You are here

Panel discusses how student-athletes make voices heard

Group stresses importance of supporting those involved in political, social activism

by Jon Sauber

Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association Commissioner Jacqie McWilliams choked up as she spoke about Martin Luther King Jr. on Jan. 17, two days after the holiday named in honor of the civil rights activist.

“If he didn’t stand up for us, I would not be sitting at this table today,” said McWilliams, the first African-American woman to be commissioner of the CIAA.  

McWilliams, along with Emma Morgan-Bennett, Ty-Ron Douglas and Natalie Winkelfoos, made up a four-person panel discussing the promotion of inclusion in sports and the related importance of student expression. The panelists spent over an hour speaking at the recent NCAA Convention about the importance of being supportive of students who choose to be active in political and social issues.

Morgan-Bennett, a sophomore volleyball player at Swarthmore, is one of those students. She chose to kneel for the national anthem after President Donald Trump made negative comments about players in the NFL kneeling for the anthem. Morgan-Bennett said 12 of the 17 players on her team chose to kneel during the anthem.

“We need to use the platforms we have as student-athletes to make a difference,” she said.

McWilliams said it’s important for student-athletes like Morgan-Bennett to use their voice and do so while rationalizing it with a clear explanation.

“When you (encounter) something you don’t know, just like anything you’re unaware of, you’re afraid,” McWilliams said. “It doesn’t have to be about race; it can be about anything. You can discriminate against a food that you don’t like when you’ve never even tasted it.

“But if you’re very clear about what it tastes like, then people can understand why you feel the way you feel.”

Douglas, an associate professor at Missouri, said that fear plays a negative role, but the tension that comes from it can be beneficial to these discussions. “There’s something powerful that comes from tension,” Douglas said. “Tension gives birth to creativity and innovation.”

Douglas added that educating people is key to reaching that creativity and innovation.

Winkelfoos, director of athletics and physical education at Oberlin, said this discomfort helps her in her job. “I’m really comfortable being uncomfortable, and I’m smart enough to say (when) I don’t have the answer,” she said.

Winkelfoos said activism is important to the staff at Oberlin. She said that after the Charlottesville, Virginia, white supremacist rally Aug. 12, her staff meeting consisted mostly of discussion of what they witnessed rather than typical operations discussions. Those talks arose, Winkelfoos said, because the staff wanted to give a voice to those who didn’t have one. “(There is) nobody more powerful on campus than faculty,” she said.

McWilliams agreed with Winkelfoos. She said it’s important for those who are leaders to take a strong role in these types of discussions.

“When you have a leadership role, a position and an opportunity, (you) should be an advocate in some way or form,” McWilliams said. “The problem is if you don’t have a seat at the table, you can’t advocate for what you know is right … (and) student-athletes don’t always have a seat at the table. As leaders, we have a responsibility to always be advocates for our student-athletes.”

Such positive reinforcement has helped the student-athletes at Oberlin, according to Winkelfoos. They want to discuss social and political issues.

But while positive reinforcement for athletes and their protests can be beneficial, these students also can face situations that make them alter their plan. Morgan-Bennett said it happened during her volleyball season when the team planned on kneeling during the national anthem.

On the weekend of Veterans Day, their opposing school requested the Swarthmore players stand for the anthem. If they didn’t, the school threatened to halt the anthem.

Morgan-Bennett, who comes from a military family, said the team had a long discussion but ultimately decided not to kneel. Rather, they would peacefully exit the gym when the anthem was played.

“It’s just impossible to control what everyone is thinking,” she said. “The only thing we could do is let go of trying to control the narrative.”

McWilliams said she was impressed with Morgan-Bennett’s decision and inspired by her story. “Do you know how powerful it is to stand for what you believe in?” McWilliams said. “You are courageous, and I wish that all of us could do the same, for what you and your team did.”

Douglas said Morgan-Bennett’s flexibility with her protest was important and should be important for all student-athletes who want to be socially active.

Douglas closed the panel discussion with a simple statement about the meaning of supporting student-athletes and supporting their social activism. “This is really just about acknowledging each other’s existence,” he said.