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Opinion: Sha’Carri Richardson and Brianna McNeal Shouldn’t Need to Bare Trauma to Receive Grace

In order to better support athletes—especially Black women athletes—we must do the work of critiquing and changing these systems.

On June 19, Sha’Carri Richardson sprinted across the finish line of the Olympic Trials 100-meter dash, winning the event in 10.86. During a post-race interview, she confidently proclaimed: “I just want the world to know that I’m that girl.” With bold determination, she showed us what it meant to take up space and refuse to shrink yourself for others. After Richardson thanked her girlfriend for helping her choose her brightly colored hair, I felt this profound sense of optimism and excitement about the future of running. A future that could be inclusive, supportive, and uplift runners who were BIPOC, women, and members of the LGBTQ community. A future for runners who showed up as their full selves and still accomplished their goals. A future that we could be proud of.

Less than two weeks later, the United States Anti-Doping Agency announced Richardson’s 30 day suspension for testing positive for THC (the main constituent of cannabis and marijuana), disqualifying her results at the Trials and making her ineligible to compete in the 100 meters at the Tokyo Olympics. Richardson used the substance—legal in the state of Oregon, the site of the Trials, but banned in competition under the rules of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA)—after learning of the passing of her biological mother, tragic information delivered to her by a reporter during an interview. Following her suspension, Richardson apologized and took responsibility for her actions while reminding us that she was still human—a declaration that is often forgotten when it comes to Black women who are stereotyped as “superhuman.”

RELATED: Sha’Carri Richardson Will Not Compete at Tokyo Games

I still believe that Sha’Carri Richardson is part of the future of running. In order to achieve this future, current policies that uphold broken systems need to be reformed.

This includes an unnecessarily punitive anti-doping system that leaves little room for nuance and a system that continues to neglect athletes’ mental health even in the face of trauma. In order to better support athletes—especially Black women athletes—we must do the work of critiquing and changing these systems.

Close up of Sha'Carri Richardson
Sha’Carri Richardson looks on after winning the women’s 100 meter final on day 2 of the 2020 U.S. Olympic Track & Field Team Trials at Hayward Field on June 19, 2021 in Eugene, Oregon. Photo: Patrick Smith/Getty Images

We can both applaud athletes for taking responsibility for their actions and still continue to question the policies set by governing sporting bodies. According to WADA, which was created as a foundation under of the International Olympic Committee, and sets the prohibited substance list for the United States Anti-Doping Agency, marijuana is considered a banned substance for one of three reasons (WADA does not specify which): it potentially enhances an athlete’s performance; it poses a health risk for athletes; or it “violates the spirit of the sport.” A 2011 study that WADA cites says that marijuana isn’t consistent with an athlete’s role-model example for youth and it could give them additional focus in competition or relieve stress.

But a scientific consensus in support of marijuana as a performance drug does not exist. And we should also acknowledge that the WADA has also changed their own position on cannabinoids. In 2019, the WADA removed CBD from their banned substances list. CBD, a multimillion dollar business, has been embraced by athletes for its recovery benefits. The elimination of CBD from this list, which is reviewed and updated every year by the WADA, suggests how the rules of organizations can adapt and change—and that perhaps the same can happen in the future for recreational and medical marijuana.

We should also question what it means when a young Black woman has become the face of punitive anti-marijuana policies in the United States, mirroring the racial disparities found within the War on Drugs, which disproportionately affects communities of color. We must also condemn racist attacks on Richardson, such as those from Australian journalist Claire Lehmann, who tweeted: “Not sure whether the nails are real or fake, but in case you didn’t know very strong nails & hair can be a side effect of steroid use.” The close scrutiny of Richardson and other Black women athlete’s bodies is not new—and still remains deeply concerning. Instead, we should recognize the ways that, in a nod to the legacy of FloJo, Richardson provides a path for young Black women to embrace their creativity and beauty on and off the track.

While Richardson’s case reveals the trouble with current policies around marijuana, there are also those punished by governing sporting bodies who have not provided any evidence of using banned substances. As the case of Brianna McNeal demonstrates, athletes who miss drug tests, regardless of the circumstances, also face consequences from anti-doping agencies. McNeal, who won the 100-meter hurdles during the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio, received a one-year suspension in 2017 after three missed drug tests. Despite passing sixteen tests in 2016, because she did not update a system that informed officials of athlete’s whereabouts and entered the wrong time in which she would be available, officials suspended her for anti-doping violations.

In 2020, McNeal missed an out-of competition drug test. McNeal, recovering from an abortion, did not open the door when officials arrived to conduct the test. Under the impression that the clinic included the wrong date, she changed the date on the doctor’s note and submitted the information to officials. She was charged with “tampering with the doping control process” and received a five year ban for a missed doping test, leaving her ineligible to compete in Tokyo.

According to a recent tweet, McNeal asserted that she did take a test three days after, and the results were clean. Much like Richardson, McNeal acknowledged and took responsibility for her actions. However, she, like many others, questioned the purpose of a five year ban. There is a need to reform a broken system that punishes a woman who needed to heal and recover from a medical procedure, one that she elected to go through in order to compete in the 2020 Olympic Games. McNeal, who experienced depression and wanted to keep her story private, later went public with her story in order to attempt to clear her name from doping allegations.

RELATED: Brianna McNeal, 2016 Olympic Gold Medalist, Receives 5-Year Ban for Missing Drug Tests

Reforming a broken sporting system also means providing concrete support for athletes’ mental health-and accessing mental health care can be an obstacle, particularly for Black women. As Naomi Osaka demonstrated earlier this summer when she withdrew from Wimbledon, prioritizing one’s mental health is a necessary form of self-care and self-preservation. And yet, her decision revealed how few options there are for athletes who want to focus on their mental health and still compete. Osaka’s story, as well as Richardson’s and McNeal’s, show us how important it is to listen to the voices of athletes, to give them space to address their emotional well-being, and provide resources for them to receive the care that they need.

After news of their bans, Richardson and McNeal both shared their traumatic experiences of loss and grief, which showed a vulnerability that is both brave and profoundly heartbreaking. No one should feel like they need to bare their trauma in order to receive grace and dignity.

The Olympics will begin soon without Richardson and McNeal on the track, which is a loss for not only them, but the sport as a whole. Recently, U.S.A. Track & Field left Richardson off of the Olympic roster for the 4 x 100-meter relay, an event that will take place after her ban would have ended (officials said in a statement that they must “maintain fairness for all the athletes” who competed at the Trials, but promised support and mental health resources to Richardson). McNeal continues to contest her five year ban. These athletes have encountered a profoundly broken system—a system that I hope changes in order to provide a better future for them and other runners.

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Samantha White is a writer, educator, runner, and outdoor enthusiast. A scholar of youth, race, gender, and sport, she is an incoming Assistant Professor of Sport Studies at Manhattanville College.