During a career running curl routes and becoming a Super Bowl champion tight end, Vernon Davis fell in love with the sport of curling.
A two-time Pro Bowler, Davis was still playing for the San Francisco 49ers when a sports beat writer approached him and asked him to try out curling.
That sparked an involvement in and love for the sport — and now Davis is one of curling’s most prominent boosters. He’s been an honorary captain of the Men’s U.S. Olympic curling team at the Winter Olympics in 2010, 2014 and 2018. Davis also promoted curling on "The Arsenio Hall Show" and even appeared in the music video for “Teach Me How to Curl” with singer Todrick Hall.
But Davis, who is Black, is also aware that he’s one of few nonwhite voices trying to spread the love for curling, a little-understood sport where athletes slide 44-pound stones down a strip of ice toward a target. It got its start in 1500s Scotland and has largely been known as a country club sport, which can limit access to it.
“I don't feel like it's a welcoming sport because a lot of people don't understand it. They don't even know what it means. Especially African American culture, they've never even seen it,” Davis told hosts Ngozi Ekeledo and Apolo Ohno in the latest episode of the "My New Favorite Olympian" podcast.
Listen to the full episode of My New Favorite Olympian
Curling spread from Scotland throughout the United Kingdom and other nations where Scots settled, like Canada, Sweden, Switzerland and Norway. And it's not alone among winter sports in its near-homogeneity. Just one out of 37 curlers on Team USA in 2020 was a person of color, and every coach was white. Over 94% of U.S. hockey players are white, as are 96% of skiers and snowboarders.
The lack of diversity was apparent to U.S. curler Monica Walker when she attended the U.S. curling championships in May.
“Looking around at everybody that was there, there was nobody really of color there at all,” Walker said. “That's a huge red flag to me, and I want to talk about that, and I want to know why, and I want it to be different in the future.”
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Star U.S. curler John Shuster, who's headed to his fifth Winter Olympics this year after helping the U.S. medal last time, only recently started thinking about the sport’s diversity problem, after the racial justice protests of 2020 led USA Curling to form a committee.
“I have always viewed curling as one of the most inclusive places, and … being part of this committee has made me see that maybe we aren't the most inclusive,” said Shuster.
Since then, Shuster has tried to make clear he can be counted on as an ally.
And he hopes for a future in the sport "where every single person that walks into a curling club feels like it's a comfortable place that they want to spend time," he said.
Some of the hype for curling has helped people of color find the sport — and love it. New Jersey curler Deb Martin became one of them after seeing Davis at the Olympics. She searched for a curling club in her state and was surprised to find one only 15 minutes away.
Now Martin is part of the Ice Breakers initiative, which started in 2020 and seeks to bring more athletes of color into curling. It takes inspiration from other organizations that promote the Black community's involvement in sports, like Black Girls Run or Black Men Run.
"We're really just trying to bolt on a more intentional recruitment effort onto the things that clubs are already doing," Martin said. "Black people or people of color are everywhere. ... All you really have to do is make the connection."
In the meantime, Davis said he'll continue to hype up this strange Scottish ice game in hope it will help it become better understood.
“My involvement brings awareness to the sport," Davis said. "But if we can continue to get it out there, I think everyone will continue to familiarize themself with the game.”
For more curling coverage, check out "American Rock Stars," a series, narrated by Nick Offerman, which follows Shuster and his team of self-described "scrappy regular guys from Middle America" as they prepare to defend their gold medal at the 2022 Winter Olympics. All four episodes premiere Jan. 26 on Peacock, which is owned by NBCLX's parent company, NBCUniversal.