Two years ago, Olympic gold medalist Allyson Felix courageously called out Nike – her biggest sponsor – for slashing her endorsement deal after having her daughter. Her bold move ultimately forced the brand to change its maternity policy for sponsored athletes, but it was just one success in an industry that has been notoriously slow to welcome and accept women – particularly women of color.  And, as recent headlines have proven, it’s not in any hurry to change as it continues to penalize women for being women.     

For women who are professional athletes, their sport is their job. Just like their male counterparts, women athletes devote their minds, bodies, and spirits to performing their best. But unlike their male counterparts, they have to meet higher expectations, overcome more obstacles, and accept more inequities in a profession that blatantly and unapologetically discriminates them – on and off the field. 

Of course, as a reflection of our broader society, women of color face even more hurdles before they even compete. For example, you may have seen the news that the International Olympic Committee just banned swim caps specially designed for Black women with natural hair. Instead of seeing an opportunity to increase diversity in the predominately white sport by recognizing the disparities these athletes face, the IOC sent a message to Black swimmers that their concerns don’t matter.  

“I guarantee you have athletes at the Olympics who have different types of hair,” 2004 Olympic silver medalist Maritza Correia McClendon told the Lily. “For them to say you don’t need (these caps) at the elite level—they should be ashamed of themselves.” 

Black women are also caught between impossible – and often conflicting – standards. Olympic Gold Medalist Simone Biles, one of the greatest athletes in the history of sports, recently faced scrutiny for being too good. An athlete’s job is to push their physical limits in the pursuit of greatness, but it seems that it’s suddenly unacceptable for a Black woman to revolutionize her sport because she is just that talented. Try to recall a similar situation where a male athlete was told to “hold back” so the rest of the field can catch up.  

Trying to not just perform but excel in a field that was never made for them, women of color endure mental health struggles that are arguably more challenging than their physical pursuits. Too often, these athletes suffer in silence. So, it was significant when Naomi Osaka bravely announced that she would take an indefinite leave from competition to focus on her mental health. Instead of being heralded as a champion of this important issue, or allowing her the latitude to recover, she was fined, questioned, and faced hostility.  

Women’s mental health issues aren’t just ignored in sports, they’re disproportionately penalized. While competing at the Olympic Track and Field Trials, sprinting phenom Sha’Carri Richardson received the news (from a reporter in an interview) that her mother died and used cannabis to cope with the panic and grief she experienced from the loss. She was suspended for 30 days after testing positive for THC, disqualifying her from competing in her individual event. However, it was just announced that she would not be included in a relay event she was eligible to run, which is scheduled after the end of her suspension.   

Even though she would be fully eligible to compete in the relay, the US Track and Field Federation refused to include her because “it would be detrimental to the integrity of the U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Track & Field if USATF amended its policies following competition, only weeks before the Olympic Games.” While the overall rules need to be revisited, it also makes us question: Was Richardson disproportionately punished twice for being human by an industry that expected her to be nothing less than a superhuman? 

We can no longer expect and accept the systemic inequality that women athletes face – especially women of color. NOW is working to hold sponsors, athletic institutions and committees accountable for their policies and practices, we’re determined to stay in this race until the end.