, the news sparked larger conversations around mental health, athletics and race. Yamiche Alcindor discusses those issues with Kavitha Davidson, sports writer for The Athletic, and sociologist Harry Edwards, author of the book, "The Revolt of the Black Athlete."

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    One of the more significant stories of these Olympic Games so far is not only who's winning medals, but why one of the biggest names in sports decided to step back.

    Simone Biles said it was concern for her own mental well-being that led her to do so. This news has quickly sparked larger conversations around mental health, athletics, and race.

    Yamiche Alcindor is here with our own.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Judy, shortly after Simone Biles made her decision, she talked openly about the need to protect her own mental health under intense pressure and a global spotlight.

    She has also talked about some of her struggles, her conflicting feelings about the Games, and signs of depression.

    Here she is yesterday at a press conference discussing the power of prioritizing her well-being.

  • Simone Biles, U.S. Olympic Gymnast:

    I say put mental health first, because, if you don't, then you're not going to enjoy your sport, and you're not going to succeed as much as you want to. So it's OK sometimes even to sit out the big competitions to focus on yourself, because it shows how strong of a competitor and person that you really are, rather than just battle through it.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Now, while Simone Biles' challenges are happening on the world stage, many can relate to the mental health struggles of the star athlete.

    Joining us to talk about all of this are Kavitha Davidson. She's a sportswriter for The Athletic. And sociologist Harry Edwards, more than 50 years ago, he wrote the book "The Revolt of the Black Athlete."

    Thank you so much for being here.

    Kavitha, I want to start with you.

    Simone Biles is a lot of things. She's, of course, a superstar athlete, but she's also a Black woman. She's also a survivor of sexual assault. Talk about what you make of the significance of her decision to say, I have to put my mental health first, when you think about all those identities that she's carrying.

  • Kavitha Davidson, The Athletic:

    I think it's really powerful.

    I think that the fact she's a Black woman, as you said, a sexual assault survivor, it cannot be separated from what we're seeing here.

    Simone has done interviews saying that the reason she hasn't retired is because her continued president as the only survivor of Larry Nassar's who is still competing continues to put pressure on the USA Gymnastics continues to hold them accountable.

    Now, at the same time, that is a lot of pressure to put on yourself when you were 24 years old. And on top of that, being a Black woman who is representing our country, who is the face of our country in these Olympics, it really is a lot.

    And I think that for her to set these boundaries, which is something that we tell women, that we tell especially Black woman they're not allowed to do, I think it's a really powerful statement.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Setting boundaries.

    And, as you said, Simone Biles said she didn't want to retire because she was the only athlete left who had survived the sexual abuse of Larry Nassar, who is now, of course, imprisoned for being convicted of sexual abuse.

    You, yourself, Kavitha, have talked and written so eloquently about being a sexual assault survivor yourself. Talk a bit about how difficult it is to navigate going forward, but also the power of saying that I'm going to allow myself the time to heal.

  • Kavitha Davidson:

    It is absolutely difficult. It is such an individual thing for everybody. Everybody copes in their in their own way.

    I think to see someone like Simone, as a sexual assault survivor myself, not only power through, but really take ownership of what was done to her, and say that didn't define her, but — and not only did it not define her, but she's going to win through it, she's going to be a champion, is such an inspiration.

    And I know that she carries that with her. She knows that she inspires young girls and women everywhere. But, like I said, at the same time, you can't really overstate what kind of toll that could take on you mentally.

    On the other hand, for having gotten where she is, for having survived everything she has and for being the greatest in her sport, you can't say anything but the fact that Simone Biles is the most mentally tough person.

    So, for her to come out and say, for Simone to come out and say that she is having mental health issues right now, she is struggling, means that she really is, and we need to take her out her word for it.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Definitely taking her at her word for it.

    Harry, I want to come to you.

    Simone Biles said something that really struck me. She said: "We hope America still loves us."

    Now, of course we still love her, of course we still cherish her. But you have talked about this real pressure that Black athletes in particular face when they are carrying the aspirations of Black America, but also the fears of white America.

    Talk a bit about that in this context.

    Harry Edwards, University of California, Berkeley: Well, Black athletes have never been perceived as legitimate within the athletic realm, anymore than they have been perceived as legitimate with any other institutional realm in American society.

    This is why we have — we're over-represented in the locker room, where the production takes place, but we are underrepresented in all power and decision-making positions, whether it's president, general manager, coaches and so forth, in those sports that we participate in.

    So, that struggle for legitimacy is one that is ongoing. And it is directly tied to perceptions and fears of Black people in this society by the white mainstream.

    Along with that, you have these phenomenal pressures on athletes to represent Black society, the aspirations of Black society, to demonstrate that what we lack in America, why we're not legitimately perceived and embraced is not because of a lack of capacity, but, in effect, the lack of opportunity, because we can do the same thing in the industrial realm and every other realm of American life that we do in athletics and out of the locker room, if we were given the opportunity.

    That's a lot of pressure. And then, when you put together the kinds of sexual affronts that women have to deal with as a consequence of their gender, that's a tremendous amount of pressure. I'm so proud of Naomi and Simone for speaking up.

    It is — it will make a difference and will be the most consequential statement to come out of these Games, where people were expecting a lot of protest statements and so forth. This will be the highlight of the Games in that regard.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    The highlight of the Games.

    I want to zoom out, Harry, and stick with you for a moment. You talked about other realms of society. Talk about how what Simone is talking about in her experience as a Black woman, how that overlaps with the pressures that Black people all over this country face. Of course, there's Naomi in tennis, but there are Black lawyers, Black Wall Street bankers, Black reporters who we also see struggling in this way and facing these pressures, especially as we deal with COVID and the death of George Floyd.

  • Harry Edwards:

    Well, the reality is that, in the mainstream of American society, privilege, which is really nothing but white supremacy in a velvet glove — and, sometimes the gloves come off — is the dominant force that we have to deal with.

    We do not have definitional authority. We have never been perceived as credible witnesses to our own outcomes and circumstances, irrespective of what field you're moving in. And that is something that Black people have had to deal with, while meeting the challenges of a specific arena that they may be dealing in.

    You're trying to be a great lawyer, but you have to deal with that. You're trying to be a great professor, but you're trying — you have to deal with that. You're trying to be a great journalist, but you have to deal with that.

    And it doesn't make any difference whether you are surrounded by liberals or whether you're surrounded by outright white supremacists. You have to deal with it. And so this is something that I have stated for quite some time. Sport recapitulates society. You cannot have a non-racial sports institution in a society which has substantial countercurrents of race.

    This reflects society, which is why it is so important to Black America that Simone and Naomi and all these other women who are dealing with these issues speak up.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    And, Kavitha, I want to come to you.

    Talk about the generational difference here. We have seen Simone talk about all of this on social media, other athletes and other women talk about this on social media, you, yourself, tweeting some really smart words. Talk about it.

  • Kavitha Davidson:

    I mean, I think that our generation does tend to share a lot.We might overshare, according to some people.

    But I think that also is done with a service. I think when you have a public platform, as small as mine might be and as big as Simone's might be, you understand that your words can help inspire others, can help others come to terms with their own standings in life and what's happened — and what's happened to them in their own experiences.

    At the same time, I think that there is something to be said about our generation and younger generations really being more aware of how important it is just to speak these words, just to have the conversation.

    When you talk about the conversation around mental health, the silence around it is so much of what has perpetuated the damaging parts of it. And now that we're actually having the conversation, I think that that opens us up to actually making real progress here, and getting past the stigma of talking about mental health or mental health itself as some kind of weakness.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    And, Harry, in the 30 seconds we have left here, talk a bit about that generational difference.

    Kavitha really did talk about this silence being dangerous. What are we — what do you see here, when you think about the fact that you wrote 50 years ago the fact that Black athletes revolt?

  • Harry Edwards:

    Well, I used a rotary phone and so forth when I was back in the day. Today, they have the social media.

    And this has given tremendous definitional power to these athletes and to women such as Simone and others who are out there struggling with these issues. The fact that the social media has put in their hands the most powerful four-letter word in the history of the English language, S-E-N-D, makes all the difference in the world.

    So, Simone doesn't have to depend on the mainstream media. She doesn't have to depend upon a rotary phone or getting on the phone and telling people personally. She can put it up on her e-mail account or on Twitter account or Instagram, and it goes out to millions of people.

    And that has made a tremendous difference, the difference for this generation

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    A powerful conversation for an amazing young woman in Simone Biles. We love her, of course.

    Thank you so much, Kavitha Davidson and Harry Edwards.

  • Harry Edwards:

    Thank you so much for having me.

  • Kavitha Davidson:

    Thank you.

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