Treated as a "criminal mastermind”: Black women athletes punished for mental & reproductive health

Brianna McNeal is one of several Black women athletes whose mental health is denied and held to an inhuman standard

Published July 17, 2021 11:00AM (EDT)

Naomi Osaka at the 2021 French Open Tennis Tournament and Brianna McNeal in the Women 100 Meter Hurdles at the 2020 U.S. Olympic Track & Field Team Trials (Photo illustration by Salon/Tim Clayton/Corbis/Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
Naomi Osaka at the 2021 French Open Tennis Tournament and Brianna McNeal in the Women 100 Meter Hurdles at the 2020 U.S. Olympic Track & Field Team Trials (Photo illustration by Salon/Tim Clayton/Corbis/Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

Brianna McNeal had been recovering from an abortion she had in January last year, when she missed a mandatory drug test from World Athletics two days after the procedure. McNeal, a 2016 Olympic track and field champion, had been in bed, and didn't hear the anti-doping officials at her front door who had come to carry out the test.

Physically and emotionally recovering from her abortion, among other intense personal struggles, marked one of the most difficult times in McNeal's life. Yet, where she needed compassion and support, she was met with suspicion, interrogation, and devastating punishment. Following two hearings of her case before World Athletics, which McNeal described to Salon as "insensitive," "invasive" and "gaslighting," last month, she was suspended from competing in her sport for five years for allegedly tampering within the results management process.

"In both of my hearings, they didn't acknowledge my mental health, they tried to discredit it — especially the second time, when they brought in some clinical psychologist to try to tell me what I should have been experiencing," McNeal said, of a disciplinary hearing in which she tried to explain to World Athletics how recovery from her abortion and her subsequent mental health struggles had affected her. Instead, she was told she hadn't actually experienced depression, and all the ways she supposedly would have acted if she had. 

"They were wrapping me up into this person, this criminal mastermind, that I am not. It was heartbreaking to have to deal with this whole case and the insensitivity, to be told I should have been doing this instead of that, when they could never know [what it's like] being inside my shoes," she said.

McNeal believes "without a doubt" that the outcome of her case was shaped by her identity as a Black woman, and the broader, systemic issue of mistreatment of Black women athletes, as well as prevalent abortion stigma. Certainly, she's one of several Black women athletes this Olympic cycle alone who were pushed out of the games by discriminatory, race-gendered policies. And she's also one of many female athletes whose careers have been impacted by discrimination and punishment based on a pregnancy outcome. 

Earlier this month, Sha'Carri Richardson, another Black, female track and field star, was suspended and barred from the Tokyo Olympics after testing positive for marijuana — a ruling that is inseparable from the racist War on Drugs, and long history of policing Black communities for marijuana use. She later shared in an interview that she had smoked weed as a means to cope with grief after the death of her mother.

Just weeks earlier, tennis superstar Naomi Osaka was fined $15,000 for refusing to do interviews with media to preserve her mental health. Osaka, struggling with anxiety and met with no support from the French Open, was forced to bow out of the competition, while also facing immense pressure to share her struggles with anxiety with the world. The story of Osaka balancing her wildly successful career with her mental health is now the subject of a Netflix docuseries that released this week. Osaka has inspired many, paving the way for change — but, of course, no matter how famous, no athletes should feel forced to divulge difficult personal stories to the public to be treated with compassion.

Among many similarities these women's stories share, there is the excruciating, highly public nature of it all. McNeal didn't intend to share her abortion story with anyone at first, save trusted loved ones and her coach, because the procedure had impacted her ability to participate in a race that same weekend. But as her case dragged on, and World Athletics continued to ignore her explanations about her mental and physical health, McNeal felt forced to provide full details about a deeply private and personal experience — one that's become extremely visible in the past few weeks alone.

"In the beginning, I was trying to be vague as possible, but still letting them know I had something medical going on that weekend when I missed my tests," she said. "But I guess the information wasn't enough for them. I was getting frustrated, because I felt like they didn't believe me, and I had to disclose that information to them, which I really did not." 

Even after she disclosed these details, McNeal says World Athletics officials "did not have compassion or understanding as to what [she] had going on that weekend." She says she was "met with a lot of interrogation and stigmatized because they couldn't understand why [she] was making certain decisions due to the trauma [she] was under."

According to McNeal, most people just don't understand the extent of the policing, punishment and cruelty athletes — and especially Black women athletes — face. "They don't listen to our perspective, our experience with mental health, and nitpick it just because it doesn't make sense to them, but that doesn't mean that situation isn't true for us," she said. "I felt like I was being gaslighted the entire time, especially seeing things on social media."

Black women athletes are being punished for mental health struggles

Among the one in four women who have abortions, everyone has a different experience, and no experience is more valid than another. For McNeal, even months after the procedure, she continued to struggle both physically and emotionally, falling into a deep depression she believes was partially inflicted by abortion stigma, which affected her ability to train, care for herself, and meet the different dates and demands imposed by World Athletics. As a result of McNeal's struggles at this time, during which she also struggled with mourning the loss of a family member, her highly decorated athletic career has been derailed by her five-year ban.

"This whole case is insensitive, and their purpose is to catch dopers, but this has nothing to do with doping," McNeal said. "It's just an abuse of authority, and entrapment as well."

Leeja Carter, an assistant professor at Long Island University-Brooklyn, whose work focuses on wellness for women of color, sports, and contemporary representation of Black women as "strong," sees the stories about McNeal, Richardson and Osaka as connected by a greater culture of Black women being disproportionately punished and policed for mental health struggles. Or, in other words, they're punished and policed for being human, failing to be the archetype of the "strong Black woman."

"That archetype celebrates this strength and resilience of Black women, how they're able to navigate a society that is violent toward them, and still show up in a brilliant, excellent, joyful way," Carter said. "But it puts us in a box. It doesn't allow us to understand our own diverse experience around physical, mental, emotional, spiritual health. And it allows society to not see our humanity — when we act outside that box, we're characterized as angry, weak, or just misunderstood, punished."

The supposedly race and gender-neutral policies and requirements of athletes carry specific harm for Black women and their mental health. "These policies are not gender and body-inclusive," Carter said. "[In McNeal's case], they dismiss and fail to acknowledge the very real experience of abortion on the body, mind and spirit. Black women are disproportionately impacted by inequitable and exclusive policies, and as a result will bear more of the negative impact of these policies."

At the heart of widespread mistreatment of especially Black women athletes, McNeal also sees stereotyping of athletes like her as "strong" as actually harmful. "They put athletes on this high pedestal as if we're supposed to be superhuman, and we're supposed to be able to do things so perfectly, when we're just as human as everyone else," she said. "We're told, 'You're strong it's supposed to roll off your back,' but we are weak too — we're not all strong, we are also weak."

Carter believes Black women athletes deserve more than just to not be punished for struggling — they deserve actual resources and support from the institutions that take so much from them. That starts with acknowledging there's a problem, in the first place.

"First, let's acknowledge that sport rulemaking and governing bodies have a long way to go before establishing and systemizing gender and body-inclusive policies and messages," Carter said. "If we don't acknowledge there is an issue, we will never seek to address and transform it."

"They undermined abortion stigma": Black pregnant athletes face unique barriers

McNeal says that even after she reluctantly shared her experience having an abortion and how it had affected her, World Athletics ignored this, and refuted her claim that she had been struggling with mental and physical health issues when she missed her drug test. 

"They totally just forgot about the procedure and focused more so on the error I made," she said. "I felt like they just did not have any compassion or understanding as to what I went through."

Victoria Jackson, a sports historian and clinical assistant professor at Arizona State University whose research focuses on pregnancy and sports, says stories like McNeal's aren't rare, despite the erasure of women athletes' experiences with pregnancy, contraception, and even abortion. "Women athletes have been getting abortions, experimenting with forms of birth control, and having to navigate both underground networks of information and overground systems that do not consider the realities of their bodies, since the birth of modern sport," Jackson told Salon.

According to Jackson, women and pregnant-capable athletes have long had to consider potential impacts of birth control on their athletic performance, or faced pressure to have abortions, knowing sports governing bodies, professional leagues, and athletic brands often punish pregnant athletes or mothers. In 2019, Allyson Felix, an Olympic track and field champion, left her deal with Nike after she says the company tried to pay her 70% less after her pregnancy. Today, Felix is notably helping to fund child care for Olympic athletes competing in Tokyo.

"Sports governing bodies, professional leagues, athletic shoe and apparel companies — basically every industry related to sport — are still playing catch-up when it comes to working with, accommodating, and supporting women athletes and everything to do with reproductive health, birth control, maternal health, postpartum health, and childcare," Jackson said.

For Jackson, McNeal's story immediately brings to mind Olympic sprinter Sanya Richards-Ross' public statements about her abortion in 2017, in which the athlete suggested so many elite track and field athletes had had abortions that she didn't know one who hadn't. Despite the prevalence of this experience, McNeal's case shows it remains stigmatized and punished.

There is a greater culture of distrust toward Black women and Black women athletes about their bodies, Jackson says, especially where pregnancy is concerned. She cites how Felix and tennis legend Serena Williams "both nearly died in childbirth."

"Their experiences reflected broader systemic issues in reproductive health that affect Black women — doctors do not listen to their Black patients," Jackson said. "Elite athletes are sharply tuned to know their bodies and have hypersensitivity to identify when things are wrong. If a doctor doesn't listen to Serena freaking Williams' concerns, what does that tell us about the experiences of most Black women? What toll does that take on Black women's mental and physical health?"

Experiences with pregnancy, reproductive health, and mental health should be as private as individuals want and need for them to be. But athletes, and especially Black women athletes like McNeal, are held to an entirely different standard.

"Elite athletes must give up a lot of privacy when they decide to compete in national and international competition," Jackson said. "While all athletes must agree to give up this privacy in order to compete, this disproportionately affects women because international sports also carry a history of surveilling and policing women athletes' bodies. National and international systems of anti-doping and sports governance have access to — and often make public—athletes' private medical information."

Since McNeal had her abortion last year, through the scrutiny and shaming she's faced today, McNeal has relied on her faith to take care of herself. She says she'd always seen "track and field in [her] future," and is now focused on "trying to heal from this whole experience."

"I'm just taking it day by day and letting God guide me to whatever he sees fit for my future," McNeal said. But for all the hardship and obstacles she's faced, don't sleep on McNeal — or the many Black women athletes who have faced discrimination and mistreatment. McNeal says, "What I can say is, I do want to have purpose and serve people in some way. I'm not yet sure what that will be, but that's where my heart is and what I want to do in the world."

By Kylie Cheung

Kylie Cheung is a staff writer at Salon covering culture. She is also the author of "A Woman's Place," a collection of feminist essays. You can follow her work on Twitter @kylietcheung.

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