Athletes are often idolized to such a degree that it’s easy for us lesser mortals to forget they’re only human. Yet, despite what some cereal commercials might have you believe, athletes (while heroic) are living, breathing creatures. They, too, put their pants on one leg at a time.
In that regard, matters came to a head last year when several athletes, particularly those of color, broached the topic of mental health.
#1: Naomi Osaka & Simone Biles help mental health take center stage
Four-time Grand Slam winner Naomi Osaka, was the first to deal with the issue. She made a statement when she pulled out of the French Open last May ahead of her second-round match. Furthermore, she decided not to attend the post-match press conference. Osaka revealed her struggle with depression in a post on social media shortly after.
“The truth is that I have suffered long bouts of depression since the US Open in 2018 and I have had a really hard time coping with that,” Osaka wrote.
Fast forward two months, world champion gymnast Simone Biles withdraws from the Tokyo Olympics, citing a severe case of “twisties.” The term itself refers to a phenomenon in which gymnasts are unable to track where they are in the air.
“I just physically and mentally was not in the right headspace, and I didn’t want to jeopardize my health and my safety, because at the end of the day it’s not worth it,” Biles said.
No stranger to adversity, Biles strongly warned against ignoring the signs of stress on long-term mental health. She has in the past spoken quite candidly about her feelings of insecurity. The constant strain of living life under a magnifying glass has its eventual repercussions.
#2: Gender disparities exposed at NCAA men’s and women’s basketball tournaments
Photographs taken by Stanford performance coach Ali Kershner and Oregon player Sedona Price raised quite a few hackles ahead of last year’s NCAA tournament.
The pictures, revealing grave disparities between the men’s and the women’s weight rooms, quickly went viral. The men enjoyed access to a plethora of equipment. In contrast, however, the women had to make do with a few dumbbells and yoga mats.
The trigger for the public’s outrage might have been the pictures, but this was only the tip of the iceberg. For instance, more thorough investigations showed that the NCAA provided less reliable COVID-19 testing for their female athletes.
Further still, the NCAA withheld its iconic brand “March Madness” from the women’s tournament, reserving it exclusively for the men.
It’s no secret that women’s basketball teams have been snubbed and underfunded by the NCAA for years. Last August, a report presented by the law firm Kaplan Hecker & Fink LLP (KHF) found that the NCAA undervalued women’s college basketball by nearly $100 million.
The report, issued by the law firm, was the second such analysis to highlight the acute inequities between male and female athletes.
Thankfully, change is on the way. Last September, the NCAA agreed to let the NCAA Division I Women’s Basketball Champion tournament use the “March Madness” brand in this year’s event. They’ve even gone one further by announcing that they’ll begin paying referees for the women’s tournaments the same amount as their male counterparts.
#3: The 2021 Super Bowl featured three barrier-breaking women
Many will remember Super Bowl LV as the G.O.A.T. vs. the kid G.O.A.T. showdown. But the true heroes that day were the three women who wrote their way into the history books.
During that fateful game, Sarah Thomas became the first woman ever to officiate a Super Bowl. Having joined the NFL in 2015, Thomas served as a down judge on Carl Cheffers’ seven-person crew.
To welcome Thomas into its family of officials, the NFL renamed one of its position from “head linesman” to “down judge.” This move towards gender neutrality was also intended to encourage more women to join as officials.
Lori Locust and Maral Javadifar
With Tampa’s victory, these two assistant coaches blazed a trail as the first female coaches to win a Super Bowl.
Philly-born Lori Locust took up semi-professional football at age 40. Presently, she serves as the assistant defensive line coach for the Bucs. She broke the pattern by becoming the first female positions coach in the NFL and the third female full-time assistant coach.
Colleague Assistant Strength and Conditioning Coach Maral Javadifar’s resume is equally impressive. Javadifar, who has a doctorate in Physical Therapy, will be starting her third season with the Bucs.
Given that most of the NFL’s 32 teams don’t have a woman on their coaching staff, there is much room for improvement. Still, no less than 12 women served in the NFL coaching roles that game, making 2021 a pioneering year.
#4: US women led the way at Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics
Team USA amassed a total of 113 medals during the Tokyo Olympics. More than half of them – 66 to be precise – were won by women.
During the Paralympics, also held in Tokyo, a similar event unfolded as the US women’s team once again collected the lion’s share of the medals.
Several American women dominated the individual events, turning themselves into trendsetters.
- Nevin Harrison became the first American woman to win Olympic gold in canoe sprint, an event that debuted during these games.
- Ohio native Lee Kiefer grabbed the gold in foil-fencing, making her the first woman to win a medal in that event.
- 19-year-old Anastasija Zolotic brought home the gold medal in Taekwondo – a first for American women.
- In another debut event, surfing, Carissa Moore took first place. The professional surfer from Hawaii was one of the most exciting athletes to watch.
Here’s another one for the books. During the Paralympics, Nordic skiing duo Kendall Gretsch and Oksana Masters became the fifth and sixth American athletes, respectively, to win gold in summer and winter events. Now the two have their eyes and hearts set on the upcoming Winter Paralympics in Beijing.
#5: Tokyo Olympics marked a historic first for transgender athlete inclusion
At last year’s Olympic Games in Tokyo, the world witnessed the first openly transgender weightlifter compete. New Zealand’s Laurel Hubbard might have been near twice the average age of her competitors, but she showed heart.
Two non-binary athletes also participated: Canadian soccer player Quinn and skateboarder Alana Smith.
“I feel sad knowing there were Olympians before me unable to live their truth because of the world,” Quinn wrote on Instagram after Canada’s opening match of the tournament. “I feel optimistic for change.”
The changes Quinn was advocating for included changes in rules, structures, and mindsets.
“Mostly, I feel aware of the realities. Trans girls being banned from sports. Trans women facing discrimination and bias while trying to pursue their olympic dreams. The fight isn’t close to over…”
To be more inclusive of transgender and intersex athletes, the IOC introduced a new framework for eligibility requirements. In the future, individual sports federations will determine who is eligible to compete. No longer will the testosterone-cap policy be enforced.
#6: NWSL players force systemic change in women’s soccer
A string of resignations rocked the 2021 National Women’s Soccer League season. Nine of the ten teams saw their head coach depart amid allegations of abuse and sexual misconduct. In some instances, claims of racism arose.
Sinead Farrelly and Mana Shim blew the lid off the top when they accused their coach, Paul Riley, of sexual coercion and emotional abuse. The now-former North Carolina Courage head coach is known to have a history of sexual harassment and misconduct.
As a gesture of solidarity, NWSL players gathered and paused around the center mark, six minutes into their first few games. The six minutes symbolized the six years it took Farrelly and Shim to speak out and for all those who fought for too long to be heard.
One good thing did come out of this, though. Upon recognizing the importance of player safety and treatment, the player union struck a deal with the league, ratifying the first collective bargaining agreement in women’s professional soccer.