Coco Gauff, Deion Sanders and the powerful impact of doubt on Black coaches and athletes

There was a moment after Coco Gauff won the U.S. Open that was particularly striking. It had to do with doubt.

Athletes often feed off of doubt. It can be a fueling system. A way to launch them into orbit. Sometimes, it can come off as manufactured or even phony. That wasn’t the case with Gauff. Something about what she said hit me in the heart. It likely hit a number of Black people in the heart who were watching.

“Thank you to the people who didn’t believe in me,” she said. “Like, a month ago, I won a (World Tennis Association) 500 title and people said I would stop at that. Two weeks ago, I won a 1000 title, and people were saying that was as big as it was going to get. Three weeks later I’m here with this trophy now. I’ve tried my best to carry this with grace, and I’ve been doing my best so, honestly, to those who thought you were putting water in my fire, you were actually adding gas to it. And now I’m really burning too bright right now.”

Her speech reminded me of Deion Sanders after Colorado won its opener against TCU and Sanders chastised a reporter.

Sander initially said, “I keep receipts.”

“Do you believe now?” he later asked.

I thought Sanders’ remarks were over the top, and indicative of how he doesn’t understand that it’s not a journalist’s job to believe. He’s not Jesus and we’re not apostles. But I also understood his reaction on a guttural level. I don’t speak for all Black people when I say this (that job doesn’t pay enough) but I promise you many of us saw both Sanders and Gauff react to being doubted and nodded our heads in agreement with their responses.

Sanders coached at an HBCU and entered the FBS as a Black head coach. Major college football coaching is one of the least diverse institutions in all of sports. Professional tennis, despite the dominance of the Williams sisters, isn’t far behind. The doubt Sanders has faced has been extensive. The doubt Gauff has while traversing through the tennis world must have been stratospheric.

Facing down doubt is far from new for Black Americans. In our workplaces, in our schools, in many walks of our lives, we are told we’re inferior. Not good enough. We’re constantly doubted. Challenged. Second guessed. ‘Splained to.

We’re told our history shouldn’t be taught. Our books should be banned. That affirmative action only benefits us and needs to be eliminated.

It may not seem like anyone ever doubted Sanders. After all, he’s in the Hall of Fame, and is one of the most recognizable sports stars in American history. But I promise you, at some point in his life, Sanders heard people doubt him, and I promise you, some of it was simply because he’s Black, and he vowed to never let those doubts stick.

It may not seem like a U.S. Open champ was ever doubted, but I guarantee she was, and some of it was some tennis player or fan looking at her skin color and thinking she didn’t belong.

That type of doubt hits Black people different. It hits hard and cold and mean. It motivates differently than a white person who was ever doubted.

I’ve believed for some time that Sanders was going to be an excellent college coach. So good, in fact, he’d be coaching at one of the best programs in the nation, like Alabama, in just a few years. He’s not long for Colorado and one day, when he wins a national title, and raises that trophy over his head, he’ll still talk about doubt.

With Gauff, you could see in her face as she talked about the people who doubted her that this was extremely personal, and not the usual stuff expressed by athletes when they talk about people questioning them.

American teen Coco Gauff wins US Open women’s final for first Grand Slam title

That could be because Gauff is steeped in Black history and activism. She spoke out after the murder of George Floyd and has since addressed other racial issues. Much of that courage, she has said in the past, came from her grandmother who in 1961 was the first Black student to integrate a Florida high school.

“She’s the sole, or one of the main, reasons why I use my platform the way that I do and why I feel so comfortable speaking out,” Gauff said. “For those who don’t know, she was the first Black person to go to what was then called Seacrest High School. That happened, like, six months after Ruby Bridges did her integration. She had to deal with a lot of … racial injustice.

“For her to go through what she did during that time (makes me think that) putting out a tweet or saying a speech is so easy compared to that,” Gauff said. “That’s why I have no problem doing the things that I do. She always reminds me that I’m a person first instead of an athlete.”

Gauff, in her press conference with reporters after the match, joked about reading on X, formerly known as Twitter, people saying she was mostly hype.

“I just felt like, people were like, ‘Oh, she’s hit her peak, and she’s done,'” she said, “and ‘it was all hype.’ I see the comments. People don’t think I see, but I’m very aware of Tennis Twitter. I know (the) usernames. I know who’s talking trash and I can’t wait to look on Twitter right now.”

Joked, yes. Laughed, yes. But she was also serious.

That doubt will continue to fuel Gauff. It will never be fake or manufactured. It will always be real.

It will always be real because it’s deeply felt and never forgotten.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Coco Gauff was motivated by doubt. Many Black athletes are.

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