Bridge the Pay Gap: Sierra Brooks
Sierra Brooks is currently a gymnast at the University of Michigan going into her sophomore year. She began competing competitively at the age of seven and ended up reaching level 10 in sixth grade (12 yo). Brooks competed at level 10 for the next six years of her club career, committing to UM at the beginning of her freshman year of high school. She qualified for the junior olympic nationals six years in a row and won all around and 3/4 events her last year. Initially, she was recruited to graduate high school in 2020, but Brooks graduated a year early and started preparing for her gymnastics collegiate career. Brooks and the UM gymnastics team are the regular season B1G Ten champions and they also made school history by beating their program record twice. Brooks was also B1G Ten freshman of the year, rookie of the year (within UM athletics), and a second team All-American on two events.
How did you first get started with gymnastics?
My parents said I was extremely busy and would climb all over our furniture, never seeming to just relax. My aunt suggested that my parents put me in gymnastics, so they did and I loved it. I had done dance and swimming when I was younger, but didn’t really start enjoying sports until I was in gymnastics. I found myself always wanting to go to practice so I could let out my energy and challenge myself with what I could do.
Who is your role model and why do you look up to them?
The first person that always comes to mind for me is Gabby Douglas. While she won gold at the London Olympics in 2012 after being in the underdog position, I was a ten year-old at home watching and rooting her on.
Being able to see someone do phenomenal things that you want to do, while they look like you, is extremely important.
I didn’t necessarily want to go to the Olympics, but I wanted to go far in my sport.
I remember going to school in sixth grade and a guy telling me that when he first saw me he thought I was Gabby Douglas because I was one, a gymnast, and two, black. This didn't come off as offensive to me, instead it honestly made me realize that there were people doing incredible things that looked like me. It inspired me to make a name for myself not only as an athlete, but also as a person.
Since I’ve looked up to Gabby for so long, there's not much she can say or do wrong in my eyes. In the 2016 Olympics, she received a lot of harsh criticism for her facial expressions and not always looking as bubbly as the rest of her teammates. Meanwhile, there had been plenty of other athletes, female, male, it didn't matter, who looked less than content while competing who didn't receive any backlash.
This definitely opened my eyes up to the double standards that our society has within athletics not only for women, but also with race.
I think we need to call out these double-standards because they are easy to miss when you aren’t focusing on them.
Along with Gabby Douglas, any athlete that makes an effort to acknowledge the path that got them to where they were and makes an effort to give back is someone that I look to as a role model. I feel very fortunate that I was exposed to gymnastics and was in a position where my parents could get me to practice everyday, let alone afford everything that it entailed. Not everyone is given that and I think that's something our society can miss.
Your sport is different than many in that the results are determined by judges that aren't the competitors themselves. Is this frustrating as an athlete?
I think the judging aspect is extremely difficult for those in the sport and even the spectators because you never quite know how one is going to be judged, but it's also something that I know comes with the sport. Our sport is subjective, no matter how hard we want it to be objective, so I think that's something I've tried to work through and not focus on. If we wanted our sport to be truly objective, gymnastics as we know it would not be the same. As long as I'm able to do my best possible gymnastics, the scores should represent that and the majority of the time I believe they do.
In NCAA gymnastics, I'd say there's been judging inconsistencies across the board for schools in a certain conference or for gymnastics with known names. For those cases, you can't blame the gymnast or the school because the ones who are making the calls are the judges. When dealing with situations like this, I think my head coach Bev Plocki did a great job of explaining what our team needed to do. Earlier this season, she emphasized that we need to be so good that they can't question anything. Those small tenth differences that add up can be eliminated if we truly focus on the details and once we are able to compete against the big names or big schools, we'll get our fair scoring simply because we were that good.
Have you ever been judged on your appearance rather than your ability?
I feel that within gymnastics, there's been a great shift to caring less about a gymnast's body type or looks and focusing on their ability instead. In the past, there was almost this go-to figure that they strived for with gymnasts and today, we see gymnasts of every age, race, body type, etc. It makes the sport more diverse and it's something that I love.
So in regards to gymnastics, I feel as if I've been judged for my gymnastics, not my appearance. If I have been judged more on my appearance than ability, there's never been a time where I've explicitly noticed it.
In regards to life, I feel you don't go a day without being judged based on your appearance over ability because it's something people do unconsciously. I think everyone can judge a book by its cover without intentionally wanting to do so and I don't think there's a way we can eliminate that completely. However, I think everyone can make themselves more aware or call themselves out when they have an opinion of someone that doesn't extend beyond their appearance.
This ignorant judging that we do extends beyond athletics and reaches academics, the work environment, and life as a whole. I think our society would benefit tremendously if we all learned to step back and try to get to know someone, beyond their looks, first.
There is a common stereotype that black athletes are successful and skilled because of the color of their skin. The hard work, passion, and commitment often is downplayed. Have you experienced or seen this stereotype in your sport?
I have never experienced being on the receiving end of this stereotype personally, but I've seen it through other athletes or even comments by others. I'm lucky that I've never had my talent disregarded because of the color of my skin, but the media alone makes me aware that some people do think this is true. It's something that I'm very aware of, but I think the less we acknowledge it, the less people are going to start using it as an excuse as to why black athletes are doing great. Putting a focus on the hard work, opportunities, and drive that these individuals had and how it got them to be successful is going to do more than trying to fight an ignorant perspective that doesn't want to actually know the truth.
I think it's more of an unsaid notion in my sport at this point. We have people like Dominique Dawes and Gabby Douglas. And now we have Simone Biles, who is literally breaking so many records, while making history in every way, shape, and form. Not to mention, there are so many up and coming athletes in every single sport who are ready to take names and truly win.
Having other black females be successful in the sport of gymnastics has been incredibly eye opening and enlightening for those of us who aspire to do things that are great. However, I do think their success could make gymnastics start to be more susceptible to that stereotype when black athletes start to excel more and more commonly.
One way I think we're able to quiet down this stereotype is focusing on the facts. We need to focus on all the hard work that went in and the reality that these athletes weren't given anything extra compared to the other athletes.
Race has no correlation with one’s athletic ability and every individual athlete has their own story that got them to where they are. This needs to be fully acknowledged.
I think we can work to change this stereotype by increasing the volume of these athlete's individual qualities and not immediately categorizing them into a race.
I can be a good gymnast, I don't always have to be a good black gymnast.
What does it mean to you to "Bridge the Pay Gap?"
"Bridge the pay gap" is a phrase that focuses on making the gender inequalities that we see smaller, yet more visible for everyone.
It's easy for our society to ignore inequalities that are present simply because we are used to them and that's 'just how it is'. In regards to sports, there are many areas where women are not equal to men and we need to talk about it and work to change it.
We can work to make these inequalities more equal, but keep our voices just as loud because they exist in the first place.
I took a class this past semester about sociology in regards to sport and we had an entire unit that focused on gender within sports. It was extremely eye opening and further solidified the issues that we see with gender inequality in sport. For instance, the class explained how female athletes have to have another factor besides their athletic ability if they want to be able to get sponsors and the media's attention. Being an athlete alone isn't enough. However, for male athletes that isn't what we see. The media doesn't care if they have children, are a model, or have this incredible personality, they care more about if they are winning and how they are competing. This difference is an issue and there needs to be an effort to help shift this.
Why doesn't a female athlete's success on the field, court, floor, etc. not determine the public's view of them?
Another issue is the huge disparity in the popularity of female and male sports, even when the sports are the exact same.
The amount of media attention that male sports get is huge compared to females. Due to this, there's no wonder why we see male sports continue to maintain their popularity.
Even on a smaller scale, male sports tend to be advertised more and at different schools, the student body is even more prevalent at male sport competitions.
These are just two instances where I think “bridge the pay gap” applies within sports in regards to women equality. Those two issues can make a huge difference if we work to change them, yet they don’t solve the problem as a whole.
We need to keep pushing for equality in every single way.
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