OPINION: Football or floor exercises — The lack of black men in gymnastics and cheerleading


Cheerleaders Davon Graham and Abbey Kawanishi cheer Aug. 25 at Traditions and Spirits at Memorial Stadium. A 2015 National Center for Health Statistics study found black boys had a higher percentage of participation in football and basketball than white boys, while gymnastics was not represented in the study. Anna Tiplick

Sept. 23, 1969, at 3:30 p.m. A Tuesday.

An oddly specific but exceptionally important day and time for then-11-year-old Ron Galimore. It was the day of his first gymnastics class. 

“It was a very big day, and I was so excited,” Galimore said.

An accomplished gymnast, Galimore received the first perfect 10 in NCAA gymnastics championship history, was the first African American member of a U.S. Gymnastics Olympic team and an NCAA champion — to name a few of his many accomplishments. 

Although there have been some standouts throughout history, and numbers seem to be on the rise, black men are highly underrepresented in gymnastics. This is largely a result of minimal accessibility to the sports and hypermasculinization of black men.

As a young boy who loved to flip around the house and bounce on trampolines, Galimore had no idea he would make history. His mother signed him up for gymnastics classes so he could learn how to jump around the house without hurting himself.

Unbeknownst to her, the class would do much more than prevent her son from hitting his head a little too hard. He would soon become a trailblazer in the gymnastics world. 

After outgrowing the coaching of his early gymnastics program, Galimore moved to Fort Lauderdale with his mother and sister so he could have more competitive training by a former Olympic team member. 

Galimore recognizes he was very lucky in having an opportunity to be exposed to gymnastics at a young age. He said he believes black athletes are often exposed at a basic level, but as training increases, so do the prices, leading many athletes to leave the sport.

“There are very talented athletes who are not exposed to it because of affordability,” Galimore said. 

He believes accessibility can be improved through grants and scholarships, offering more affordable programs and transportation to athletes. Often, lessons are offered further from inner-city areas.

Although often underrecognized, Galimore said he believes supplying adequate transportation to athletes will increase the number of black gymnasts.

The overarching issue is having substantial accessibility to sports other than football and basketball. Think about it — have you ever seen a gymnastics facility in the hood?

According to a 2015 National Center for Health Statistics study, black boys had a higher percentage of participation in football and basketball than white boys. Football was higher by roughly 2%, and basketball by 20%. 

Gymnastics was not on the survey. 

The sports represented showed less creativity and expression and more tackling and touchdowns. 

If you think about it from a general standpoint, it makes sense. 

From a young age, children of families with lower incomes are unable to gain exposure to different athletic opportunities.

A RAND Corporation survey found that 52% of parents from lower-income families had children in grades 6-12 who participated in sports. This is 14% lower than middle- and higher-income families. 

According to a survey by USA Gymnastics, competitive classes for gymnasts cost $150-$300 per month. That number accounts for classes only and does not include additional fees such as travel and equipment.

Galimore believes he was lucky to have had professional training at a young age and eventually became able to perform at a college level.  

While in college, Galimore quickly noticed he was the only black person performing at such a high level. Being what he describes as a focused individual, he kept his mind on the sport, opposed to the politics. 

“I took it in stride and wanted to be an example for others,” he said. 

Galimore earned a spot on the 1980 Olympic team. That also happened the be the year Jimmy Carter decided to boycott the Olympics due to the invasion of Russia into Afghanistan. Leading up to the trials, there was conversation on a possible boycott. 

“All you could do was focus on what you had control over,” he said. 

The decision came out prior to the Olympic trials, but it did not immediately crush him. Galimore celebrated and was proud to placed fourth out of the six-member team. 

While in Washington, D.C., celebrating with athletes and celebrities alike, the feeling finally settled in that he was unable to compete.

“It was one of the most depressing things,” he said. “That’s when it hit me how big of an opportunity was taken from me.”

It took him five years to get out of that slump. 

Galimore said he believes the number of black male gymnasts is on the rise, and he wants to believe that some exposure was gained through him making the Olympic team. This future of black men in gymnastics excites him. 

One black Indiana University student, like Galimore, is ignoring expectations and participating in a similar sport: cheerleading.  

Davon Graham played for a top tennis program in high school and had no idea he would end up in cheerleading.

While a student at Miami University, Graham was intrigued by cheer routines during football games. His friends encouraged him to try out for the cheerleading team.

“They just wanted me to go for it,” he said. 

The exercise sciences and clinical psychological science major says he picked up the skills relatively quickly.

“I kind of fell in love with it,” he said. 

After his freshman year, Graham decided to transfer to IU and try out for the cheerleading team. Despite the nerves that naturally come with trying out for a Big Ten D1 school, he made the team.  

Being a black man, deciding to be a cheerleader was not an easy decision. He said he believes society tells black men they can’t do anything that is viewed as feminine. The black community often holds black men to a standard of being emotionless and overly masculine.

From both inside and outside the community, black men are stereotypically expected to have a tough interior and exterior.

“Before I tried out for the team, I told myself I am going to have to put my pride aside,” Graham said. 

Once while leaving a fraternity house with teammates, someone yelled an offensive slur at them. Graham instantly became uncomfortable. Children have told him that cheerleading is “what girls do.”

Graham says he is getting to a point where the comments don’t really matter. He loves the sport and loves the life it has given him. 

He said he just wishes other black men can realize they too can do seemingly impossible routines in front of a crowd of passionate sports fans. 

They too, can be a member of an Olympic team and maybe even score a perfect 10.

They too, can follow their dreams and ignore societal expectations.

But only if they are given the chance.

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