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The Black Athletes Who Scored Big In 2021

Black Is The New Black is R29Unbothered’s celebration of Black trailblazers who are changing the game. Black trailblazers who are reminding the world that we are not a trend or 'a moment.' We’re here — and we’ve been here.
We know that Black women in sports are dealing with an industry that is heavily biased towards men,  and yet, they continue to do what we always do: dominate. But this year, that domination wasn’t just on the court or on the field. Alongside the many matches and titles won, one of the most important achievements that Black women athletes made in 2021 was deciding to prioritize themselves, no matter what. We watched in awe as Black women rejected the status quo by putting themselves first — even before the game — and served as a shining example of what true winners look like. 
We celebrate these women for using their platforms to champion themselves and others. In the 2021 edition of Black Is the New Back, the gold goes to world class athletes Gwen Berry, Naomi Osaka, and Simone Biles. 

Gwen Berry

In the 2021 U.S. Olympic trials, what should have been a special moment for hammer thrower Gwen Berry turned sour when the American anthem played after she placed third earning a spot on the podium. (The anthem was supposed to play before the athletes accepted their medals.) In response to the surprise soundtrack to her big win, Berry turned her back to the flag, proudly displaying a t-shirt with the phrase “Activist Athlete” for the world to see.The public’s reaction to her activism was split; while many enthusiastically supported Berry’s stance, conservatives (and racists) were just as quick to criticize her, lambasting the Olympian with insults about her “unpatriotic” behavior.
Even amidst  the biting right wing censure being thrown her way, Berry never faltered in her beliefs. And rightfully so; after the year (and really, the lifetime) that Black Americans have lived through, the last thing she wanted to do was let the anthem (which is riddled with racist lyrics) of a country with a violently anti-Black establishment take away from her shine.
“My purpose and my mission is bigger than sports. I'm here to represent those...who died due to systemic racism,” Berry famously told the Associated Press of her activism at the trials. “The anthem doesn't speak for me — it never has.” Exactly. 

Naomi Osaka

When Naomi Osaka first began playing tennis, she was too shy to speak publicly about anything besides the sport  — the only thing on her mind was being the best at her game . However, as Osaka continued to rise in the ranks, life had other plans. Last year, as the world experienced a reckoning, she infused her gameplay with proud pro-Black activism, and her dedication to being true to herself prevailed when she found herself embroiled in controversy after withdrawing from the 2021 French Open. 
Osaka’s controversial decision, fueled by a fierce desire to avoid the inevitable anxiety of post-game press, sparked an important discourse about the often strained relationship between our mental health and our jobs. In a world where so many of us feel like our worth is attached to our labor (a capitalist lie), Osaka’s refusal to put her well-being in the backseat. Her actions provided a crucial and very practical shift in perspective for other Black women to model in their own lives. As she unapologetically advocated for her mental health, she inspired us all to be just as intentional about protecting our own peace, no matter what the cost. 

Simone Biles

There’s a reason why Simone Biles was just named TIME’s Athlete of the year — the decorated Olympian literally has no competition when it comes to gymnastics. But being the greatest of all time doesn’t come without its challenges. In Biles’ case, a near crippling case  of anxiety derailed her Tokyo Olympics plan, resulting in Team USA losing its MVP right in the middle of the global games. Though the choice to step away from her individual events was shocking, it was also completely understandable; between attempting gravity-defying flips and potentially-fatal twists, Biles simply couldn’t afford to not be in her best mental state.
While still dealing with the deferment of her Olympic dreams, Biles also took a stand against sexual violence by testifying against former Team USA doctor Larry Nassar. Her devastating testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee openly critiqued the many people and institutions that had failed Nassar’s survivors, and she refused to mince words about the ways in which sexual abuse is just not a personal issue but a societal one. Biles used her voice to send a warning to other abusers out in the world: women will not be silenced.

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