As sophomore Shaprice Hunt stepped on the softball field at Monmouth College this season, an uneasy feeling overcame her body. She glanced around in shock to see no faces that looked like her. Not her own teammates, opponents, fans, nor coaches. Feeling like she had no one to confide in, Hunt sat in the dugout alone to grapple with this unsettling emotion. This sense of isolation has been with her since she decided to join the team last year, and she believes it has derived from her being the only African American player on the Knox College softball team and just one of a few in the Midwest Conference.
“Every time I look around at practice or games, I’m usually the only black person,” the Chicago native said. “I just never felt like I fit in or could be myself.”
Head Softball Coach Erin Rutledge said that over the course of her four years at Knox, she has seen an increase in diversity within the sport Ñ not only at Knox, but on all levels, including high school, collegiate and professional. However, Rutledge also recognized that there is still more to be done.
“Softball is growing, where now, it is not uncommon to see women of color playing,” Rutledge said. “But it’s still a predominantly white sport, so I can see where this uncomfortable feeling comes from because there is room for more diversity.
Freshman Vinati Molligoda, a member of the swim team at Knox, has also felt this sense of isolation.
“I think it’s hard fitting in because a lot of the team is mostly white,” the Sri Lankan native said. “It is hard to connect with them because oftentimes, I don’t understand where they are coming from and neither do they.”
Hunt and Molligoda are among several female athletes of color at Knox and on the collegiate level who endure this sense of racial isolation in predominantly white sports. Scholars such as Moneque Pickett, author of “Race and Gender Equity in Sports” and Sarah Fields, author of “Title IX and African American Female Athletes,” have also shed light on inequalities endured by female athletes of color since the passing of Title IX in 1972.
Title IX was a law that essentially forbid discrimination solely on basis of gender in any educational programs or activities that were funded by the federal government according to Casey Maura, author of “Title IX has helped women make a great leap forward,” an article in the Christian Science Monitor from April 1995. Since the law’s passage, all women regardless of race have had more opportunities in sports. On the high school level, participation of women in sports increased from 300,000 in 1972 to over 3.2 million athletes in 2011 (Federal of State High School Association). On the collegiate level, the participation rate went from under 30,000 to over 193,000 female athletes (NCAA Sports Sponsorship and Participation Rates Report).
Despite the passage of Title IX, Pickett and Fields argue that women of color have not benefited equally to their white counterparts. Pickett expressed that laws such as these are simply a way to justly combat a single oppression.
“Title IX addresses gender equity, while failing to recognize the double jeopardy status faced by women of color,” Pickett said.
Since the passing of Title IX law, Pickett, Fields and several more scholars and athletes have called attention to the sense isolation that women of color sometimes face in predominantly white sports. This has also been represented in the over representation of women of color in basketball and track & field. Black female athletes in particular have been funneled into these specific sports, in part because of economic factors such as disparities and resources between communities of color and white communities.
Data supports the notion that, across all divisions, female athletes of color have continuously been underrepresented in sports outside of basketball and track & field. As reported by the 2015-2016 NCAA Sports Sponsorship, Participation, and Demographic Search (excluding historically black colleges and universities), women of color still make up over 40 percent of athletes participating in basketball, and about 27 percent of athletes total participating in outdoor track & field, whereas white female athletes make up either a little over or slightly less than 80 percent of participation sports such as; softball, swimming, volleyball and soccer.
This underrepresentation is reflected on our own campus in regards to the participation of female athletes of color. This year, the Knox women’s basketball team has incorporated the highest participation of female athletes of color Ñ mainly black, Asian and a small percentage of Hispanic/Latinos. The track & field team also currently holds one of the highest participation rates for black female athletes.
Hunt, who has also been a member of the Knox women’s basketball team since last year, did not feel the same sense of isolation that she felt when she was a part of the softball team, which at the time she began participating had two female athletes of color in the program. Hunt decided to leave the softball team this season because of this sense of isolation in combination with personal issues that she was having. Although Hunt said that she did not receive a significant amount of playing time on either team, she said that she always felt like she belonged on the basketball team.
“I stayed on the basketball team because I could relate to many of the other girls who looked like me,” said Hunt. “Maybe if I had those one or two buddies on the softball team that I connected with, then I wouldn’t have felt so uncomfortable.”
African American athlete and freshman Karah Polk had similar feelings about her experience on the volleyball team versus the track team. However, she reflected on sentiments in terms of connections she felt with both coaches and players. Although Polk occasionally did not see eye-to-eye with both coaches, she felt like she never reached a mutual understanding with the volleyball coach, who is a white woman. However, she always felt a connection and the sense that she could come to an agreement with the track coach, who is a black man. Polk attributed this to black people having more of an understanding for one another.
“On the volleyball team here, I felt like there was a separation between the black players from both the coach and the rest of the team,” the Chicago native said. “Even when I had problems, I never felt this way on the track team.”
Freshman Morgan Leslie, who is biracial (black and white), is both a member of the volleyball team as well as the women’s basketball team on campus. As a woman of color, Leslie felt similar to Polk in her sense of alienation with the volleyball experience — something she did not feel with her basketball experience at Knox. Leslie found a connection with another African American player on the team.
“I found a connection with another player of color on the team and so I didn’t feel as much of this isolation,” said Leslie, “We mostly paid attention to each other, while the rest of the team did their own thing.”
On our own campus as well as nationally, black female athletes and other women of color have a strong presence in basketball and track and field. Why?
Pickett and Fields claimed that this over representation of women of color in these two sports derives from the athletes’ youth. Fields indicated that this problem stems from further encouragement into these sports because of the history of success that women of color have had in basketball and track & field. She argued that this also comes from the lack of opportunity and exposure that women of color have to other sports. Pickett referenced the Wilson Report from 1999 that sampled 500 black and white families nationwide, where they discovered the following:
“Black and White females were equally likely to participate in sports, 33% of Black girls (compared to 18% of White girls) said that their families could not afford to pay the cost of equipment and lessons.”
Although this study was conducted back in 1999, both Pickett and Fields linked findings like this as being very congruent to the economic disparities that are faced nationwide in regards to communities of color versus white communities today.
At a young age, girls who come from inner-city or urban neighborhoods that are predominately communities of color have had less options in regards to sports because of limited funding, in comparison to girls from suburban neighborhoods that are predominately white and have had more funding and thus can offer more sporting options, according to Pickett. Often, this limited exposure and resources Ñ as well as the history that women of color (in particular black women) have had in these sports Ñ leads to the further encouragement of women of color by mentors and coaches to pursue sports that are available in their neighborhoods and require less money, such as basketball and track and field.
“Basketball was always something that my family played and was good at, so they wanted me to play too,” said freshman Talya Frost, an African American player on the women’s basketball team. “I just played because it was the only sport I was exposed to.”
Pickett and Fields expressed that this over representation of women of color in basketball and track & field can be very limiting. There has been an increase in participation of all female athletes along with the emergence of growing sports in the NCAA such as: soccer, rowing, golf, lacrosse, volleyball and more. However, women of color are largely missing out because they are not receiving encouragement or opportunities to participate in these sports. This extends to the amount of collegiate scholarships, which are offered at a higher rate in these sports to white female athletes. According to the 2015-2016 NCAA Sports Sponsorship, Participation, and Demographic Search, white female athletes continue to have the highest number of participants in collegiate athletics across all divisions and sports, and these unequal participation levels continue to be deeply evident outside of both basketball and track & field.
Over the years, there has been a growing participation from women of color in sports outside of just basketball and track & field, but they are still underrepresented compared to their white counterparts in the NCAA and on our own campus. At Knox, female athletes of color have conveyed feelings of isolation because of this under representation, feelings that many say do not occur when teams have more diversity.
“I just feel in today’s age having more diversity in sports shouldn’t be a problem,” stated Hunt. “The lack of this [diversity] just makes me feel awkward and isolated.”