In her eight-year boxing career, Olympic gold medalist Claressa Shields has never lost a single match and yet she still gets no respect. From Mother Jones:
“Maybe you remember Claressa “T-Rex” Shields: At 17, she was the youngest boxer in last summer’s Olympics, the first games to ever let women spar. Aggressive, spunky, and intensely focused, she trounced a Russian opponent twice her age in the finals to return home to Flint, Michigan, with a gold medal. “I wrapped it around my hand when I went to sleep,” Shields says. “I had this fear that when I woke up the medal was going to be silver.” Yet unlike fellow gold medalist Gabby Douglas, the teen gymnast who is expected to rake in $8-$12 million from sponsorships, Shields has received no national endorsement deals (though a local car lot gave her a custom black and gold Camaro). “I think because women’s boxing is new, I guess,” she says. “I don’t really know.”
If you have missed seeing Shields fight at the Olympics – or anywhere else for that matter- please stop reading right now and go search YouTube for some of her previous performances. The girl is phenomenal. And no shade to Gabby Douglas, but while we were, and still continue to, celebrate one little black girl’s historic achievements in one sport, we totally forgot about another black teen girl, about the same age as Douglas, who too made history at the Olympics. Not only is she the first African-American woman to win gold in boxing, but the first woman, period. Like Douglas, she too has an equally compelling story about adversity and triumph, including being both a black youth from inner city Detroit and a survivor of sexual assault. But yet and still you tell me that Shields has not been asked to cover one Wheaties box? Not to sound like an alarmist, but I really do believe that it is a national embarrassment that this young gladiator, who has worked hard, and with success, in service of our country is not reaping the financial benefits.
As Shields humbly said in the Mother Jones article, women’s Olympic boxing is pretty new, which might explain her lack of endorsements, however, but at least one boxer has managed to capture the attention of corporate America. Fellow women’s boxer and 2016 Olympic hopeful Mikaela Mayer recently became Dr. Pepper’s official spokesperson. In the soft drink’s television commercial, Mayer, who prior to boxing used to work as a full-time model says, “Millions of girls are told they’re pretty, but not many end up becoming a model. And even fewer decide to put their face in front of someone who wants to rearrange it. And now, instead of fighting for a cover shot, I’m Mikaela Mayer and I’m one of a kind.” Indeed, Mayer is one of a kind. Not only is she a beautiful former model but she is also a serious contender in the women’s boxing world. According to Team USA.org, Mayer has a laundry list of boxing achievements including being the 2011 National Golden Gloves Champion, being a gold medalist at the 2012 AMBC Continental Championships, and holding a bronze medal at the 2012 AIBA World Championships.
But despite the impressive resume and pretty much being favored to win a spot on the US Women’s boxing team, her bronze medal at the 2012 AIBA ended her bid to compete in the first Olympic boxing competition for women. Guess who did make the squad in 2012? Shields. And she won a gold medal. According to the Mother Jones article, Shield is currently training for not only the USA Boxing National Championship but the Rio Olympics in 2016, where she will be defending her current world title. She is also preparing for college. To borrow words from Mayer and Dr. Pepper, I definitely think that makes Shields “one of a kind.” But to simply bypass the first champion of an inaugural Olympic sport in favor of another athlete, who while accomplished, has not proven herself at the level of Shields, is bewildering to me. I mean, would you do a television commercial with the runner up of the Miss America beauty pageant? I think not.
We’ve seen this scenario played out many times before in women’s sports. If you’ll recall, during the 2012 Olympic games, Dawn Harper and Kellie Wells, silver and bronze medalists spoke openly about having their stories trampled over while the media hype machine favored Lolo Jones, who only placed fourth at the Olympic hurdles race. In an interview with NBC Sports, Harper said this of the virgin/model/sprinter:
“I feel I had a pretty good story — knee surgery two months before Olympic trials in 2008, to make the team but 0.007, not have a contract … working three jobs, living in a frat house, trying to make it work. Coming off running in someone else’s shoes getting the gold medal. Uhhh, I’d say I was pretty interesting. Coming from East St. Louis…I just felt as if I worked really hard to represent my country in the best way possible, and to come way with the gold medal, and to honestly seem as if, because their favorite didn’t win all of sudden it’s just like, ‘Were going to push your story aside, and still gonna push this one.’ That hurt. It did. It hurt my feelings. But I feel as if I showed I can deal with the pressure, I came back, and I think you kinda got to respect it a little bit now.”
Harper and Wells thought their medals would earn them respect, but instead they were labeled and dismissed as haters. And that’s a pity considering that they had a legitimate point: It takes a considerable amount of dedication and sacrifice in order to rise to the level of Olympic athlete. Harper was not lying when she said she lived in a frat house – it was the only thing that she and her husband, who too is an Olympic athlete, could afford while training full-time for the 2008 games in which she won her gold medal in the 100-meter hurdles. So I can imagine that for athletes like Harper, who have reached the highest degree, an Olympic gold should warrant a few chances to recuperate, if not profit, off of all the time, energy, physical health and personal money you put into this mission. From a personal perspective, I can’t imagine slaving away on a project at work and have my supervisor come along and give accolades to another employee, who didn’t carry the project to fruition, all because my boss likes him/her better.
It is kind of depressing that even in the world of women’s sports – a place that implies some sort of exclusion from sexist influence – standard troupes of femininity, over skill and accomplishments, still matter in what is marketable. Not only are athletes like Shields, Harper and Wells being shut out of opportunities to capitalize off of their hardwork, but athletes like Mayer, Jones and in some respects, Gabby Douglas are being paraded around by both the media and corporate advertising as some sort of poster children for what a female athlete is supposed to look like. And that suggests to me that the general public still can not fully take women in sports seriously. I mean, how can we celebrate these women for breaking barriers and making history in the world of sports while using the other hand to reinforce subtle messages that your personal appeal, more than likely physical, will always trump your talent?