Wednesday, July 28, 2021

Protect Your Peace

Simone Biles doesn't need to hear any advice from me because she is the one teaching the master class right now. Same for Naomi Osaka, Sha'Carri Richardson, Alison Felix, and every other female athlete out there--protect your peace. And that's not just for athletes, but for anyone who feels challenged by the cares of a world that will  never show an ounce of genuine compassion for you.

Yesterday, I was watching the TODAY show when the announcement was made that Biles would withdraw from the competition. The reason given at that time was a possible medical injury, but by mid-morning, the full story came out, with Biles even giving an interview with her teammates to Hoda Kotb. For the rest of the day, I saw the debate on social media, and I posted an initial reaction on the Facebook page. Later that night, I watched the competition with my six year old daughter (who is, of course, super-hyped and already flipping in her sleep). We also watched the competition together the first night, and she asked, "Mommy, is Simone Biles okay" when we saw her almost fall off the mat after a vault. After the medals were distributed last night, I saw that the debate was still going on with a noticeable trend in the reactions.

Most of the women were supportive of Biles, and there were a fair number of men who seemed equally understanding of her predicament. Of course in these polarized times, plenty of people felt that Biles had let down her teammates, and I noted that the majority of those opinions were expressed by older men. I'm sure there is a term to describe that, but I won't worry about using it because the point is that most of the people who are offering criticism aren't gymnasts, aren't women, and generally aren't human. 

Protect your peace, young sister, because this world will chew you up and spit you out and then grind its dirty boots into you as it moves on to the next phenom to exploit. When you said that you wanted to compete in these Games for yourself, that isn't earned that right. You don't owe your body or your soul to any of these armchair keyboard activists and basement podcasters. YOU trained and survived sexual assault and still rose to become the top gymnast in the world. And these folks who are out here talking shit about your right to choose whether to compete when you know your limitations did what...?

They turned on the TV or scrolled past a headline. They pulled no muscles, exerted no energy, not even dropped a bead of sweat in daring to cast judgment on you. Girl, these are the mind games they play. This is straight from the playbook page entitled "tell her she ain't all that" so that your confidence gets shaken. They do this to men too, but for women, they know how much more effective it is because we already second-guess our greatness. Most of the great female athletes that preceded you faced this same kind of jeering from a bunch of dudes that could never do half of what you've already accomplished. Backwards.

So fuck you, Ben Shapiro, Clay Travis, Spray Tan Barbie, Bela Karolyi, and whomever else thinks it is appropriate to drag Kerri Strug's name into this. We will no longer normalize women killing themselves in order to earn approval from predatory men. This ain't GLOW, so no one will get the satisfaction of fantasizing what it would be like to see Biles and Strug face off in competition. Y'all are sick for even thinking that it is cool for a young woman to be forced to do something so harmful and life-threatening for the sake of a gold medal and endorsements. Some of these men sound like pimps...

Now that I have a daughter, I am taking notes from this younger generation of athletes who have demanded the agency to speak up for themselves. It isn't weak or selfish to admit that you are having a bad day, especially when everyone saw it. It is courageous because it is a lesson that is applicable in all areas of life. Know when to say when.

I am old enough to remember Muhammad Ali's last fights, particularly when he fought Larry Holmes in 1980. I was my daughter's age, so I have no recollection of Ali in his prime, but I recall that my Dad and my Uncles talked about him on a regular basis, and he was a hero to my older male cousins. At this point in his life, he was more of a celebrity than a boxer, which was still a major sport that produced memorable men like Holmes and Ali, but also George Foreman, Michael Spinks, Joe Frazier, Marvin Hagler, and Sugar Ray Leonard. Ali was the biggest name in sports at that time, so his comeback was a HUGE deal. But it was a disaster, and he lost. I thought that was his last fight (there was one more), but the damage had been done. A few years later, Ali was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease and he became a different kind of sports icon. 

The iconic image of Ali standing triumphantly over a prone Sonny Liston is how most people prefer to idolize him, but I always think of that moment when he lit the 1996 Olympic caldron in Atlanta. To me, it burnishes his legacy as a GOAT because that is the honor of a lifetime. You see, these aardvarks (yes, I am trying not to rely on too much profanity) would have you to believe that there was something shameful about the Champ standing there with a visibly trembling hand in front of the world. They would suggest that a man incapacitated by age and a disease that would eventually render him mute isn't the image of American strength and fortitude.

And they are wrong. Ali's life is not just another cautionary tale that athletes should listen to their bodies. He is a symbol of greatness because of his storied career, a life lived on his own terms, and the courage he demonstrated in facing the indignity of a debilitating disease. Our bodies and our lives all follow the same arc that peaks in youthful triumph to wane in a long decline. In his prime, Ali was The Greatest, even when he lost his title and public adulation for his personal politics. He was chosen to embody the Olympic spirit in 1996 because through it all, he had endured.

Therefore, in spite of this setback, in spite of what the haters say, Biles has already done us all proud. This ain't her first Olympics, but if it is to be her last, she earned ALL of her hardware and the admiration of millions. She has the torch, and no one can douse that flame.

Very few of these dudes that are calling Biles a quitter have ever dealt with the pressure of maintaining or carrying the tremendous load borne by athletes at the elite level of competition. No one knows what is going through anyone's head at any given moment, or how any stray thoughts or doubts can affect one's performance. Some guy on Facebook commented that this kind of decision by a quarterback in the Super Bowl would be unacceptable, and in part, I agree because most athletes don't make this kind of decision for themselves when the stakes are this high. The star quarterback does not lace up and then get nervous in the tunnel on his way to the field. Neither did Biles. She went out there and completed a jump that ended badly. It happens, just as quarterbacks throw incompletes and get sacked. The difference is that she assessed her performance and determined that a Team USA win was more attainable without her. Take one for the team meant to take a seat, and in this case, it gave the others the chance to rally for the silver medal. 

The model that most of us are used to is relying on a coach or a manager to make that kind of call. In football, the coach would decide to substitute the quarterback when he isn't playing at his best. In baseball, the manager will retire a pitcher when he's no longer striking out batters. That coaches and managers are typically former players who have transitioned from the field to the sidelines gives them the advantage of knowing the complexities and nuances of the sport. And arguably, they understand the talent and potential of each person on the team. But no one is a mind reader. Who can know that until she spoke up whether the coaches would have made that same call?

And to be clear, Superman is an alien, Wonder Woman is a goddess, Spiderman is genetically modified, Storm is a mutant, and Iron Man is robotically enhanced. Our desire for superhuman grit and resolve tends to result in inhumane expectations and consequences: concussions, broken limbs, paralysis, doping, PTSD, or death. 

This is why the Kerri Strug comparison is so dangerous. She was coached to push herself beyond the brink, and yes, she has a gold medal instead of a silver. But until this week, most people hadn't thought about her in years. Not because she wasn't great, but we had moved on to other young gymnasts, including Biles. We do that in every sport. Once Ali retired, we had Mike Tyson and then whomever came after him. Michael Jordan was the GOAT until he tried his hand at management (yeah, I'm still a salty Wizard's fan). I could probably offer a comprehensive trip, but I don't have to do that because the point isn't about identifying or ranking athletes, it is that there are always new kids on the block.

And Biles had the presence of mind to know that her younger teammates could do a better job on the floor than she could. We should trust her to know when she had done enough. We shouldn't expect her to go on like Ali and take an unnecessary loss. That her ego is strong enough to take the high pitch of criticism that she has endured these last 48 hours proves just how imperative it is to allow athletes to determine their own limits. Some of you are sadists. You have more empathy for circus elephants than your fellow humans.

Or is it that you get triggered when women speak up for themselves? Because no, Doug Gottlieb, there is no double standard. LeBron James gets called a loser every time his team doesn't make the NBA finals. Biles got penalized for WINNING competitions and heightening the stakes for other gymnasts. So it is noteworthy how sexist commentators get when it comes to comparing the achievements of men and women in sports. Women rarely make the front of the sports page, but now Biles is a weak, spoiled, national disgrace? What in the Lance Armstrong...

And somebody needs to get Charlie Kirk a mirror and a thesaurus!

The revelation that Biles' reported having the twisties, which is a condition recognized by other gymnasts to be life-threatening only became persuasive when it was described and analogized to other disorienting maladies (yips, punch drunk, mental blocks) that can impact peak athletic performance. This is quite an interesting thread on the matter, and yes, it offers a much need perspective in this debate. It also indicates how certain aspects of this society refuse to believe Black women, even when we cry out in pain, but that is another commentary for another day.

To echo what my daughter said last night, I really hope Biles is okay. But not for my sake or for the sake of another medal. I hope she is okay to do whatever she needs to do for herself at this moment, and that includes walking away. For all of the tough talk about how a male athlete would have handled this situation differently, need I remind folks that Michael Jordan quit basketball and played Minor League Baseball for a year after he lost his father. Michael Phelps, another Olympic GOAT of the modern era who was infamously busted for hitting a bong has been very open in discussing his own mental health issues. Yankees pitcher C.C. Sabathia has been spilling some major tea about his drinking and the pressures he faced as one of a handful of Black players in baseball in his new memoir Till the End. Have you seen Sammy Sosa lately? One last name to drop here: Caitlyn Jenner. For every professional athlete that has dealt with substance abuse, depression, anger management, compulsive behaviors, or had some identity crisis, can you imagine what it must be like to be one of the guys that didn't make the cut?

Protect your peace Sis. Unburden yourself from the weight of the world. The good thing about being declared a GOAT is that you don't really relinquish the title. No matter what comes next, you are the flame that will inspire others to follow, and like Muhammad Ali in 1996, the day will come for you to pass the torch. 

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