Dr. Amira Rose Davis is an assistant professor at The University of Texas at Austin, where she is finishing her first book, Can’t Eat a Medal: The Lives and Labors of Black Women Athletes in the Age of Jim Crow. She specializes in 20th-century American history with an emphasis on race, gender, sports, and politics. Her work has appeared in scholarly journals and public media worldwide. Davis provides sports commentary for public venues such as NPR, ESPN, and BBC. She is also the co-host of the feminist sports podcast, Burn it All Down.
- Her first word was “touchdown.”
Amira Rose Davis was born in Beaumont, Texas and lived briefly in foster care before being adopted by two white women in western Massachusetts. Her background, her journey to becoming a national authority on Black women in sports, and her homecoming-of-sorts to UT are all inextricably linked.
Davis’s moms were adamant about affirming every part of her: where she came from both ethnically and geographically; her belonging to multiple families; and who she was, which included tri-varsity athlete and theater kid. “Sports and theater were my life,” she said. She fantasized that she would marry football-hall-of-famer Emmitt Smith, and the two of them would become the first husband-wife duo in the NFL.
After spending her teen summers in the New World Theater Project 2050 program and planning to play college soccer, complications from a burst appendix at the end of high school — followed by her pregnancy with her first child freshman year — took Davis out of sports at the collegiate level. “I had to confront what it meant not to be an athlete anymore, and it was hard to walk into old athletic spaces in which I had played and have those old perceptions bearing on my new body.”
At Temple University in Philadelphia, adjusting to a new life off the field, she explored questions of identity — personal, public, and community — and its links to the body, context, and public perception. By this time, Davis was reunited with her biological family, and Texas, along with Massachusetts and Philadelphia, all became versions of home. And each place had a unique and robust sporting culture that only fueled her desire to study sports and society. It was a subject she began to research as a McNair Scholar (a prestigious program aimed to increase PhD attainment by underrepresented students), and from there she went directly to Johns Hopkins to get her PhD and to focus more closely on race and sports.
2. She helped build an emerging field.
As Davis began producing more scholarly work in grad school, writing about Black women who played baseball in the Negro Leagues, her advisor noted that she was focusing on Black women in sports. “I didn’t want to be typecast,” she said, “but my advisor said to me, ‘But if you don’t write about this, who will?’”
“I never intended to do public facing work,” says Davis. “It took me a while to find my footing and draw my own boundaries and parameters of participation. I finished my dissertation in 2016, right when we saw an increase in athletic activism—from the WNBA wearing protest shirts to when Colin [Kaepernick] knelt.”
One of the first public-facing events she participated in was at UT: the first Black Matters conference, hosted by the Department of African and African Diaspora Studies. “I was so energized by bringing historical context to meet present-day concerns. I loved it.” And from that point on, Davis has been speaking publicly on race, sports, protest, and politics.
UT, which is so strong in both academics and athletics, is a natural place for Davis to be. She notes that her work is easier at an institution where no one can deny that sports matter.
3. She cares about you.
Davis uses “lol” at opportune moments, refers to the pandemic as “not cute” when asked how the production of her new book is going, and calls the athletes she writes about by their first names (Althea, Wilma, Naomi, Serena, Colin, Simone, Brittney). She jokes and laughs with her students. She attends their sports games; she is a mentor and a cheerleader.
On her syllabus for “Introduction to Black Women’s Studies,” Davis recognizes that a student who is a parent may sometimes need to bring their child to class to cover gaps in childcare. She calls out the importance of care for one’s mental health and encourages her students to prioritize themselves and their wellness. She expects a culture of respect and kindness in her classroom. She sees her students as whole beings.
4. History and pop culture hold similar lessons.
In 2020, Canadian rapper Tory Lanez was charged with shooting rapper Megan Thee Stallion in the foot in a domestic assault. Initially, Megan kept quiet about it, not wanting to malign a Black man in the media, despite her own suffering.
On a Tuesday afternoon in Parlin Hall, Davis’s class discusses the incident in the context of a much longer history of Black women choosing silence, to their own detriment, in order to protect Black men in certain circumstances. Davis asks her students to consider how questions about our understanding of power as it relates to race and gender can combine in extraordinarily complicated ways. She introduces the phrase, “culture of dissemblance,” coined by author Darlene Clark Hine to describe “…the behavior and attitudes of Black Women that created the appearance of openness and disclosure but actually shielded the truth of their inner lives and selves from their oppressors.”
Hine’s scholarship focused on Black women in the nineteenth-century Reconstruction Era. Davis brings the concept to the present day, and her students immediately connect to it. They take the conversation further and make personal connections. One student reflects on how she often embraces slangy lyrics in music about Black women’s bodies and roles—turning the rhetoric on its head by taking ownership of it when the artist is also a Black woman—but how she resents when that same rhetoric comes from men. She said, for her, it has to do with the fact that these are “…Black women we look up to,” as she sits looking up at Amira Rose Davis.
5. World champions use her words.
In 2022, Davis was invited by ESPN to help produce a segment for the ESPY Awards in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the passage of Title IX, the federal civil rights law that prohibits sex-based discrimination in education programs, including, notably, in sports. Davis assembled a slide show and wrote a piece of spoken-word poetry that was recited by a group of the most accomplished living female athletes in the world (think Billie Jean King, Lisa Leslie, Megan Rapinoe, the list goes on…). Country music icon Mickey Guyton sang in interspersed verses, and the effect is pretty powerful. The project thrust Davis into an even more intense level of public visibility, but it coaxed her forward. “When I got to write the segment for the ESPYs, it let me draw on my creative background,” said Davis.
Doing so has indeed been successful—an earlier video essay Davis wrote and helped produce for ESPN’s 2022 March Madness coverage recently earned a her a Clio Award for excellence in creative advertising.
6. Speaking publicly brings her hate mail.
Being a public Black woman intellectual who writes and speaks about other public Black women doesn’t always feel rosy. Davis notes, “I had to come to peace with the fact that when you’re a Black woman, in public, on the internet, you can say the sky is blue and you will get hate mail, and this takes a psychological toll.”
It’s worth it, though, says Davis, because it enables her to reach more people, and build community. “There’s a lot that goes into this work that’s not public, that involves meeting people, and engaging with families and communities. These affirmations make the public blowback worth it.”
Davis has also made critical professional connections due to her public work: “I’ve had people contact me from the public whom I’ve written about. I have access to so many familial histories and personal connections because people can access me in the public forum, and this benefits my research. I know why I’m doing this and who it’s for; that’s what I focus on.”
7. She’s burning it all down.
“I aim to platform the voices of Black women in sports even when they challenge and disrupt dominant narratives,” says Davis. She explains that doing so, and researching women and minorities in sports in general, are inherently political and subversive acts because all these groups had to fight to participate.
“When you demand visibility, equal pay, protection, coaches that aren’t abusive, uniforms that fit — all this pushes back on ingrained notions of whose bodies belong in what places, and what it means to consume, play, watch sports at all. It’s hard to point to any sports for women and non-binary and trans people that aren’t inherently infused with rebellion,” says Davis. The title of her podcast, Burn It All Down, is a nod to this.
8. Equal isn’t always equal.
Davis presents the hurdles to progress on equity in sports. Golf and tennis were the earliest sports that women could get involved in, but access didn’t always mean equality. “It all crumbles if you assert that you have the right to wear what you want,” says Davis. She points to the backlash faced by the German gymnastics team who wore full-coverage bodysuits, and by Serena when she wore a “catsuit” to help prevent blood clots, which she wrestled with after pregnancy, that prompted a ban on pants at the French Open.
Davis shows us the dark side of lauded efforts like Title IX, which, while it made bold moves toward gender equity in some ways, was also the beginning of the end of competitive sports for Black women at HBCUs, and the end of their widespread sports participation. It created a massive drop off in women coaches, managers, and administrators. It gutted leadership roles of women in sports. This history raises research questions for Davis about how we consider athletes as laborers, as people, and as attuned to how they’re used as symbols, which she writes about in her book-in-progress. There are multiple versions of a self, depending on time and place and viewpoint.
9. Athletes are complex, regular people too.
Davis also addresses the way that athletes can become screens onto which society projects all sorts of complex and often contradictory narratives, and how that can obscure the reality of the athletes’ messy humanity. We hold them up as role models, demonize them for their flaws, and try, sometimes more than others, to hold them accountable for their actions off the field.
How do we understand “polarizing” athletes such as Kyrie Irving or Megan Rapinoe? Or athletes such as Ben Roethlisberger or Deshaun Watson, who have been credibly accused of harm but still receive cheers when they take the field? What can the NBA and WNBA tell us about the possibilities, and limits,of athletic activism?
Davis’s work exists in the space where these contradictions overlap, where all the complex parts of an identity coexist, even if they make us uncomfortable. She asks us to consider these pieces all as part of the same story, one about what it means to be human, to go for greatness, to make mistakes.
That same consideration extends to Davis herself, and to us. Just as she understands her disparate experiences and identities — athlete, theater kid, professor, writer, mother, activist —as combining to make one self, she asks us to live in complexity and extend its possibilities to one another, famous and otherwise. “How we compartmentalize the people we love or admire,” she writes, “…it’s incoherent, putting pieces of a puzzle together that don’t fit, jamming them, or discarding one or the other. But we need to hold them. Even if they are heavy. This is the work.”
 Hine, Darlene Clark. “Rape and the Inner Lives of Black Women in the Middle West.” Signs 14, no. 4 (1989): 912. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3174692.
 Before Title IX, women made up 96% of coaching roles of women’s teams, and now it’s just 50%. Black women coaches have also become incredibly hard to come by in professional sports like the WNBA, says Davis.
 Amira Rose Davis, “A Legacy of Incoherence,” The New Republic, February 1, 2020. Accessed, October 10, 2022.