Episode 23: Cam Newton, sexism & racism, and Mental Health Week with Imani McGee-Stafford
This week, Shireen Ahmed interviews Dr. Amira Rose Davis and Dr. Nicole Neverson about the Cam Newton and Jourdan Rodrigue debacle, and Lindsay Gibbs interviews WNBA player Imani McGee-Stafford about hope and her challenges with mental health issues.
There is a flaming pile that needs burning and incredible women to celebrate in Badass Women of the Week.
For links and a transcript…
Katie Barnes’ “Sexism vs. racism — unpacking the Cam Newton-Jourdan Rodrigue conversation” http://www.espn.com/espnw/voices/article/20936117/sexism-vs-racism-unpacking-cam-newton-jourdan-rodrigue-conversation
Annie Heilbrunn’s “With Newton and reporter, did we condemn sexism but excuse racism?” http://www.sandiegouniontribune.com/sports/nfl/sd-sp-heilbrunn-newton-rodrigue-sexism-racism-20171005-story.html
Mardy Fish’s The Weight: https://www.theplayerstribune.com/mardy-fish-us-open/
NCAA on Mental Health: http://www.ncaa.org/sport-science-institute/mental-health
Silken Laumann’s “Sharing My Mental Health Story Was Tougher Than Olympic Competition” http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/silken-laumann/olympic-athlete-mental-health_b_9086062.html
Alison Glock’s “When the Game is Over” http://www.espn.com/espnw/feature/20826369/espnw-former-wnba-great-chamique-holdsclaw-shattered-facades-reclaimed-purpose
Team IRN Roller Derby https://www.facebook.com/TeamIRNRollerDerby/posts/714676135393353
Lindsay’s piece, “NYPD cop who tackled and wrongfully arrested James Blake sues tennis star for defamation” https://thinkprogress.org/cop-sues-james-blake-563c1532a536/
Courier-Journal’s “Rick Pitino raked in 98% of the cash from University of Louisville’s current Adidas deal” http://www.courier-journal.com/story/sports/college/louisville/2017/10/05/university-louisville-college-basketball-adidas-tom-jurich-rick-pitinio-money/730771001/
Brenda’s piece, “La Politic de la Sexualidad de Alexis Sanchez” http://www.decabeza.cl/la-politica-de-la-sexualidad-de-alexis-sanchez/
“Halep makes history, becomes 25th WTA World No. 1” http://www.wtatennis.com/news/halep-makes-history-becomes-25th-wta-world-no1
Deadspin’s “Morgan Hurd Keeps U.S. Winning Streak In Women’s Gymnastics Alive” https://deadspin.com/morgan-hurd-keeps-u-s-winning-streak-in-womens-gymnast-1819236715
“Brazil’s Women Soccer Players in Revolt Against Federation” https://mobile.nytimes.com/2017/10/06/sports/soccer/brazil-women-soccer.html
Naomi Klein’s new book https://www.noisnotenough.org/
Lindsay: Hello, everyone. Welcome to Burn it all Down, Episode 23. Burn it all Down might not be the Feminist sports podcast you want, but it’s the Feminist sports podcast you need. We have a very special episode today. I’m your host, I will driving the proverbial bus today. This is Lindsay Gibbs, sports reporter at Think Progress.
Joining me is Shireen Ahmed, freelance sports reporter in Toronto, Canada. Brenda Elsey, Associate Professor of History at Hofstra. And Jessica Luther in Austin, Texas, who is also a freelance sports reporter and the author of Unsportsmanlike Conduct: College Football and the Politics of Rape.
As I said, we have a very special episode for you all today. First of all, Shireen is going to lead an interview and discussion with the brilliant Amira Rose Davis and Nicole Neverson. They are gonna talk about Cam Newton’s comments, and also the racist tweets that were surfaced by Jourdan Rodrigue, the reporter that Cam Newton made those sexist comments to. They’re gonna discuss about the full intersectionality both of the comments themselves, the tweets themselves, and the reaction to both, which has been very interesting to follow.
Then, we’re gonna switch gears a little bit and talk about Mental Health Awareness Week, which is the first week of October, so we’re just a day late. It’s fine. We’re really good here, but all of us are gonna talk a little bit about our experiences with mental health, as well as athletes that have inspired us in the way they handled mental health.
Then I am gonna interview Imani McGee-Stafford, a center for the Atlanta Dream in the WNBA, who has really become a mental health awareness advocate.
Then, we will have a Burn Pile, we will have a Badass Woman of the Week, and we will finish on a happy note, talking about some positive things that are happening in our lives, or in the world in general.
So, join us why don’t you? All right. First, Shireen, why don’t you take it away with Amira Rose Davis and Nicole Neverson?
2:28 Shireen: I am so happy to be here with Dr. Nicole Neverson and Dr. Amira Rose Davis to unpack critique, analyze and possibly burn, the events that unfolded last week around Cam Newton’s sexist comments, and then the revelation that sports reporter Jourdan Rodrigue of The Charlotte Observer had tweeted racist comments between 2012 and 2013.
To discuss this I have two of the greatest minds in Race and Sport. Dr. Nicole Neverson is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Ryerson University in Toronto, Canada. She teaches Sociology of Sport, Media Representation, and Media Research Methods. Her research focuses on representation of subjectivities in the mass media, sociocultural aspects of sport and gender, and the use of force technologies and the representation of policing. She’s currently working on a project that examines #wethenorth of the Toronto Raptors NBA team, and looks at how black bodies are used to represent Canadian identity in safe ways.
Dr. Amira Rose Davis has been a guest on this show a few times before. She is an Associate Professor at Penn State University. Dr. Davis is a 20th Century U.S. historian, with a particular interest in race, gender, sports, and politics. She is working on her first book, Can’t Eat a Medal: The Lives and Labors of Black Women Athletes in the Age of Jim Crow, which traces a long history of black women’s athletic labor in symbolic representation in The United States. I can’t wait to get my hands on that book. Thank you so much for being here, both of you, and having this conversation.
Amira: Thank you, it’s good to be back.
Nicole: Yeah, thank you. Thank you.
Shireen: So, let’s jump right into this. I’m gonna start with you, Nicole. What, if any, was your take last week? Did the situation with Cam Newton change at all when it was revealed the Jourdan Rodrigue had tweeted racist comments in the past? If so, how?
Nicole: Well, you know I think the Cam Newton itself is interesting, because the story itself was very hard to pin down. When we looked at these comments made in interviews, at least the way that I consumed them, and was able to foresee them, it’s always through multiple filters, different people’s takes on what he said, so I was able to see a few soundbites, read a few opinion pieces about what he had said, and I think at the end of the day what has happened with the Cam Newton situation actually isn’t a Cam Newton situation. It is a situation of sexism. Sexism, broadly speaking, that is still infused in pretty much many parts of sports culture. Now, getting back to the issue of the journalist who asked the question about players running routes. One thing that I’ve observed is that, it seems that people are incapable of talking about more than one issue of oppression at the same time.
So, the issue is here, what I’ve noticed is, okay, we can’t talk about the sexism because we have to talk about the racism, and we don’t really have the tools or the language to talk about both. Those are my initial reactions to the comment made by Cam Newton.
6:05 Amira: I think that’s a brilliant take, because that’s essentially what I landed on as well. The fact that we are very … and I’m using “we” here, but I will say in a minute that I think the people who bear the brunt of this, tend to women of color. Because I think in general what happens is, we’re ill equipped to have the language to talk about multiple intersecting oppressions at the same time. There’s a way that intersectionality is now in the mainstream, right, it’s a word that I’ve seen on a million hot takes, but in practice it’s not something that is as easily applied. In the sense of those oppression Olympics or these competing subjectivities, where all of a sudden, it becomes pitting one above the other or conversations that can’t be at the same time despite the fact that they are intertwined.
From the get go, even before Jordan’s comments were found, there was racialized comments coming at Cam that needed to be analyzed, and I think that it infuriated me cause again, I was left feeling, especially for women in color, in a space like sports, just this kind of seering rage at the inability to do this because who it silences and who it harms the most, in my opinion, are women of color, who are there talking about both issues simultaneously, and also bearing the burden of both simultaneously.
Shireen: And I think if I can jump in here, I am nodding furiously as both of you are talking, the idea that we need to speak about both and we can, and with Nuance, is just that, it’s almost like, if you have one, you just focus on the one and you can’t address the other, when there are two conversations to be had.
I think the other thing that’s important is that all women, my experience in media, many women feel that because they’re women, they’re equipped to deal with conversation on race, when they can’t. Particularly, women that are not women of color and that’s also problematic equally and how would you respond to those who saying’, “Do you think it’s all … is there a space then for white women or white folks to participate in the conversation?”
Nicole: I think that the question, or the appropriate response to that question is, this isn’t necessarily about excluding your voice, or excluding your participation in a conversation. A conversation has many parts and people play many roles in bringing conversations to light and social change.
I think it’s very important that we speak to the groups affected by these issues of oppression, first and foremost, because they experienced it. There seems to be a very … how should I say … expressing who you are, talking about your identities, seems to be taken as, something that is talking about the personal, and therefore, no longer objective. We have to get over that viewpoint of going to experts and people who live the realities of these issues, as being something that is subjective, and how should we state, not important to valuable conversation.
In fact, we have to bring that expertise, bring those experiences to the focal point, in order to even start having a conversation about how to dismantle, how to challenge, how to resist the very oppression that we all are experiencing.
You’re question about whether white reporters should be brought into this conversation, I would say, “There’s a role for you to play in the movement. Sometimes having a conversation means centering people whose knowledge comes from experience, before opening their mouth. Opening your ears is a lot more powerful than trying to have a conversation about issues, that perhaps, you have not experienced from those very positions of marginality.”
Amira: Yeah, and I would just say also this is a way where we see the structural aspects really come to the forefront, is that also, women of color in sports media often have less large platforms on which to speak. The very systems that make those numbers paltry, that makes those voices more marginalized, then come around when we need to have a conversation about them, and everybody again, is like, “Where are these voices?” And it’s like, “They’re here, they’re here, under the weight of these structures already.”
I think that that was, for me, one of the things that was so great to see Katie Barnes’ piece and some voices be amplified because the nuance, the embedded nuance necessary to have these conversations and treat them with the care and time that we need, were those voices.
I saw … one of the most disheartening things for me, in that moment, was because we had this kind of first wave of conversation about sexism, followed by the revelation about race. I will just take a moment to say, kind of piggy-back what I said before, I think there was a lot of people who were crying about sexism, but using that more because they wanted to have a battering ram for Cam.
That has much less to do about their desire to eradicate misogyny or their issue with sexism, and more because Cam has a target on his back in many spaces and a lot of that is racialized. I think you can see that in some initial comments that wanted to very easily call him a thug, or bring up the stealing of the laptop, or using racialized language already in that conversation.
It was already in play. It was already intersecting in the conversation about sexism in the way that … I think Bomani [Jones] tweeted right when it broke was, “This is gonna get very messy and very layered very fast.” I definitely agree with that. But the thing that happened with the revelation of the tweets, in particular, is men of color, also, were able to derail the conversation, because they were rightly calling out the racism at play, but using as a way to say, I saw tweets that said, “I wonder if all the feminists, so-called feminists who care about this, said anything about Colin [Kaepernick] not playing?”
Well, yes, if the people you are looking at are women of color, they have been doing that. That’s essential, and the fact that, correctly labeling and identifying and talking about the issue of racism at play, was effectively also used as a way to a conversation away from sexism within the industry, that was also necessary, also needed to be had. That was really very frustrating.
Shireen: For me, Katie Barnes’ piece was the last thing I wanted to read about this. Their piece was so strong and it really … I’m just going to read a quick bit of it for those who haven’ seen it and we’ll link it to the show notes. They write:
“Experiencing oppression is an escapable abyss that can swallow us whole. The weight of sexism, racism, classism, ableism, homophobia, and transphobia, and how they intersect is not something that can just be unburdened. It is constant. The pain these experiences can cause never quite heals. We stitch ourselves ourselves together, but there will always come a time when those wounds are ripped opened and our pain pours from our hearts. ”
And that’s quoting Katie Barnes of espnW.
I think, for me as well, there is a lot of … and I’ll be very candid, was there was a piece by, I think it was Annie Heilbrunn for the San Diego Tribune, which was addressing her own biases, and I think that’s important, what I sort of feel ended up happening, and maybe, Nicole, you can respond to this. It ended up being this borage of white women writing about why they were angry, then they felt bad and it was like this, how we reformed as white women. That ended up taking up a lot of space. In my opinion, too much space. Because, as Amira said, they have more of a platform. Are those kinds of pieces different than any of … as opposed to the analysis, the whole narrative of, “I was wrong and now I see why I was wrong.” Is that not okay too? Should we welcome those as well? Aren’t those beneficial?
15:07 Nicole: The thing about that is, that’s going to appease certain parts of the audience. First and foremost, it appeases the person writing it and then perhaps, it appeases the people who might be paying that person, and quite possibly, some of the readership.
The problem with those types of contributions is that they gloss over what the issue is. The issue is looking at what has happened, not just as something related to sexism, not just as something related to racism and a whole heap of other marginality and oppression as well.
The problems with writing a piece like that, that essentially says, “Don’t blame me, I feel bad, this is terrible, don’t put this on my shoulders”, is that what it does is, it stops the conversation. It says, “You’re beefs or what your grievances are, aren’t important anymore, because guess what, I’m kind of owning up to something being wrong here and I actually don’t want to have to expose myself, my thoughts, my behaviors, my actions, my prejudices, the ways that I look at the world, for you because A, that’s too much, it hurts too much or B, I’m completely clueless about it.”
In some ways, columns like that, contributions like that, actually do more damage and it actually goes back to the sentiments that you just read us in that quote.
Amira: It makes me think … I write about black women in sport’s history and one of the things that happens a lot of the times in my work, is by centering it on the experiences of black women, whether it’s the baseball women I write about it, whether it’s the women Olympians that I write about, what happens is, centering it on their experiences, also makes the people around them, particularly black men, in this case, not look the same way they might in other histories.
The black women I write about in baseball, some of the black sports’ writers that were integral to the integration of Major League Baseball and were revered for that, looked like sexist, cause they are. The men that we love for taking a stand in say in ’68, look different if centered on the experiences of black women, we think about their exclusion from protests at that time.
It makes people uncomfortable because people don’t know what to do with, or don’t want to consider the implications of somebody that we’ve narratively built up, as having flaws. But the thing is, people are human, and they are not living in a different world, where these structures aren’t operating, and again, these are how we have to have these layered nuance conversations. We can say that black sports writers like Sam Lacey and Doc Young and Wendell Smith were forefront on using their platform to fight for racial integration or racial justice or equality. We also must recognize that they were very great at amplifying black women athletes as long as they weren’t participating against white women.
When the baseball women I write about play with black men in the Negro Leagues, the tune changes, like fast. That talks about the experiences of those black women, those structures that are being reaffirmed within those spaces. We see it with in 68, and I think it’s a conversation that we’ll continue to have, especially coming up on the anniversary of the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, where the black women Olympians that I write about and that I’ve talked to, talk about feelings of exclusion. and in sport, you have Harry Edwards and John Carlos say, “Yeah, we’ve messed up. We should’ve included them.” Yet, there’s still a way that we’re continuing to render them invisible now, that a easy apology doesn’t fix.
Nicole: I think, I just want to jump in there too, Shireen, what Amira said is just on point. We can look at this and the role of many black women, African American women, marginalized women, or racialized women, look at what’s been happening in the WNBA for many years. The WNBA has been dealing with these issues of intersectionality for a while, yet they don’t really get, how should we say, the accolades or the attention. No one really is valuing what that league has gone through and what they currently go through dealing with these issues. Here we have, black women, actually at the forefront of dealing with these very issues in sports.
But because they play the women’s game, many in the media are not giving them the attention they deserve as being sort of, kind of like those trail blazers or those nuance conversations about, what social justice means? What it means to kneel when the anthem is on? What it means to say, “Yes, I play this game, but I also have this very nuance way of thinking about the country in which I play it in.” Etcetera etcetera.
I also look at what Amira is saying as sidelining the experiences of struggles of black female athletes, as well as looking at these social justice issues.
Shireen: I can’t thank you both enough for your time in doing this for us, and having this conversation ,and bringing to points that are so important, but they’re not necessarily easy for everyone to connect, and to be able to do that for us, we appreciate it tenfold and to look forward to having you back again on Burn It All Down. We’re huge fans of your work and thank you so much for taking the time to do this today.
Amira: Thank you, Shireen. Thank you, Nicole.
Nicole: Yes. Thank you, Amira. Thank you, Shireen, for having us.
21:28 Lindsay: Welcome back everyone. It is, as we said, the first week in October was Mental Health Awareness Week. I’m gonna have to say that behind the scenes here at Burn It All Down, mental health and our managing of mental health, is a discussion that we have personally a lot. I know that I’ve really inspired both by talking to other people in the business, by talking to friends, and by talking to athletes, and reading about athletes who were open about their mental health struggles.
We’re just gonna start by having a discussion, just between us. Jessica, do you want to start us off?
Jessica: Yeah, I do and I want to talk about a athlete in a piece that has meant a lot to me over the last couple years. In September of 2015, Mardy Fish, who used to be a tennis player for the U.S. He wrote a piece for the Player’s Tribune called The Wave and we’ll link to this. It was a day before what would be his last ever professional tennis match, that one played at the U.S. Open and he had struggled in the previous years because of heart problems, but also anxiety attacks. As he neared the end of his career, he began talking very openly about his mental struggles.
The month before in August 2015, at the time that he announced he be retiring, he told the Washington Post, “I want people to know what I’ve gone through to be a role model and a success story for people that may struggle with mental illness, and for people to remember my career in a positive light.”
I was diagnosed with anxiety and depression in January of 2013, and I’ve spent many sessions in therapy in my life, decades of my life. I’ve been on and off meds. I am every day learning how to manage it all.
The Player’s Tribune piece, it was Fish’s first person account of his own struggle with intense anxiety, and it just really meant something to me. There’s such a loneliness to mental illness, as if you’re the only one and your experience of it is yours alone. There’s a constant self questioning about whether what you’re experiencing is real or some drama that you’ve whipped up. It feel so completely wrong when you have the worst moments, and when things are going really well for you.
Fish discusses how the idea that I wasn’t good enough was a powerful one. That idea, it made him better, but it also never let him rest. I related in a truly deep way to his trouble sleeping, and not being able to sleep alone, like needing someone else there. Nighttime is always the worst time for an anxious brain. He describes his anxiety attack as a spiral, which is the word I’ve always used to explain how quickly I get from anxiety to depression, and why it’s so hard to stop it.
Before I pass the baton here, I just want to read a quote from the piece, it’s toward the end, and Fish writes, “I’m here to show weakness and I am not ashamed.”
I’m going to cry reading this you guys.
In fact, I’m writing this in a lot of ways for the express purpose of showing weakness. I’m writing this to tell people that weakness is okay. I’m here to tell people, that it’s normal and that strength ultimately comes in all sorts of forms. Addressing your mental health is strength. Talking about your mental health is a strength. Seeking information and help and treatment is strength.”
So yes, this all of this. Thank you Mardy Fish for these words that I still think about over two years later. They make me feel seen, understood, less alone, and yes, stronger.
That’s my athlete tie to all of this.
Lindsay: That’s incredible. I still think about that piece a lot too Jess. I have to say, that I interviewed Mardy Fish this summer and one thing I asked him was how he’s doing with his mental health. He was just as candid as he’s always been. That he’s doing better, but it’s not a magic “I’m better. I’m fixed. This is done.” And I thought, “Wow, you are so inspiring!”
But anyways, Mardy Fish talked to me about how he had just gotten a job at ESPN, and he was working as a tennis commentator. He had actually just gotten back from Wimbledon. He talked about what a big deal that was, to travel over there by himself, to work all those days in a row and be able to show up at work all those days in a row and be able to work under that pressure, and how much he really enjoyed it.
Listen, that’s something that I obviously can’t relate to, working at ESPN everyday, but it was something powerful.
All right, Brenda?
Brenda: Yeah, it’s interesting for me because I’ve always struggled with anxiety and it’s contradictory because exercise is one of the ways I feel better. On the one hand, sports is this place where athletes are under incredible stress, elite athletes. I think it really matters that a lot of them are supporting more than just themselves so they feel extra pressure not to admit that they’re having problems and to keep it very inside. A lot of the interviews with athletes are explaining that they’re scared, that if they come forward, that they’re jeopardizing a career, which provides for more than just themselves.
I feel for it, and it’s such a contradiction to me, because on the one hand, the experience at not an elite level, but just like a person struggling to keep an eight minute mile is that, exercise in the gym is such a wonderful, positive space for my mental health and it can be such a dis tractive space for some people. It’s an interesting thing.
I remember just about five years ago, the Chief Medical Officer of the NCAA, Brian Hainline, declared mental health as the number one safety concern of the NCAA.
Brenda: He said that, and it’s really caused a change, a shift, to looking at mental health as part of the whole health of the student athlete. I think that’s been really, really important, cause we know that participating in athletics helps particularly women, who have low body image and low self-esteem. They have body image issues and we know physiologically, it helps them to adjust that body image, and yet, and yet, once again, really elite NCAA gymnasts report how terrible their body image is and that they’re feeling under the microscope. It’s a real pressurized situation and I think it’s just a fascinating process.
27:46 Shireen: One of my favorite athletes of all time is a Canadian, a former Olympian, and Canadian athlete, named Silken Laumann. She’s an oars woman and she is a single sculler, I think she rowed doubles. I’ve always been unbelievable impressed with her. She had an accident, I think, eight weeks before she competed in Barcelona, where she won bronze, she was currently number one. She pushed through and I think eight weeks later, she recovered in that time, she had a scull go through her calf and she recovered. Her memoir is incredible.
In 2015, she started to talk about mental health issues and my challenges and my struggles with depression and anxiety were diagnosed much later after I had children. She talks about being a mom and being a step-mom, she has a step-daughter, who is severely autistic, and she talks about how she was trying to manage her own mental health when she didn’t even know it. Because she talks about this that her own mother had undiagnosed mental illness, but at that time, women could be institutionalized against their will without getting proper treatment in a way that was more holistically understanding.
Laumann’s memoir was incredible for me and her speaking about her story is really powerful. I’m just going to read a small excerpt that came out of her writing. This was on Huff Post and CBC News picked it up and it made a lot of headlines in Canada because she’s such a formidable personality here.
“I knew how people might react. When I told my soon-to-be husband that I suffered from anxiety and depression, he looked at me with confusion. When I told him that I took a pill daily to keep my anxiety at bay, he looked a bit alarmed.
‘What are you like without your pills?’ he asked sheepishly.
I felt angry and frustrated, but I got it. Many people have no experience with mental illness. They don’t understand that anxiety can be low grad and persistent and sometimes the person’s liver isn’t their best friend. I explained that an anti-depressant didn’t change my personality, it didn’t make me any less, it simply lessened my feelings of anxiety and being overwhelmed.
For me, that was a lot of it cause at times, people were like, “Oh, well, you’re so busy, you have a mom, you have parents that are aging, or battling some type of illness, or what-not, or you’re a mom of four kids.” People were all making excuses, but finally, I go to a doctor that said, “We’re not makig excuses, let’s talk about how you’re feeling. Let’s talk about how we can manage this and there’s not shaming it.” Because also, being from a south Asian community, historically there is a lot of shame around mental health issues. In terms of saying that cause people always think, “Oh my God, she’s crazy.” That’s ableist and it’s unfair.
For me to get someone who … a primary care physician who understood how I felt and helped me, but I started reading about it and I got more strength from Silken Laumann. I actually tweeted it out when I got her book, or Instagrammed it and she liked it. I was like, “Oh yay! She liked it!” Cause for me that was very affirming that her words … she was someone I looked up to for decades, and her words meant so much to me and that feeling about being honest about being overwhelmed. My shoulders get physically heavy, it’s hard to explain sometimes, but her explaining that exact same feeling was just so important for me.
Lindsay: You guys are amazing. I wanted to give a shout out to Chamique Holdsclaw, who is a former WNBA player, who’s been very open about her own struggles with mental illness and a lot of other bad stuff in her life and … excuse me, I’m all choked up already.
There was a great piece by Allison Glock on ESPNW this week that we will link in the show notes, but what really struck out to me was the desire to make … she talks about the desire to make everyone around you comfortable, so not talking openly about what you’re going through, wanting everybody else to feel okay. Just gonna read this one excerpt. It says,
“In 2006, Holdsclaw was rushed via ambulance to the hospital after swallowing several pills. She survived, but the suicide attempt largely private. “The official story was she was sick and dehydrate.” Page says. The teen told media that Holdsclaw was out to take care of a family matter.
Months later, Page was one of the few peers to whom Holdsclaw confided.
“She said she kept it from me because she didn’t want it to be a burden.”
Even after trying to end her life, Holdsclaw believed she owed it to her grandmother, her teammates, her coaches, everyone who banked on her to keep up the façade.
‘I didn’t want to seem weak in anyone’s eyes.” she said. “I put this cloak around me.'”
I related to that strongly because I have battled depression, anxiety and ADHD, a really fun cocktail my entire life. I’ve literally lost, I believe, years, in my twenties because the depression just kind of consumed me. Now, I’m 31 and I’m as functional, as mentally healthy, as I’ve ever been and yet, there is still many days where it’s a struggle to get out of bed.
During these times, I really find myself distancing myself from those close to me. It’s really … a lot of times, it’s cause I’m afraid that once I get on the phone with them, I’m not going to be able to keep up the façade. I’m gonna break down and I’m gonna have to tell them because these are people I love so much. It’s so hard to let people in because there’s no easy fix. I’m on medication, I do go to therapy, and I am, like I said, on a day-to-day basis, better than I’ve ever been, and yet, there’s still a lot of hard times for sure.
One of the things I want to keep doing, and one of the reasons I wanted to have this conversation, is cause I just believe so much in the power of talking about it, and of being open, and of getting rid of that stigma. I think that leads me into the next interview that I did with Imani, who has done more than her fair share, to share her experience and to help end that stigma.
34:09 Lindsay: Hello everyone. I am here with Imani Mcgee-Stafford, the 10th overall pick in the 2016 WNBA Draft, Texas Longhorn super star, currently, this season was the center for the Atlanta Dream and began the year as the center for the Chicago Sky, WNBA great. Imani is actually in Portland right now, where she is trading … actually, Oregon, just Oregon, I believe, where she is training.
Imani: Yeah, I am three hours from Portland.
Lindsay: Not at all Portland. I was wrong. But she is training with her Chinese team, but she is about to go overseas so she is talking with us from the outlet malls. We really appreciate her time.
Imani, I’m just gonna dive right into it. You have been, for the last few years, so open about your story. You are a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, you’ve been open with your struggles with depression, and also, you know that you’ve … your suicide attempts, and the times that you’ve pondered ending your life. Why have you decided to be so open about these things in your life and what is the hardest part about being so open?
Imani: I think, for me, I decided to tell my story on a whim. I didn’t think it would become as big as it was. It was started with just being like Longhorn Network, which is our local TV station in Texas and then ESPN picked it up and then it was running in Sports Center. It just became much bigger than me, but I was 18-19, very much discovering myself and who I wanted to be. I wanted to be the person I needed when I was younger. I grew up in a very … what happens in our household, stays in our household, type house so I was just sick of being quiet and sick of feeling so isolated.
The first time I performed a poem about my abuse, my teammate’s stepmother came up to me, and was like, “Oh my God, you just told my life story and I’ve never told a soul.” That solidified it for me. People being able to resonate with me. So many people having the same story as me.
Lindsay: That it’s not … you’re not alone, even though you feel so alone when you’re going through that.
Imani: Exactly. Exactly. I think the hardest part is when you choose to live your life in the public sphere, or give people that access to you, sometimes you forget that you’re not amazing, that you’re not a hero. You have to take care of yourself. I’ve gone through a lot this past couple of months, like people notice the name change and I had to take a step back and take care of myself. I’m always giving so much to other people and speaking about my abuse, and speaking about what I’ve been through, being an advocate, that sometimes I forget that I’m living this life. I’m still very much dealing with my own mental health issues and my own day-to-day life.
Lindsay: Right, and I think when we’re telling stories about this, and the media is as complacent and pushes this as much as anything … look, we like stories with a beginning, middle and end, and we like happy endings. You like to tell the tale of someone has … comes from a bad past and has really struggled, but now everything’s fine, everything’s perfect, they’re great, they’re fine, but that’s not the way real life works. As somebody that suffers from depression, that is certainly not the way depression works. It is a day-to-day, day-in, day-out thing that you have to deal with.
What are some of the ways that you take care of yourself on a day-to-day basis? How do you manage those highs and lows that just come with being a human being?
Imani: I think one of the biggest things I’ve learned through therapy over the years is what my triggers are. I can tell when I’m getting too low and when things aren’t right with myself and my own mental health. I think one of the biggest things for me was learning that it is a day-to-day process, that I can go six months and be great, and then crash, or a year and be great, and then crash. Not seeing that as a failure, but just a part of who I am.
Because in college, I got on anti-depressants and then I got off my anti-depressants and I did really well for a couple of years and then I just crashed. I felt so defeated, like, “Wow, you’ve done all this and now here we are back at square one.” Acknowledging that depression does not make me, but it is a part of who I am and I’ll have to manage it for the rest of my life and that’s okay. That doesn’t mean that I’m a failure, or I’m less of a person, or I’m broken in some way, it’s just who I am. It’s just a part of my story.
Lindsay: Absolutely. You’ve been so open and so that means that a lot of your teammates, and a lot of your coaches, and a lot of the people that you interact with on a day-to-day basis, probably know your story, even though you haven’t personally told them. How do you manage that dynamic and has it led to … has it facilitated getting closer with some of your teammates and coaches, or do you feel like sometimes it’s the elephant in the room?
Imani: I think it depends on who I’m talking to. My college coach, she had a similar background, so it made us much closer off the court, and I was really tight with her and I am to this day just because of that. While on the other hand, when I meet new people, I’m like, “Don’t google me. If you wanna know something, just ask.” I think it’s an interesting feeling when you walk into a room and you’re like, “Wow, you know everything about me. Uh!”
But it’s a choice I made and I think it’s so much bigger than me so every time I kinda get nervous or I feel like, “Wow, I wish I could take it back.” It make sense. Somebody will reach out to me like, “Wow, I just shared your story with my daughter. She’s been going through the same things. Thank you so much.” Or somebody that I’ve known my entire life, will share their story with me that I did not even know existed. You know what I mean? It’s so much bigger than me.
I think my purpose and the reason I have this platform, given to me by basketball, is to talk about these things on a national scale, because until we continue to have these conversations and it isn’t so taboo, and we don’t feel so naked sharing our truths like this, it’s gonna keep happening.
Lindsay: Right. How do you deal with this and also your basketball career, basketball … you’re so under the microscope and you, coming from such a … with your mom being a star and your brother being a basketball star, you’ve had that microscope on you for years. But even in the WNBA, you’ve got to perform on a day-in, day-out basis. There are people watching you, and grading you, and judging you on a day-in, day-out basis. I am someone who, the thought of that terrifies me, and I think that would be very triggering to me. There’s a reason I sit behind the big computer. But does basketball help you deal or is it sometimes … is it ever kind of make things worse? Is it ever, kind of get in the way of your recovery?
Imani: There was a point in my life where basketball definitely made things worse. I almost quit in college, like a lot. It was at one point, where I’d already found a job that could help me pay for my tuition. I was about to meet with the AD and I told my coach, “Look, I’m done.” At the time, I was severely depressed and basketball just kinda amplified everything. I think the moment I realized that I will always be a better human than I am an athlete, everything became so much easier. Because in high school, basketball was my escape, I loved it. I could just go on the court and nothing mattered. It didn’t matter what I did last night, it didn’t what did or did not happen, it didn’t matter what my name was, I just got to play. That’s why I loved basketball. But when you get … the higher you get, the more stakes become involved. The more people care about everything. It becomes more of a job than at one point. It becomes my job.
Imani: Removing my own personal self from basketball and acknowledging that, at the of the day, Imani is a good person, whether I score 20 tonight or 5 tonight. At the end of the day, this does not change who I am as a human. That made it a lot easier.
Lindsay: I know it’s tough because you are so much your story. Your story follows you, and like you said, that inspires a lot of people, it helps a lot of people, there’s a lot of good with that, but a lot of people don’t know you really beyond the story. What would you like people to know about you? Either as a basketball player or just a person.
Imani: I think the biggest thing I want people to know about me … that’s such a tough question. I don’t know, I think I’m still growing and still learning and I’ve done something probably different than most people, where I’ve opened myself up at a young age. I always say like, “I’m a 35-year-old on the inside”, cause I’ve lived so much life. But I’m really about to be 23, I’m a baby.
I don’t know, I’ve just allowed people to see me stumble and bump my head and do amazing things and sometimes not so amazing things in the public sphere. I think that anything you take from me, I hope that you’ll share a little bit of your truth because you never know what stories you have that someone needs to hear.
That’s my goal, that people will see me living authentically in my own skin, be it amazing one day or terrible the next day, but at the end of the day, authentically Imani, and feel like, “Wow, I can do that too. I want to be who I am.” I think we just have to move past the point where we all want to be so perfect because that’s what makes it so hard. That’s what makes us want to be so isolated. That’s what makes us keep everything inside.
Lindsay: God, that’s so powerful. Finishing up, I know this WNBA season was a weird one for you, what are your biggest take-aways from this season, finishing things up in Atlanta, and what are your goals, basketball wise for the next year?
Imani: I had very high goals for myself coming into the season and I did not accomplish them. I think you just got to keep staying hungry and keeping working, regardless … never get comfortable. That’s probably the biggest thing I learned this year, never get comfortable.
Lindsay: Well, listen Imani, thank you so, so much. We wish you all the best in China and are looking forward to cheering you on in the States again next summer. Thank you so much for being on Burn It All Down.
Imani: Thank you for having me.
44:07 Lindsay: Moving now to the Burn Pile, I am in the mood to burn some things. Shireen, you want to kick us off?
Shireen: Absolutely. I got a message yesterday about a sport that I am really excited to hopefully write about one day, roller derby. A lot of people don’t know this, but the World Flat Track Roller Derby Association was one of the first sport federations to actually come out and speak publicly, make a statement, when Trump came out with the Muslim/travel ban last year. They actually changed one of their competitions because some of their players in Europe were former refugees, coming from countries that were named. They were very, very quick to advocate and protect for their athletes.
Anyways, Iran’s roller derby team were forced to change their name from Iran to IRN. In my summary, just because the world [inaudible 00:44:59], but they posted a note on Facebook in their page and I will actually just read a quick second to you all and it says,
“It is with reluctance, and after much team discussion, we have decided to change the name of Team Iran to Team IRN. It has come to our attention that due to our political climate, the word Iran is still being considered a red flag. Our fundraisers have been shut down repeatedly due to economic sanctions. Our financial statements have been endlessly requested to ensure the money we raise isn’t being funneled back into Iran, and even our World Cup registrations payments were blocked by banks because Iran triggered algorithms designed to identify suspicious persons and associations. We always knew that forming a new team, particularly a middle eastern one, was going to be a challenge. Unfortunately, we did not anticipate the extent of these challenges, but we will continue to overcome these obstacles one by one and we will make it to the World Cup.”
So I am rooting for them and I’m also wanting to burn the fact that these are women and, one of a possibly, incredibly intersectional sport, a sport that is unbelievably open to different communities around the world. It’s being open up and these women are having … these are women of color, most of them women of color for the most part, that are having to battle this constantly. For them, people are like, “Oh, sports aren’t political.” This is inherently political. They’re being blocked and their funding is getting affected and they need to make this tournament. I really hope it happens. I just want to burn down those places that shut down opportunities for women in the face.
46:40 Lindsay: Burn it down. I’d like to talk a little bit about a lawsuit that’s happening. I’ll just read you the headline that I wrote this week, “NYPD cop, who tackled and wrongfully arrested James Blake, sues James Blake for defamation.”
Yes, yes, you heard that correct. <laughter>
In this lawsuit, the cop, Frascatore, which is of course his name, I don’t know, it just sounds like the … I don’t know, it just sounds very stereotypical. I mean not stereotypical, but I would write that as a cop’s name, I just love that name.
Anyways, Frascatore says that,
“During the media appearances this summer, while Blake was promoting his new book, Ways of Grace,” … which, side note, wonderful, everyone should read it … “Blake libeled, slandered, and defamed Frascatore by repeatably characterizing the officer as “a racist and a goon”. Frascatore adds that by portraying him as a racist, Blake and other NYC agencies have intentionally discriminated against the officer on the basis of race.”
Now, I would like to remind you that a couple of years ago, James Blake was … who is an African American, former tennis champion, was leaning against his hotel wall, casually checking his phone, as he waited for his cab to take him to the U.S. Open. All of a sudden, this plain’s clothes officer ran at him, did not identify himself as an officer, grabbed Blake, tackled him to the ground and handcuffed him.
Now, turned out this was a case of mistaken identity, Blake, an African American man, looked very similar to the suspect that they were going after.
Jessica: Of course.
Lindsay: Of course he did. It was all settled, but Blake has been fighting this and he actually set up a wonderful scholarship so instead of really going after the NYPD for money, he has urged them to set up a fund that will look into incidents of racist cops and police brutality, which is just incredible. He is really working hard to make things better, and this officer has the gall to sue Blake saying that he is the actual victim of racism. I would like to burn it.
48:55 Jessica: Sure, the Courier Journal in Louisville, Kentucky, had a report this week that began this way,
“When University of Louisville Athletic Director, Tom Jurich, announced a new deal with athletic apparel giant Adidas on August 25th, a reporter asked him if some of the proceeds would be shared with the University.
‘It’s for the athletic department.” Jurich replied. “It’s for the student athletes, it’s been earmarked for them.”
In fact, under the current deal with Adidas, which expires July 1st, 98% of the cash provided by Adidas goes to one person, Rick Pitino, the now suspended head coach.”
LOL. College sports are so gross.
The Courier Journal went on, “In 2015-2016, for example, 1.5 million dollars went to Pitino under his personal services agreement with the apparel company, while just $25,000 went to the program, according to a contract obtained by the Courier Journal, under the State Public Records Act. The year before Pitino also got 1.5 million, while the department banked just $10,000.
It’s wild, and also totally unsurprising to me, that no matter how much we learn about the corruption and money-making collegiate sports and the exploitation of the labor of student athletes to line the pockets of athletic administrators and coaches, nothing ever seems to change. The blatant hypocrisy of how this all works is comic book villain levels and yet, we know that Pitino, making bank off this apparel deal, that would have gotten a player banned from collegiate play and ruin their life, won’t make a damn difference in the end. Everyone will shrug, say, ‘Coaches will be coaches.’ and the cycle will continue.”
Burn it all.
Shireen: Burn. Torch it.
Lindsay: Brenda, do you want to finish us up?
50:34 Brenda: Yeah, I’m gonna pull my jaw off the floor. It’s amazing how I never cease to be shocked. It’s over and over.
Okay, what am I gonna burn? I wrote an article on a soccer player from Chile. He also plays for Arsenal, his name is Alexis Sanchez, for those of you not…
Brenda: … super into global soccer and for me, is the best player of all-time in Chilean history. All love to Iván Zamorano. In any case, this article was a discussion of the media’s obsession with establishing Alexis’s heterosexuality, over and over and over again. To the extent that it can be hour long features on his romantic announcements of having a new girlfriend.
Jessica: Holy moly.
Brenda: The article is a think piece on how misogyny and homophobia work together in soccer. What does it say about the state of women in sports media in Chile? It’s important to remember that Chile is leading the world in fines for homophobic behavior at matches. That’s part of the impetus of the piece. Two newspapers contacted me immediately for an interview and question number one was, “Do you think Alexis Sanchez is gay?”
The entire point of the article is both substantiated and misunderstood in the exact same moment. I know it’s an Indy magazine, it’s called Revista De Cabeza. Many of you don’t read Spanish, but you should check it out anyway. I want to burn the reaction to the piece, not only misunderstanding my criticism of that, with my actual questioning of a person’s sexuality, and the Facebook comments that attacked me personally suggesting that if I had a real man in my life, I’d stop asking these types of questions. Please don’t read the comments. Don’t go to Revista De Cabeza’s Facebook page.
Shireen: It was not Arsenal supporters who did this though, right?
Brenda: I don’t know how many Arsenal supporters read Spanish.
Brenda: Quite frankly. I would place the impetus of this on the Chilean, some of the Chilean fans. I also got some great comments, but I’d like to burn the ones that attack me personally and question this man.
52:57 Lindsay: After that, let’s go to our Badass Woman of the Week. I’d like to finish here on a positive note. Like to give an honorable mention to Simona Halep, who made history this week as a 25th WTA No. 1.
I’d also like to shout out, Morgan Hurd, the 16-year-old American who won the World Championship in gymnastics this week, which is just incredible. She did it against all odds. We’re gonna link a great piece in the show noon notes from Deadspin about her entire feat.
Also, like to lift up eight former players of the Brazil Women’s National team, including Cristiane and Francielle, as well as former World Cup star, Sissi, Rosana, and Formiga, who wrote an open letter to Brazil’s Football Federation to protest and reiterate the need for women in coaching, decision-making and power roles of which, of course, there are currently none.
And … drum roll please … our Badass Woman of the Week is …
Shireen: Do we not have a sound effect for that?
Lindsay: We’re working on it, you guys. We’ve been busy.
It is Tiffany Greene, the first black woman on ESPN to do play-by-play on a nationally televised college football game. You are a badass Tiffany.
Look, it is been quite a week. Let’s finish it up here with a really quick round of what’s going good in our lives. I will start. I went apple picking yesterday with some friends and then we went to a brewery and it is 90 degrees so I like to say we were apple picking in July, but it was still fun. It was lovely to get out into nature and to … I didn’t have cell phone service for a while, which was just so wonderful. That was my, What’s Good.
54:47 Shireen: I am going to quickly say it’s Thanksgiving, long weekend in Canada and I’m a huge fan of turkey, generally. My family’s getting together and I love this time cause we’re all off. We’re not recognizing any type of celebration that applauds the genocide of indigenous people, but we’re having turkey and we’re having family time. That, for me, is massive and I’m so excited about it.
Lindsay: Amazing. Jess?
Jessica: Yesterday I dead lifted 75 Kg, which is about 165 lbs, which is my personal.
Lindsay: Oh my gosh!
Jessica: I know, right?
Jessica: It’s my personal best, by far.
Lindsay: Look out world.
Jessica: I’m preparing to participate in a dead lifting competition at my gym. [crosstalk] I know, I know, I know. I’m gonna do that. In a couple weeks, I’m gonna attempt 80 Kg, which is 176 lbs that day.
I just want to say, to tie the bow on the discussion of mental health and bring it back to it, Brenda said, “My gym is my favorite place in Austin, other than my house.” And going to personal training there has really helped me to stay sane, literally, over the last three years. My dead lifting and my gym are what’s good for me right now.
Shireen: Yay! That’s awesome.
Brenda: This week I am going to go see Naomi Klein at Hofstra. She comes Monday, October 9th, she’s just written, No Is Not Enough, Resisting Trump’s Shock Politics and Winning the World We Need and I really need somebody to tell me how to win the world we need.
Lindsay: Don’t we all. This was wonderful. Thank you all so much. Burn It All Down lives on Sound Cloud, you can also hear it Apple Podcast, Stitcher and TuneIn. We really appreciate your reviews and feedback. We’ve gotten some great reviews on iTunes lately. Please subscribe, rate and review. It helps us so much.
You can follow us on Twitter @BurnItDownPod. You can follow us on Facebook at Burn It All Down, and our website is BurnItAllDownPod.com and our email is BurnItAllDownPod@gmail.com. Woo! That’s a lot, I know, but thank you for following with us.
We still have a Go Fund Me page going, if you could consider making a small donation, we’d really appreciate it. But most importantly, spread the word and come back next week. We all love and appreciate you so much. For Shireen Ahmed, Jessica Luther, and Brenda Elsey, I’m Lindsey Gibbs, and we’ll see you next week.