Athletes Aren't Perfect. Why Do We Keep Expecting Them to Be?
In the first episode of Cheer season 2, 20-year-old Jada Wooten passionately implores her team to stay focused while practicing their routine. A national championship is on the line, and the outspoken Trinity Valley Community College high flyer is determined to secure a victory. Her grit and candor made her one of the breakout stars of the sophomore season of Netflix's Emmy-winning competitive cheerleading hit series. But now it appears that her unapologetic bluntness is rubbing some the wrong way off-screen.
Wooten shared on Instagram that prior to the series premiere she signed a contract with Rebel Athletic, a cheer apparel brand, for three photo shoots and a list of appearances. She has since been disinvited from a cast meet-and-greet in addition to other scheduled appearances at Cheersport competitions and the NCA All-Star Championship. Wooten added that she was also "not invited" to perform as part of the just-announced Cheer Live Tour this summer, also sponsored by Rebel Athletic and featuring members from the TVCC squad and rival cheer team Navarro College. This despite being billed as TVCC's "most elite female tumbler" and "beautiful in the air."
"Their reason for this was [that] my language in the show was bad and I don't fit their brand," Wooten explained in her post, alongside a carousel of images that included insensitive remarks allegedly made by a Rebel Athletic representative. "She told me, 'Moms won't want their daughters taking pictures with you,'" reads the text.
In response, Rebel Athletic released a statement to multiple media outlets: Due to Wooten's "choice of words in Cheer season 2, and our median audience being 8 to 10 years old, we asked her to sit out three meet and greet events that would attract a younger audience."
Taken at face value, Rebel Athletic's position is not necessarily an unreasonable one. The most successful partnerships are formed when an endorser aligns with a brand's values and appeals to their audience. But sometimes these decisions, based on the narrow, binary view of "good" and "bad" role models, deserve to be scrutinized. Too often, these decisions uphold outdated patriarchal standards of what a good woman is, and especially of what a good Black woman is. It creates yet another barrier for female athletes who are already outpaced and outearned by their male counterparts in endorsements.
Why do we expect so much from our athletes, and particularly Black women?
It has been almost 30 years since former NBA superstar Charles Barkley defiantly proclaimed "I am not a role model" in a legendary Nike commercial. It came two years after the then-Philadelphia 76ers player accidentally spat on an eight-year-old girl at a game rather than the racist heckler he was targeting. The unapologetically provocative ad sparked fierce debates about whether a professional athlete should be tasked with the responsibility of being a "positive role model" — a subjective concept in and of itself. Barkley took the position that an athlete's duty ended with their display of skill, and children should find role models in their parents. "Just because I dunk a basketball doesn't mean I should raise your kids," he concluded. Renewed interest in the discussion reignited with intensity in 2009, when golf legend Tiger Woods was excoriated in the public and press over accusations of infidelity with multiple women.
Seemingly always lost in the role model conversation is that although athletes are able to do extraordinary things, they're still just people. They experience the same frustrations we do. They falter. They struggle. They're human. But this is yet another area in sports where women are held to different standards. Male athletes are often given a pass for throwing tantrums during while women's emotions are heavily policed.
Last June, the Supreme Court ruled that a Pennsylvania school district had violated the First Amendment by punishing high school student Brandi Levy. Her crime? Using colorful language on Snapchat to express her disappointment over not making varsity cheerleading squad. The message, peppered with four swear words, was disseminated to 250 people.
We've seen temperamental male tennis stars like John McEnroe, Novak Djokovic, and Nick Kyrgios suffer multiple racquet smashing meltdowns and manage to carry on relatively unscathed. That "bad boy" or anti-hero image is called refreshing in some circles, and didn't stop them from earning millions through endorsement deals. Yet the same, and even less toxic behavior, from Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka generates lengthy discourse about an athlete's responsibility to their sport and their fans. Their actions also led to racist artwork.
By all accounts Jada Wooten is a leader and one of the most tenacious members of the TVCC team — a straight shooter who might use some salty language. She is a committed student who recently transferred to Sam Houston State University to continue her education. She is also open. Early on in season 2 she shares with viewers her battle with what she calls mental blocks prior to joining the team. That internal conflict resulted in the loss of trust in her abilities and a fear of taking the aerial risks associated with cheerleading. It's reminiscent of the "twisties" that forced champion gymnast Simone Biles to pull out of Olympic competitions to focus on her mental health. Finally over the hump at TVCC, Wooten pours everything into the team and takes on the role of motivator.
Even amidst the fracas with Rebel Athletic, Wooten continues to inspire by sharing wisdom with her followers. "This is to the real ones. The ones who are too much or never enough," she wrote. "Too big, too loud, too Black, not Black enough, too small, too poor, not smart enough. This is to all of you who are any of these things and still live your authentic life in spite of it!"
"Jada, she's the type of girl that if someone tells you you can't do it, she'll prove you wrong," said TVCC coach Vontae Johnson, who Wooten has credited with helping her develop into the best version of herself.
Powerful. Confident. Determined. Authentic. Who wouldn't want to take a picture with Jada Wooten?