Being an athlete is a rigorous experience physically and mentally in any sport, but the complexity rises when you have to face adversity as well. The Connections and Conversations group for racialized staff at UofT, with the mission to provide a community of support and opportunities for mentorship and professional development, gives insight into the issues of adversity through workshops, seminars, and events.

On Thursday, February 11 they hosted their Zoom presentation, “Black Athletes on the Margins: I Am More!” consisting of student writer Desiree Rubadiri, Soccer coach Jesse Asiedu, Track-And-Field Bobsledder Alecia Beckford Stewart, and Toronto Argonaut Natey Adjei.

Rubadiri kicked things off with a spoken-word poem on the incarceration of Black people in America titled “When They See Us” that focuses on the issue of the false narrative of the media.

After the poem, we got to meet our guest panelists who spoke on a range of topics. When asked about COVID Asiedu and Beckford both mentioned that they feel grateful for the opportunities they’ve had. Asiedu said that he feels gratitude for his personal experience considering the pandemic restrictions today, and Beckford said that she is enjoying the opportunity to get creative with what to do with her time. Adjei on the other hand said he found a silver lining with Covid-19: due to the pandemic he has been able to spend more time with his children and is able to get more into sports media, particularly Sportsnet.

The presentation quickly got into deeper questions. When asked about being Black in their respective sports, every athlete had a distinct answer. Asiedu, who came to Canada from Africa, was the only black athlete on his soccer teams growing up and had the mentality that he had to perform exceptionally well or else he would feel the resentment from his teammates wondering “why didn’t Jesse perform today” compared to his other teammates who wouldn’t have the same type of expectations on performance.

Beckford felt like the sole black athlete on not only her team but in her sport when it came to gymnastics and bobsledding. As a kid she mentions the ignorance of her peers who expected her to be fast and powerful due to her skin. The athlete who narrowly missed out on the 2018 Olympics states her skin is only the result of melanin and does not affect her speed or strength. She says further that even today she feels the racism in subtle moments, for example certain people wondering how she’ll perform in her helmet considering her black hair when nobody else’s hair is brought into question.

Adjei said that in the world of football, the portion of Black athletes is around 70 per cent, so he never felt the racism personally. But he has seen racist situations where a Black quarterback isn’t being told to run a complex offence from coaches who don’t think they’re smart enough to handle it, practically stuffing the quarterback into a box where they won’t get the opportunity to advance their career because the coach doesn’t think they can handle it mentally.

Outside of sport, Adjei has said that he gets treated with a friendly smile but that he knows in the back of his head that if he weren’t an athlete, he’d be treated differently. One instance he brings up was a policeman acting hostile to him until he realized that Adjei was a Toronto Argonaut. Adjei also spotlights how social justice shouldn’t be in moments of the year, bringing up the argument that there should be the prevention of wrongdoings, not corrections after the fact.

When it comes to mental health, Adjei mentions how it is not usually talked about and how athletes grow up with the conditioning that mental health is a weakness. He wants young athletes to know that it’s not about being soft, it is about being aware, and that not talking about mental health does not make you a better athlete.

Going forward, the three athletes talk about their insights on the present and future. Asiedu says that as a coach he does not want his athletes to go through what he did so he communicates with his team on a personal level. On life as an athlete he specifically says, “It is a journey, and a personal journey. Being an athlete lasts for 30 years—there’s still 60 years left.”

Beckford mentions how being an athlete does not determine who you are; it is an opportunity that gives you options. Specifically, she mentions the scholarships she has received, and the privilege she’s had to travel around the world thanks to excelling in her sport.

Adjei who I would consider the MVP of the guest panelists (most likely due to his experience with Sportsnet), finalized his thoughts with ideas like “Don’t let your athleticism go to your head,” talking about how you shouldn’t mistreat people because you’re an athlete. “Treat every day like a job interview,” he continued.

Following a two-way Q&A session, Desiree Rubadiri capped off the event with another spoken-word poem. This one with a theme of being underestimated and rising above challenges. The event ran for 90 minutes, providing an insightful look on being an athlete, being Black, and mental health. It can be watched on YouTube here:

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