Sorry Simone Manuel – Your Voice On USA Troubled Times Heard
Commentary: We live in troubled times in many places and on many fronts. Silence is only the friend of those who would silence you. In that context, the best news this Sunday of Pentecost is this: we were called out by Simone Manuel for a headline and article that gave priority to what her USA and Stanford teammate Katie Ledecky had to say about the tragic death of George Floyd in woeful circumstances that led to a murder charge being laid on a policeman and sparked riots across the United States.
The missing words in the above are these: black and white. George Floyd was black, Derek Chauvin is white. Note the tense: the now former policeman remains among us to face the consequence of decisions caught on camera that left a flabbergasted world, black, white and every other color and creed, asking “2020: how?”; Mr. Floyd is no more.
Big questions on some of the biggest causes of human misery and conflict flow. Those questions are hardly new to this world, pre-date slavery and are with us yet despite laws, knowledge and cultural revolution and change.
In the welter of response across America – and indeed the wider world – to film an American police officer with his knee on a man’s neck failing to respond for almost nine minutes while the victim tells the officers present that he’s in pain, that he is claustrophobic and repeatedly gasps “I can’t breathe”, the swimming journalist’s eye is drawn to the views of swimmers. As Editor-in-Chief at Swimming World this May 31, 2020, my eye is also drawn to misjudgement and mistake made by our writers, particularly those that wound through lack of understanding and empathy.
Among the first big response seen was that of Katie Ledecky. At 16:38 yesterday, Swimming World posted a story headlined “Katie Ledecky Weighs in on George Floyd Tragedy: “Let’s Listen, Engage & Build”.
The story reflected Ledecky’s anger, dismay, solidarity with teammates and call for change of the kind all must build together. The author of the article also noticed that Simone Manuel and Natalie Hinds had spoken out on the tragic events unfolding. He added a brief introductory line, along with the full social media posts of Manuel and Hinds. The headline and the image on the story included only Ledecky and it was pushed to social media, including the twitter handles of Ledecky and Manuel. There it sat for some time, picking up many shares and likes on social media.
As such, Simone Manuel noted what she saw on twitter, a headline without her name in it and photo without her image in it.
This is how she responded, her reaction triggering a spectrum of responses:
We hear you Simone Manuel
Swimming World could, of course, simply have ignored Simone’s note and criticism, in common with the lack of response we get when, often, raising difficult (and sometimes straightforward) truths with the guardians and governors of swimming far and wide, from international to domestic levels in various places around the world.
Not on my watch. Our view is clear: no response is the wrong response and, as such, we don’t hesitate to apologise for the hurt caused to Simone Manuel. Further, we applaud her passion and advocacy on the right of all to expect even treatment of the kind inherent in the Constitution of global swimming, namely C 4: Discrimination – ” [governing body] … shall not allow discrimination … on grounds of race, gender, religion or political affiliations”.
Those words are magnified in the laws of many nations around the world, not to mention international conventions, and apply to most, if not all, likely to read this article. We, at Swimming World fully support that and the following word’s left on Simone’s Instagram page:
“Days feel heavy and long. It’s hard not to feel or think about the sadness and hatred that weighs heavily on me, my people, and this nation. I’m hurt. I’m tired. We’re hurt. We’re tired. I think it’s always hard to find the right words as they are as scattered and divided as this country. There’s too much to say, but not nearly enough time or energy to express this sad reality. We’re not all in this together!! How far have we really come? Times change. Calendar dates change, but racism still remains. If we want a better country, we ALL must fight for equality and justice. No one escapes the bonds of injustice. No one! It doesn’t matter what side you’re on. We all lose when we fail to address the root of the problem. Here goes:
THE PAST STILL LIVES IN THE PRESENT!
This is generational.
It’s not just about death.
It’s about killing our spirits.
It’s about killing our dreams.
It’s about making us feel less than.
It’s about dismissing and ignoring our pain.
It’s about silencing our voice.
It’s about punishing us when we use our voice and labeling us as “angry” or a “threat” rather than acknowledging we’re exercising our “freedom of speech.”
It’s about calling the police and using my skin color against me.
It’s about clinching your purse.
It’s about believing we don’t belong.
It’s about failing to acknowledge and understand my very existence, my pain.
It’s about repeating the sins of the past.
It’s about thinking that skin color affords ones privileges or denies basic human dignity!
It’s about speaking against instead of with our fight for justice.
It’s about remaining silent.
This needs to be everybody’s fight! •
The words “freedom”, “justice,” and “equality” are uttered by many, BUT do we really experience it? No! We have yet to experience it collectively as a nation, and we won’t until we all come together and fight for it… until we’re actually “all in this together.”
If this makes you uncomfortable, check your privilege. Think of those who lack comfort EVERY??SINGLE?? DAY??Simone Manuel
Brava! Simone Manuel.
She wrote in the context not just of the current tragedy and woes that flow but of the importance of understanding that the message applies to decade upon decade upon decade, with roots in centuries.
Understandable, then, that Simone Manuel should read a headline and see an image with her views of an African-American Olympic champion somehow demoted to second fiddle and respond with words this Editor has felt in bone and brain for more than the number of years the sprint ace has been on the planet: “As someone who is SO SO SO mentally, emotionally, and physically directly affected by this racism, this is exactly what I’m talking about! IM SOOOO TIRED! SO SO TIRED!!!”
It is important to all of us at Swimming World to help set the right tone and culture. The writer of the article in question, Andy Ross, was asked for his comment on the hurt caused. At my request, he penned an open note to the sprinter: “Simone, I am very sorry that this affected you in the way that it did. I hope you know that that your comments were taken very seriously. This situation has been very difficult for all of us as Americans to process and we want you to know that your voice does matter. We hope you continue to do what you do for the swimming community and on that note – we will be here to listen. Sincerely, Andy Ross”
A young writer learned a lesson old this day.
Simone Manuel, of course, is not alone in feeling weary when facing the same issues of discrimination again and again, nor are the issues she advocates confined to the United States: though aspects of what is unfolding can indeed be said to be ‘Made in America’, systemic racism is universal.
At the heart of debate is the difference between protester, rioter, looter and, indeed, media (the discrimination that sparked the current unrest spilling to riot police firing rubber bullets and pinning to the ground members of the media reporting the story).
Protest & Violence
Regardless of political persuasion, many are able to distinguish clearly between peaceful protest and then the rioting and beyond that looting and other criminal activity that has been part of the mix. Debate rages as to whether police forces have been able to distinguish those differences.
Violence, is never justified, it is said. While that sentiment is understandable and deserving of support, it also skirts the realities of the struggles to end slavery, the struggle of Mandela and the struggle of so much else and others in the vast book of human development.
It skirts, too, a contemporary experience. Colin Kaepernick avoided violence when he took the knee. He was blackballed and ostracised and criticised for it, the shrill cry of ‘wrong’ to be found on a spectrum of president to pauper. He also won a lot of support at a time of growing support for the athlete voice on many and diverse subjects, including clean sport, that speak to the debate on the right to protest.
Now, we are witnessing the consequence of George Floyd’s last words of justified protest being willfully ignored: “I can’t breathe”. And soon he did not and never will again.
In the mix are acts of reasonable protest through to the acts that do no-one and no cause a favour, such as this story about the senseless destruction of a bar that a black Minneapolis firefighter bought with his life savings.”
One of those who responded with support for Simone Manuel on twitter, wrote:
“It is okay to be tired! It is okay to be tired! What’s not okay? It is not okay to be silent! Continue to make them uncomfortable! They will change because they know we hear you and we support you!”
Simone Manuel, with our apology for the timing of events and getting the emphasis wrong in tight schedules and at a time of COVID-19 that has had a significant impact on our operations and work, you are right to be tired.
This editor, Craig Lord, got that on several fronts campaigning for more than 30 years on issues off abuse, doping, justice, harmful governance, equality and against leaders who allow those with criminal records to keep honours for “services to swimming” decades after crimes are uncovered while taking minutes to slap warnings on swimmers staging peaceful protests in the name of clean sport.
That campaigning has often been done against a backdrop of silence from athletes when their voices could have made the world of difference. In your event at Rio 2016, you joined a list of champions that includes three GDR women fed banned substances as young teenagers and your fellow American Nancy Hogshead (Makar), rape victim and long-time advocate for safe sport and justice for abuse victims.
With those issues and others in mind, I can well appreciate the weariness you express when it comes to lack of cultural and systemic change so long overdue on a matter that affects you directly. I can’t measure my observation of pain against your pain experienced nor would I attempt to do so but I can tell you this: the passion derived from talking to an Olympic gold medalist raped by her coach between the ages of 11 and 14; the feelings stirred by the events surrounding the death of Fran Crippen and how those play out yet in athlete and open water safety; and the overwhelming sadness at interviewing two girls, including one of those who preceded you as Olympic 100m free champion, while knowing full well that I was looking at victims of abuse do indeed shape not only my work but that of those around me.
When I accepted the job at Swimming World a little under a year ago, I did so on the back of a commitment to independent journalism and a fearless approach to speaking truth to power. We’ve done much in the intervening months that speaks to that commitment.
As such, it pains us all at Swimming World that a mistake, regardless of unavoidable circumstance, should leave the impression that we are part of your problem.
Let me assure you that we stand with you and support your advocacy, without compromise. Our only hope is that, at the relative dawn of the pro-swim era, athletes will raise their voices not only on the matters that affect them directly but those that affect the environment and standing of their sport and its ability to be a safe, happy, healthy and inclusive environment void of discrimination.
In Rio, you answered a question from me and other colleagues being the first African-American woman to win Olympic solo gold in the pool 40 years after Dutch sprinter Enith Brigitha would surely have made history had it not been for the abuse of underage athletes and systematic cheating in the GDR:
“It means a lot to me. This medal is not just for me, it’s for some of the African-Americans who have come before me and been an inspiration. I hope I can be an inspiration to others so this medal is for those who come behind me and get into the sport and hopefully find the love and drive to get to this point.”
You noted the path beaten by the likes of Cullen Jones and Maritza Correia, pioneers in terms of their colour and status as world-class elite USA teamsters, and you were then asked about your friendship with artistic gymnastics champion Simone Biles:
“Simone Biles and I are practically the same person. She is super cool. I met her about a year ago. We hung out a couple of times and I am very happy for how she has done. We both bring gold medals back to Houston, Texas.”
The questions then turned to this: could your victory help to deliver a message of tolerance and diversity. You replied: “Yeah, it means a lot especially with what is going on in the world today. Some of the issues with police brutality. This win kind of brings hope and change to some of the issues that are going on in the world.
I wrote, that day: One fine day … the colour may not matter but it does now and in a positive way, she seemed to suggest, even though she would prefer it if her colour were not the constant hook on which her story was pegged.
The context was your quote:
“Yeah, that is something I have definitely struggled with a lot. Just coming in to this race tonight I tried to take the weight of the black community off my shoulders as it is something I carry with me being in this position. But I do hope it kind of goes away.
“I am super glad with the fact I can be an inspiration to others and hopefully diversify the sport, but at the same time I would like there to be a day when there are more of us and it’s not ‘Simone, the black swimmer’.”
“The title ‘black swimmer’ makes it seem like I am not supposed to be able to win a gold medal, I am not supposed to be able to break the Olympic record, and that is not true as I work as hard as anybody else and I love the sport and I want to win, just like everybody else.”
I concluded my piece: “There it is, now in black and white. A line spent and part of history … the inspiration is only just beginning”.
We’re sorry if we caused you and other African-American swimmers any pain through a tweet that reflected a headline and image overtaken within minutes and look forward to engaging with you further on your swimming and related advocacy.
Meanwhile, as all should, we will continue to learn, think, engage, discuss and improve.