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College athletes using platforms to speak out on social justice issues

Messages shared through poetry, blogs, conversations and anti-racism coalition aimed at clearing up misconceptions and inspiring change

Recently, more and more student-athletes across the country have made their voices heard to advocate for their beliefs. This has been especially true on social justice issues. 

From protests to social media posts, local efforts to conference-wide initiatives, student-athletes have been leaders in trying to make sure this historic period becomes more than a brief social movement.

Recently, NCAA leadership development launched A4, a four-part virtual program to educate student-athletes on the power they have and how they can use it to effectively enact meaningful change. More than 200 joined the first week’s session. 

Below are four of the many examples of how student-athletes already have used their voices and platforms to make a difference and why there will be plenty more to come.

Poetic power

Preslie Anderson watched the video of a police officer kneeling on George Floyd and saw her father on the ground. The next time she watched, she saw her two brothers. 

“It really sent me into a sad place,” said Anderson, a rising senior volleyball player for Division I California. “But instead of being sad and doing nothing about it … I ended up making a poem that a lot of people felt moved by.”

The poem Anderson wrote was published on California’s website as part of a first-person account of the recent national social injustices. Her words unpack a heavy load of emotions about the country’s long history of systemic racism.

She also wrote about her experience at a Black Lives Matter protest she attended with one of her brothers and some friends in Phoenix, near their hometown of Chandler, Arizona. She said the experience was “one of the highlights” of her life.

“I’ve never felt more passionate about something in my life,” she said. “I’ve always thought it was volleyball; that’s my world. I’m ready to play volleyball whenever. I’m ready to talk about volleyball whenever. But something that definitely this quarantine has given me time to reflect on is the one thing I put over volleyball every single day is my race and other people’s races. It’s so important that we never neglect who the people are off court.”

Off the court, Anderson is a legal studies major who is considering law school and hoping to pursue a career that includes fighting against systemic racism. She’s also biracial, which she said can be both a challenge and an asset at times. Her upbringing brought her to a point of feeling like she had to speak up and increase her level of activism.

“I think my personal experiences with racism in its many forms really triggered me to say something and step up to the plate,” she said. “It really is so important to me because it’s something that my dad has instilled within me since I was a younger kid, standing up for what I think is right and making sure that I’m using every ounce that I can to do that.”

Anderson has seen many other athletes step up as well. Teammates have inspired teammates, and teams have joined other teams in protests and campus activism efforts. Anderson said the student-athlete voice gets louder with each addition.

“It’s really projected a bigger movement,” she said. “It’s a domino effect at this point. We have to keep the message going and the movement going.”

Five Steps To Become an Advocate

For weeks after the details of Ahmaud Arbery’s death came to light, Hezekiah Goodwin was “terrified” to run outside.

Goodwin, a Black cross country and track and field athlete at Division III Pacific Lutheran, often thought to himself: “What’s the difference between (Arbery) and I?” Arbery, a 25-year-old Black male, was jogging in a neighborhood in Brunswick, Georgia, when he was killed. Goodwin, a rising senior for Pacific Lutheran in Tacoma, Washington, runs outside almost every day.

“It definitely scared me, and I definitely kind of took a little bit of a hiatus on running because I was just unsure of, ‘Will I be safe?’” he said. “It definitely took a lot of reflecting and realizing what needs to be done.”

Goodwin’s conclusion? Making his voice heard and taking his advocacy to another level. This included attending multiple Black Lives Matter protests. But that was only the start.

“It mainly came down to me being a person of color in a predominantly white institution. I realize that a lot of my friends have never had conversations regarding race or inequality or what oppression looks like, so I kind of took it upon myself to teach and educate others. I wanted to share what I experienced going through life as a Black male,” he said. “A lot of people think that white privilege means you’re the enemy because you have white privilege, but that’s not the case. It’s kind of the way you look at your white privilege and how you can help others, advocating for more spaces for marginalized groups. So I’ve been educating them on the misconceptions that we can see and get confused on … making those things clear. That’s how I took my advocating to the next step.”

Goodwin has been doing this a few different ways. First, he’s led several serious conversations with his teammates, most of whom are white. Additionally, he developed a five-step process for others to become an advocate, regardless of their race or previous experiences.

The five steps Goodwin came up with are:

  1. Acknowledgment: Acknowledge the injustices going in on the United States and that there are issues to work on.
  2. Listen: Listen to marginalized groups of people.
  3. Educate yourself: Learn the history of racism and how it affects people in society.
  4. Educate others: Talk about it with your family, friends, on social media, etc. Share what you learned.
  5. Exhibit anti-racism: Become an ally at all times.

“With these kinds of processes or steps, a lot of my friends found it useful because they’re at different places,” Goodwin said. “Some people are at the education phase already where they’re learning more about how oppression affects people, and some people are yet to acknowledge that racism and inequality exists. So these steps are meeting people where they’re at, and that’s the goal.”

Big Ten TUFF

When asked to be on the Big Ten Anti-Hate and Anti-Racism Coalition, Adam Shibley did not have to think about it. The Michigan football senior linebacker agreed immediately.

Shibley’s passion for the newly formed coalition’s cause runs deep. As a freshman in high school, Shibley, who is white, started dating a Black girl. In the six years they dated, Shibley’s eyes were opened to racism in a way he had not experienced before.

“That’s one of the things that really yanked on my heart,” he said, “and made this a big problem for me.”

Shibley was active in this area well before the Big Ten’s coalition was formed this summer.

In 2018, he and a handful of his teammates launched The Uniform Funding Foundation — TUFF for short. The foundation, as he described it, “fights for social justice by donating customized uniforms and equipment while also offering mentorship to underserved inner-city youth athletes and youth sport teams.” Already, TUFF has provided opportunities for more than 1,000 children.

“It’s been an incredible project,” he said. “I’ve gotten to work on it with my teammates, and it’s brought us closer. Just using our platform as student-athletes to help out in this way has been something I never could have dreamed of.”

TUFF helped set the stage for his invite to the Big Ten Anti-Hate and Anti-Racism Coalition, which includes more than 200 student-athletes, coaches, athletics directors, chancellors, presidents and other members representing all 14 conference schools.

“The vibe has been incredible. We’re all there to create the same change in our country that we all want to see,” Shibley said. “Everyone’s pretty enthusiastic, willing to work together, and we have a lot of passionate people who are not only great in athletics but very intelligent and strong-willed people. I think we’re going to create a lot of change together.”

Since being formed in June, the coalition has met every other week. It also will form five subcommittees that will focus on education, inclusion, community engagement, institutional partnership and conference-wide initiatives like the voter registration initiative released in June.

“My main goals for being on this coalition are to raise awareness of the hate and the racism that go on in marginalized communities on a daily basis. The goal I want to truly hone in on is making sure people who are not actively thinking about the Black Lives Matter movement as well as other marginalized community movements, we want them to start actively thinking about it,” Shibley said. “So getting them to take action and try to change, whether it’s one person’s mind or 100 or thousands of people’s mindsets, how they think they can be a factor in changing the constant racism we see in our country.”

‘Don’t be afraid to speak out’

Khari Williams needed an outlet, somewhere to place a whirlwind of emotions caused from seeing recent instances of police brutality everywhere on social media. Fortunately, Williams knew he had a platform as a men’s basketball player at Division II Millersville.

Williams penned his thoughts on the national situation on a student-athlete blog started on Millersville’s website. Below is an excerpt from the 400 words Williams wrote for the blog:

“As a young African American male, I am truly scared. I am not only scared for myself, but my brother, my friends, my family who might have to deal with the loss of someone close to them just for looking the way that I look. I have been able to gain so much education on this topic while being home with my family. I have learned that it isn’t acceptable to be silent anymore. The time for change is now!”

His contribution to the blog served a few intended purposes. One, Williams said he hopes it set an example for other student-athletes, teammates specifically, of how to use their voices in this space. 

“Some advice I would give is don’t be afraid to speak out because you never know who needs to hear what you have to say,” he said. “You never know who’s thinking the same thing that you are, and you never know who you may touch with the words you may use.”

Second, Williams said it shows the rest of campus that student-athletes are passionate about these issues. “I’m more than a basketball player,” he said. This approach, when exhibited by more and more student-athletes, can help strengthen the bridge between campus and athletics.

Third, Williams wanted his words to reinforce how sports can be a positive example for everyone during these trying times. A transfer entering his second year with Millersville, he ended his blog with, “I know the world can one day be what Millersville basketball has been to me!”

When asked to expand on that sentence, Williams referenced his first interaction with the team in the summer of 2019. Millersville was hosting a team camp for local teams in the area and as his new teammates started to trickle in, each treated him like he’d been on the roster for years. 

“The best I can describe it is just pure love. It’s a brotherhood, a family,” he said. “When I felt that energy, that only made me want to be one way, which is the same way they were, which is loving and helping and caring and genuine and being as much of a wholesome person as I possibly could.”

That experience led to the words he shared on social injustices happening across the country. And he’s far from alone, which gives him hope.

“People want to take action,” he said. “For me to see that the initiative to take action is there in some people’s hearts, that gives me hope that one day everything will be as it should.”