This is for my sisters: for women and femmes who look in the mirror and know that our bodies are bought and sold in the minds of men, weighed and measured for their visual value.
This is for my Black brothers, for the high school and college football players who sacrifice their bodies and minds on the gridiron only to be thrown away when an injury or a statement about injustice renders you no longer worthy among the white men who determine the league’s draft.
This is for our mothers, living paycheck to paycheck, who scrimp on the utility bill or groceries to buy us new shoes and coats for school; they’re trying to protect us from a world that sees us as disposable.
This is for you: for all of us who have watched as our bodies and our minds and our very being were commodified by the people in power, and even as we gained influence and strength, we knew our value hinged only upon what we might do, how we might produce, all the while knowing that a physical or mental collapse could hasten our own destruction. So we keep going.
How very fragile are the bonds that hold together American identity, with consumerism and fame obscuring the truth that the same people have always held most of the power, leaving the rest of us to fight and tear one another apart for the remaining crumbs.
And they’ll tell our stories like they told her story: admitting she is the Greatest Of All Time, even as they snip the threads that hold it all together, and they cover up the abuse and the pain and the trauma and pretend none of it ever happened. They never hold the responsible ones accountable. Nobody ever apologizes. But isn’t she great? An example of American exceptionalism. She rose above it all. She’s ours. We own her.
And in the midst of an Olympics riven apart by ever-present greed and international pandemic suffering, she felt the threads holding her up pull further and further apart. Her pain was not our gain any longer. She competed: flying through the air, defying gravity itself, while her abuser made deals with the ones who were supposed to bring him to justice. Her aunt died — far too soon — across the ocean, and she couldn’t do anything about it. Her pain was private, because no one cared about her pain, only her winning, for us.
And in a nation where grief has been ignored for far too long, we watched as her mind twisted faster than the twists we saw her snatch out of the air like magic, pure magic, in the air. She had flown through the air like a 3-pointer shot from close to midcourt as the clock ticked down to 0. We never imagined she wouldn’t sail through the net in time to win. She was ours. A winner. Despite it all. We loved her because of what she did for us and what she said about us.
We never knew her. As she twisted in the air on the first day, she felt the panic of a ball hurtling through the air toward the net only to clang against the rim and fall, bruised, to the ground, where players would cry and bang their fists and never play again and go back to campus and try to finish a degree amid the insanity, all alone now.
She saw herself twisting in the air and she decided to let herself fall before her body clanged against the rim. Better an airball than a concussion.
She cradled her head in her hands and chose her life. Her life. Her family’s love held her tight. She chose to believe that she herself was worth more than gold. In that decision, in that moment, she was alone. But the coaches who came after the whirlwind believed it, too, and so did her teammates. And so did Naomi Osaka and Maya Moore and Colin Kaepernick and Malcolm Jenkins.
She chose to believe she had intrinsic value, something all human beings have by virtue of creation by a good God — a God millions of us claim to believe in, but so few of us act like we believe is actually real.
Because if we believed God’s creation had value simply by being created, we wouldn’t do this to each other or to ourselves. And people said she let her country down, let her teammates down, let them down. They said it believing that they themselves were only the money in their bank accounts and the number of followers on their social media accounts that they tracked in their sleep and worshiped when they woke up in the morning.
Through her actions, she shouted the secret that mothers whisper to their newborn babies all over the world — a world that tries to disprove the secret the moment the babies are born.
You are loved.
A few days after she chose to fall rather than clang against the rim, she said that for the first time she realized she was more than the twists and flips and gold. She knows she is loved because she is.
This is for you, Simone.