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ONYX Presents: A Conversation With Nnenna Akotaobi

ONYX host Monica McNutt recently had the opportunity to sit down with Nnenna Akotaobi, the former executive director of the Black Women in Sport Foundation. ONYX, a platform dedicated to celebrating Black women in sports, is a safe space for these women to discuss their experiences: the good, the bad, and the ugly. Hopefully the conversation will inspire a new drive for change. 

Akotaobi earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Denver and a masters degree from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.  Below are just a few highlights from the insightful and inspiring conversation with Nnenna Akotaobi.

What do you love about being a Bqalack woman in sports? 

Oh my gosh. That’s such a big question for me because there’s so many things I love about being a Black woman in sport.  I think that the number one thing for me is I love the automatic sisterhood. So when I see another Black woman who works in sports, who was a college athlete, who was a lifelong athlete, there’s this automatic solidarity. Like we get each other and we have that shared experience. And I say this in jest to a lot of people, but I think all my friends are somehow connected to sports and all my friends are Black women. So I don’t know what that means, but I think sports has brought me so much in terms of solidarity, connection and shared experience. And that’s what I love, love, love so much about being a Black woman in sports.

So on the flip side of that, though, in what ways do you feel most challenged by being a Black woman in this space? 

Yeah, it’s challenging primarily because while there’s a sisterhood, and there’s this in group, there’s this community of folks who get you a lot of times. The reason they get you (is because) they have that shared traumatic experience. That’s right. So a lot of us have come from the space of being the only, or being marginalized because of our identity. And we share in that experience too. So I think sometimes the challenge is how do you take that and overcome that, especially when sports, how’s this broad narrative of resilience and has this broad narrative of, you know, the equitable playing field. I don’t think that’s true for everybody. I don’t think that’s true for a lot of young people. I think it’s a misnomer and it’s hard to combat that narrative around sports when so many folks are having a vastly different experience.

How much has your experience as an athlete empowered you as a practitioner and is that experience respected?

You know, I think so. I think, whether that’s a good or bad thing, I’m not sure, but I think that there are a lot of people who I believe there’s credibility in being a student athlete. Now, there are a lot of my sisters, there’s a lot of folks out here who work in the field of sports, who weren’t athletes, who are sharp, who are skilled, who are just as capable. But I do think there’s something about, at least in my experience, what sports taught me. You know, I was fortunate to be a young athlete who had phenomenal coaches and mentors in my life. I started sports late. I didn’t start playing organized sports until I was 14. But I remember distinctly, you know, running the little presidential mile …  in gym class, there was just this coach who walked up to me and said, ‘I can teach you how to be a basketball player,’ and I was like, okay. But he taught me so much more than basketball. He taught me about life, about leadership, about resilience, about overcoming obstacles, about all of those things that hesitantly you get through sport. Everybody gets, every young athlete gets. I think using that platform, using that confidence, it really helps me have these difficult, challenging conversations. It’s not easy to talk about our shortcomings systematically. It’s not easy to talk about our shortcomings individually. Um, but doing it with competence and compassion, that’s what sport taught me. So I do think that there’s something about being an athlete that kind of laid the groundwork for me to do this work.

What are you most proud of in terms of progress from the time that you were competing versus now where you sit?

Whether I’ve had a part of it or not,  I think the normalization around talking about inequity, and for some people that feels negative. But for me, when we normalize how to improve, that fits the whole mission of sport, right? Sport is development. Sport is educational. Sport teaches us all of these life skills, soft skills, we need to succeed in other areas and talking about our shortcomings, talking about inequity, and normalizing it, I think. It’s something that I’m proud to contribute to that sensation, especially knowing the experience I had as an undergrad. We didn’t have those conversations. I remember around my junior year, perhaps I think it was my junior year, the University of Denver hired an associate (athletic director)  for diversity and community relations. I forget the exact title. And it was unheard of. That was not a thing in college sports.  But so go from there to now, where the NCAA just passed across all three divisions designating diversity and inclusion designee, who’s responsible for connecting information to departments and making sure folks are aware of opportunities through the association and really thinking deeply and strategically about diversity in every department, whatever that looks like for every institution. In less than 15 years to go from that, to that, I’m shining with pride. It doesn’t mean we don’t have progress. Doesn’t mean we don’t have things to do. But it means that the conversation is having an impact. And any way that I can contribute to that conversation, I’m over the moon. 

This interview was edited for clarity.

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