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Paige Bueckers models how white athletes can use their platform

Paige Bueckers delivered an important message upon receiving the ESPY for Best College Athlete (women’s sports). | Photo by Kevin Mazur/Getty Images
Upon winning the Best College Athlete award for women’s sports at the ESPYs, UConn’s Paige Bueckers used the platform provided by her acceptance to share the spotlight with Black women, emphasizing how their importance to women’s basketball has failed to be adequately appreciated. Moving forward, will the media and sponsors actually listen to Bueckers’ message?

POWER IS NOT MEANT TO BE GRIPPED WITH A CLENCHED FIST … POWER IS MEANT TO BE HANDLED GENEROUSLY SO WE CAN THOUGHTFULLY EMPOWER ONE ANOTHER TO THRIVE IN OUR COMMUNITIES … CHAMPIONING OUR HUMANITY BEFORE OUR AMBITIONS.

UConn Husky and Minnesota Lynx legend Maya Moore spoke the above words in the stirring speech she gave upon receiving the Arthur Ashe Courage Award at the Saturday night ESPYs ceremony.

In the same ceremony, another UConn Husky, who happens to be a Minnesota native, offered a model of what Moore described. Paige Bueckers, who received the award for Best College Athlete (women’s sports), used her platform to share her power. She did not “grip” an award that was a product of her ambitions, but, instead, “generously” empowered others by emphasizing the importance of Black women to women’s basketball in her acceptance speech.

Bueckers said:

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WITH THE LIGHT THAT I HAVE NOW AS A WHITE WOMAN WHO LEADS A BLACK-LED SPORT AND CELEBRATED HERE, I WANT TO SHED A LIGHT ON BLACK WOMEN. THEY DON’T GET THE MEDIA COVERAGE THEY DESERVE. THEY’VE GIVEN SO MUCH TO THE SPORT, THE COMMUNITY AND SOCIETY AS A WHOLE AND THEIR VALUE IS UNDENIABLE.

Bueckers then went further, calling out sports media — where ESPN, the organizer of the ESPYs, is the major power player and, thus, the main culprit — for inadequately amplifying Black women athletes and their accomplishments. She stated:

SPORTS MEDIA HOLDS THE KEY TO STORYLINES. SPORTS MEDIA AND SPONSORS TELL US WHO WAS VALUABLE, AND YOU HAVE TOLD THE WORLD THAT I MATTERED TODAY, AND EVERYONE WHO VOTED, THANK YOU. BUT I THINK WE SHOULD USE THIS POWER TOGETHER TO ALSO CELEBRATE BLACK WOMEN.

Here’s why Bueckers’ speech resonated.

The shortcomings of white allyship
Over the past year, the sports world has declared its dedication to uplifting Black lives and Black voices. Yet, actualizing this attitude often has proven difficult, especially in a sports culture that long has instinctually privileged white athletes and their achievements. The privileging of white athletes has been particularly glaring in women’s basketball, as the Black women of the WNBA have been at the forefront of athlete activism around issues of racial justice and equity.

As Jemele Hill wrote on Instagram in response to Bueckers’ speech:

A BIG PROBLEM OVERALL IN WOMEN’S BASKETBALL AT BOTH THE COLLEGE AND PRO LEVEL IS THE LACK OF ACKNOWLEDGMENT AND SUPPORT FOR BLACK WOMEN WHO POWER THE SPORT. PAIGE UNDERSTANDS THE GAME WITHIN THE GAME.

Or, more often than not, it appears that white athletes have separated their moments of allyship and advocacy from their moments of ambition and achievements. On the whole, white women basketball players have shown themselves to be eager allies, using their social media platforms, in particular, to advocate for racial justice and acknowledge the work of Black women. This lower-stakes allyship is important.

However, when their stakes are raised, ambition tends to trump allyship. White women have continued to accept, without protestation, a disproportionate amount of the (still too-little) media coverage and (still too-few) endorsements allocated to women’s basketball, choosing not to use their privilege to challenge media organizations or corporations to also devote their representational and/or financial resources to Black women.

While outside the world of women’s basketball, the situation involving ESPN’s Rachel Nichols exemplifies the limitations of white allyship. Although Nichols frequently has used her television show, “The Jump,” to highlight the NBA’s racial justice initiatives, her support for racial equity stalled when it required relinquishing her power to open up an opportunity for her ESPN colleague Maria Taylor. Nichols, to again borrow Moore’s words, “gripped” her power “with a clinched fist,” “championing” her own “ambitions” instead of “thoughtfully empower[ing]” Taylor.

Bueckers did the opposite.

The positive reaction to her speech, especially from Black women, hints at the ways in which many white women athletes, as well as other white women in the sports space, have not fully reckoned with their white privilege, and the (many) privileges it comes with.

Can the media de-center white athletes?
In a post-ESPYs conversation with The Undefeated, Bueckers shared the genesis of her speech:

OVER THE PAST COUPLE OF YEARS, I’VE JUST GOTTEN A LOT OF ATTENTION IN THE MEDIA AND A LOT OF IT HAS BEEN FOCUSED ON ME AND OTHER WHITE ATHLETES AND I JUST WANT TO USE MY PLATFORM TO SORT OF SHARE THE LIGHT AND … EXPAND THE HORIZONS ON WHO GETS THE ATTENTION, WHO GETS THE SOCIAL MEDIA FOLLOWINGS.

Not so surprisingly, one of the unintended consequences of Bueckers’ speech has been more attention on her and her white allyship, instead of, as she intended, more attention on Black women. This cycle — where white athletes who cede space to Black athletes receive credit and coverage for their choice — is further evidence of how firmly centered white athletes are in sports media.

With the implementation of the NCAA’s new NIL policy, this attention economy is even more precious for college athletes. Quite possibly, Bueckers’ speech inspired a number of companies to consider investing in her. If these companies were actually listening to her words — not simply captivated by the poised young white woman speaking the words — they would be contacting Black athletes about endorsement opportunities. They could start with the Black women who are Bueckers’ teammates at UConn: Olivia Nelson-Ododa, Christyn Williams, Evina Westbrook, Aubrey Griffin, Aaliyah Edwards, Mir McLean, Piath Gabriel, Azzi Fudd and Amari DeBerry.

Then there are the Black women who are members of the national champion Stanford Cardinal: Anna Wilson, Haley Jones, Fran Belibi and Agnes Emma-Nnopu. Two other teams expected to contend for the 2022 national title — South Carolina and Maryland — have a number of talented Black women ballers. There’s the rising junior trio of Aliyah Boston, Brea Beal and Zia Cooke, among others, for Gamecocks. The Terrapins are headlined by the likes of Ashley Owusu, Diamond Miller and Angel Reese. Elsewhere around the nation, there’s Rhyne Howard at Kentucky, NaLyssa Smith at Baylor and Naz Hillmon at Michigan.

These names are just the tip of iceberg. The sport of women’s college basketball is full of awesome, engaging, electrifying and elegant young Black women who deserve the spotlight, and any monetary opportunities that come with it.

Paige gets “it.” Will the media and sponsors also get “it”?

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