Andrew Howe and Jordan Burroughs compete at the 2016 U.S. Olympic Team Wrestling Trials on April 10, 2016 in Iowa City, Iowa.
As Jordan Burroughs and other Black athletes compete at the U.S. Olympic Team Trials for wrestling, an organization the 2012 gold medalist helped found is working off the mat to amplify African American presence in the sport.
The Black Wrestling Association formed in June 2020 with this mission: “To inspire, connect and empower Black wrestlers and allies to grow wrestling through representation, equality and opportunity.”
The idea originated with Nate Jackson and Kyven Gadson, who are both competing at the Trials, after George Floyd’s death last May in Minneapolis.
“Essentially this came down to us feeling like there was more that we can do other than just sit and maybe vent about frustrations that we have in our lives and within our sport,” said Gadson, the No. 4 seed at 97 kg in the Trials in Fort Worth, Texas. “How can we highlight and celebrate Black wrestlers, whether they’re male or female, and their achievements and contributions to the sport?”
They gathered about 40 other wrestlers, past and present, in a Zoom meeting. “We decided we needed to move into action,” said Gadson.
Jackson, who competes at 86 kg and is the BWA president, and Gadson assembled a group of founding members who are a Who’s Who of wrestling stars: Burroughs, Kenny Monday, Kerry McCoy, Kevin Jackson, James Green, Mark Hall, J’den Cox, B.J. Futrell and Gabriel Townsell.
McCoy, the BWA vice president, said the group is trying to counter “that sense of hopelessness” they felt last year in the wake of Floyd’s death.
For Black males especially, McCoy said, “The bottom line is consistently you’re in a situation or a position where you don’t feel valued and you always have to be aware. You have to think twice about the majority of things you do because you’re always perceived a certain way. When is enough enough?”
McCoy, who is also chair of the USA Wrestling Diversity and Inclusion Committee, said the association wants to show Black athletes that they have a place in the sport.
While wrestling has been on the Olympic program since the modern Games began in 1896, the United States did not have any African American wrestlers on the Olympic team until 1964 with Bobby Douglas, Charlie Tribble and Robert Pickens. Lloyd Keaser was the first Black wrestler from Team USA to earn a freestyle Olympic medal, a silver in 1976, and Monday won the first gold medal for the United States in 1988, adding a silver in 1992.
“People say, ‘Wrestling, that’s a white sport,’” said McCoy, a two-time Olympian, world championships silver medalist and now a coach. “Within the sport, we’re very low percentage participation overall compared to other ethnic backgrounds, but we have a lot of high profile athletes. So the idea is there are a lot of athletes out there we need to celebrate, we need to showcase. When you create value as a wrestler, then it crosses over into the rest of society.”
Toccara Montgomery, the first African American woman to qualify for an Olympic team in 2004 and a two-time world silver medalist, said she wishes she had a support system like the BWA when she was competing.
“It’s difficult to be in a sport where you look around and you don’t see anyone who resembles yourself,” said Montgomery, a member of the BWA Board of Directors. “You feel like you stick out more. In a sport that’s not primetime, not a mainstream sport, you feel even more of an outcast in a sense.
“Just to make sure that other athletes don’t feel isolated or they don’t feel alone, it’s a phenomenal idea.”
However, the BWA has encountered negative responses from both the Black and white communities.
“A lot of the feedback, is ‘Why do you need this? Why can’t we all just be together? Why do you have to separate and cause more division?’ McCoy said. “A lot of it’s well-intentioned: ‘Let’s just all be wrestlers.’
“You can say you don’t see color, but when somebody with a different look than you walks in, you’re going to have a reaction. And if you act like that reaction doesn’t actually exist, you’re not being true to yourself and you’re not representing and celebrating the differences in our culture.”
McCoy added that the BWA wants to elevate Black wrestlers “and not take away from anybody else. There’s a reason it’s called a marginalized group, so you want to minimize that marginalization and get to a point where everybody is at an equitable and ideally equal footing. You can’t do that in one day, so you have to start somewhere.”
Gadson said the BWA has an opportunity to communicate, educate and “continue to give people a voice that maybe didn’t think they had one.”
Recently, the BWA stepped in to counter backlash after the recent NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships. With only 12 percent participation, African Americans won five of the 10 individual titles. The five Black wrestlers were criticized on social media for posing for a photo together.
“I saw somebody write something that this picture perpetuates racial tension in this country,” Montgomery said. “I didn’t see that at all. I thought, ‘Wow, look at this growth, look at this amazing accomplishment.’ It was nice to have the BWA’s support to get that message out there that that representation matters. There are not a ton of Black athletes wrestling and just to have that many champions was amazing.”
The BWA has four initiatives: create and promote its brand; advocacy, including a big push to increase representation in coaching and administration; develop a mentorship program and affiliate with groups and leaders in underserved communities and establish an annual gala to showcase and celebrate the accomplishments of the year and potentially award a scholarship.
The BWA stresses that allies can include people from outside the African American community. McCoy said there are currently about 150-160 members and about 65-70 donors. A limited edition 2020 T-shirt with the BWA logo on the front and VOTE on the back sold out.
If not for the pandemic, the BWA could have had a substantial presence at the Trials, networking and reaching out to fans, especially with the month of April being Celebrate Diversity Month. Because of Covid-19 restrictions, the BWA is mainly getting the message across through social media.
And on the mat.
“You want to do well,” said Gadson, whose father and uncle were also wrestlers. “You want to compete hard and leave everything out there and show little Black boys and girls that there are opportunities in the sport. It’s not just the ones that are super publicized or popularized like football and basketball ... you can wrestle too.”
In the freestyle classes, Burroughs, who has won four world championships gold medals (and three bronzes) in addition to his Olympic gold, is the favorite at 74 kg and hopes to make his third Olympic team. Green, a two-time world medalist, is the No. 4 seed at 65 kg.
On the women’s side, world champion Tamyrah Mensah-Stock is the favorite at 68 kg and former junior world champion Erin Golston is in the mix at 50 kg. Ryan Mango, a world team member, is a favorite at 60 kg in Greco-Roman wrestling and Jesse Porter, who was first at the U23 nationals, is competing at 77 kg.
“We always say the biggest thing you can do for your community is be successful,” McCoy said. “If you go out and you compete at a high level and you make the Olympic team, that’s one more Olympian your community can be proud of.”
However, McCoy said it will take time to change some perceptions.
“The implicit bias is always there,” he said.
McCoy said he and his colleagues have had discussions about the ways people describe African American wrestlers compared to their white counterparts. “If you have a Black athlete that is very excited, very animated, they’re kind of ‘wild and crazy,’” he said. “If you have a white athlete, ‘they’re passionate, they’re driven.’
“If you have a successful Black athlete, ‘They’re so strong, they’re so athletic,’ and they really focus on physical characteristics, where white athletes are ‘technical, very thoughtful and very cerebral.’”
McCoy said people have to draw attention to these biases. “You call it out, and hopefully the more times you call it out, you educate people,” he said.
The National Wrestling Hall of Fame in Stillwater, Oklahoma, has an educational exhibit and website section on the African American Wrestling Experience (as well as another exhibit on the Latino American Wrestling Experience).
“I’ve got to believe that we’re moving in the right direction,” McCoy said. “I talk to people all the time, and if you don’t think it’s going to get better, then what are we doing?
“Our goal is that one day we don’t need a BWA, that there’s enough representation out there that we are solid.”