A controversy over whether discussions of racial justice issues have a place in triathlon has now prompted Ironman to close down posting and comments on its Women for Tri Facebook group after backlash from the community. The announcement calls the decision a “period of serenity” to calm tensions amongst its 60,000+ members.
The turmoil began last week, as protests took place around the country after the death of George Floyd, who was killed by police in Minneapolis. Members of the Women for Tri Facebook group began posting messages about the Black Lives Matter movement. The messages were a mixture of personal and political: Some were from black women who shared their fears about meeting the same fate as Ahmaud Arbery, an unarmed 25-year-old black man who was chased down and fatally shot while running near Brunswick, Georgia. Others pointed out an obvious lack of diversity in the sport of triathlon—88% of triathletes are white; black triathletes make up less than one half of one percent of the sport. Several posts from white women offered allyship and solidarity to BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) members and to the Black Lives Matter movement.
Shortly after such posts began, however, admins began to disable comments or delete Black Lives Matter-related posts from the page. “One of my friends made a post about Black Lives Matter, stating it was unfair that posts had been deleted and comments turned off,” said Ouida L. Brown. “I then tried to post a comment, and could not. I looked back [through the page] and saw a few more friends who had posted their concerns.”
However, while those posts and comments were deleted, members of the group noted some posts and comments discounting or belittling the Black Lives Matter movement were allowed to remain intact—despite assertions that the reason the initial posts had been deleted was because they were unrelated to triathlon or were “too political.”
“I was very upset about the position of Women for Tri and many of the comments, which seemed either thoughtless or racist,” said Linda Carney-Goodrich. “If I am participating in a group and my name is associated with it in any way, I want to be sure it is anti-racist. It’s not like we are disagreeing about which tri suit looks best. These are real human lives affected by violence, racism, and inequality.”
For black women in the group, the act of removing some posts (but not others) felt like a dismissal of their experiences.
“The site should be a safe space,” said Brown. “After the recent murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, with the addition of COVID crisis we are all hurting. Triathlons and racing is an outlet for the stresses of the world. That is not available now. Running is a outlet for many, and the murder of Mr. Arbery bought light to the fear that many black women have. I am scared to run in many places when I travel for fear of being raped, harassed for being a woman and on top of that being black. So these social issues are very much a part of our triathlon journey, and we should feel safe discussing these concerns.”
Several administrators of the group, including Women for Tri board member Meredith Atwood, renounced their roles as administrators of the group and publicly disagreed with what she called “censorship” in the group. Though she did not personally remove a post, she declared she was “disheartened to see this as a response.” Atwood told Triathlete the removal of posts was related to what she called “outdated rules” of the Women for Tri group, which state, “This is not the forum to hash out controversial political/social issues. These posts will be removed.”
“I can attribute any purposeful removal of BIPOC posts to trying to comply with the (admittedly) outdated rules that did not line up with our updated mission, a change in our current events that did not line up to the rules, and overall confusion. It all happened quickly. Silencing BIPOC in the group was never the intention, but if we as humans learn anything from this moment in history, intent does not negate impact,” said Atwood.
A request to update the rules of the group went unanswered by Ironman, who owns Women for Tri. This, coupled with a lengthy silence from Ironman on the topic of Black Lives Matter, further sowed the seeds of discontent: “When a formal Ironman statement was finally issued [on June 5], it was inadequate and missing the point in many, many ways,” said Atwood. “That’s when I removed myself as an admin of the group and issued another personal statement.”
The Ironman statement announced a $1 million Race for Change initiative to increase diversity and inclusion. However, some felt the statement didn’t address the issues of racial justice clearly enough.
A mass exodus followed, with more than 4,000 women departing Women for Tri. Some formed or joined their own groups, like Women Who Tri For Justice (as of publication, the group has more than 2,200 members).
Former administrators, who were identified by their individual Facebook accounts, were replaced with a general “Women for Tri” account. At the moment, Ironman/Women for Tri has not identified the person (or persons) working as administrators of the Facebook group. They did, however, issue another statement on June 11 suspending activity on the Facebook group and placing the group “on pause”:
The Women For Tri private Facebook Group was one of the first steps taken in launching the Women For Tri program in 2015; designed to create a safe space for ALL women, including Black, Indigenous and Women of Color, to have constructive and educational conversations about their triathlon journey, seek support, and build one-another up.
Over the last couple weeks, however, the group has turned into something we could have never imagined – hateful speech, tearing one-another down, and personal harassment. We are not blameless, and have, while clumsily trying to make things better, done the opposite – we’ve hurt feelings and inflamed passions. We are sorry for this and deeply sad concerning the state of this group right now.
It is clear that this group needs to enter a period of serenity. So, we will be placing the group on pause, meaning all posting and commenting activity will be turned off. During this time, we will evaluate and determine next steps towards returning the group to a place where we listen, care, and support one-another. We will think about what needs to change to allow this group to continue to serve its community. We will look at acceptable topics and content, how we treat one another, the roles of administrators, how they will be selected, and anything else that is relevant.
It is unclear how long the group will be paused, who the current administrators are in the group, and what changes will be made. Those who wish to comment are encouraged to email email@example.com.