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Q&A with former Colgate star Adonal Foyle

Retired NBA veteran discusses Juneteenth, social issues and voting

Retired NBA player and former Colgate standout Adonal Foyle has a unique perspective on the current social unrest in the United States. The same applies to his views on Juneteenth, an annual celebration that commemorates the ending of slavery in the U.S. and marks the day when Union troops arrived June 19, 1865, in Galveston, Texas, to enforce the emancipation. 

Foyle grew up in the Caribbean nation of St. Vincent and the Grenadines before moving to the U.S. for educational opportunities as a teenager. In part because he grew to 6 feet, 10 inches, those academic opportunities also came through basketball.

Education was always paramount to Foyle, however. After graduating from Colgate with a bachelor’s degree in history and during his 13-year career in the NBA, Foyle founded Democracy Matters, a nonprofit, campus-based national student organization that focuses on creating civic engagement opportunities for young people.

Foyle recently shared his perspective with the NCAA about Juneteenth, his experiences with race and his passion for democracy initiatives. Below is a condensed version of that conversation.

As an American citizen who was born outside the U.S., what does Juneteenth mean to you?

I think Juneteenth has been an evolving kind of story for me. I always was curious about the Emancipation Proclamation. As somebody who came from the Caribbean, there’s always this disconnect between Juneteenth and what we thought was the official ending of slavery. Obviously, it’s something that’s hard for us to think about as modern-day citizens, to think back to what the world looked like years ago. I think that has always been a challenge, that the Emancipation Proclamation could have been written, and then literally two-plus years later, it finally got to people in Texas and then eventually got to people all over the country to fully realize what the Emancipation Proclamation meant in the context of post-Civil War.

I think that has been the challenge for me. I always thought of Juneteenth as the unofficial recognition by African Americans as the end of slavery. It was that unofficial understanding that even though it supposedly ended on a certain date, that it took a lot longer for people to actually realize what happened. I think that has been the march and the fight for African Americans for over 400 years.

You graduated with a history degree from Colgate, and a lot of the narrative nationally is the need for education regarding our country’s history. From your perspective, how important is studying and understanding our nation’s history for national progress to be made?

It’s so important for people to understand. Imagine, I came in from the Caribbean. My experiences did not mirror the experiences of many African Americans living in the United States. Many of the people in power and in government in the Caribbean are black like me. I never had to deal with a lot of the things that many African Americans in the United States have dealt with. It’s important to understand that even within the context of African American experience, we have a wide range of experiences that may not be similar. Even for me, I had to really listen to my colleagues. Then, when I came to the United States, what ended up happening is that everyone assumed that I carried with me the legacy of all of the African Americans in the United States. I had to learn quickly that it wasn’t so much how I consider and what I consider myself, but it’s how the society is going to consider me. I was African American. Whether I thought there was a shade of distinction doesn’t matter. Not that I have an issue with the distinction, but the point is that even for an African American man coming from the Caribbean to the United States, I had to listen. I had to learn. I had those experiences to understand.

So when I got pulled over by a cop and he put his hand on his gun and I’m afraid for my life, I had those experiences. I had great experiences with cops. I had bad experiences with cops. But I had to now imagine myself as not where I came from but how I’m being treated in the current context. I think that’s where people are really getting an opportunity to understand, that we have these experiences. It may be different for you, but if you talk to enough of us, hopefully you will have convincing proof that the relationship, at least, is different.

Do you remember your first negative experience with race in the United States, where you noticed it was different than in your home country?

One of the scariest experiences that I had was in Orlando, and the team there had just finished a game. I was driving to the airport, and I got pulled over. I was probably going 5 to 8 miles (per hour) over the speed limit; I was speeding. The cop asked me to get out of the car. I got out of the car, so I went from 5-foot (tall sitting down) to 6-foot-10. And immediately he unstrapped his gun, put his hand on the barrel. And, in my mind, the only thing I can think about is, “I need to convince him I’m normal. I need to put my credentials on the table.” I remember saying, “I’m with the Orlando Magic. I play for the NBA. I’m on my way to the airport to get on a plane. I have cops that travel with us on the plane for security.” I had to put all my credentials on the table, hoping that he doesn’t kill me. That was an experience I tell people about. If you’ve never had an experience like that, you don’t understand what, in that moment, it feels like. I’ve had situations where I’ve gotten pulled over, and I’m nervous. I did everything I’m supposed to do: I held onto the steering wheel, I put my hand out, and I turn the light out so they can see in the car. I do all of these things to make sure that I am not on the other end of a gun.

It’s important to understand that while we might all have different experiences with the police, and they’re not all negative, but every interaction … if I start thinking now when I’m pulled over that this could be the end of my life, those encounters become more and more problematic with everybody involved. Because I am at a heightened level, the cops are at a heightened level, and we’re all looking at each other as enemies. I think that’s the danger of the continuing one after the other encounters that are negative, and if we don’t talk about it and share it and really try to change it, then we’ll always feel when we’re stopped by a cop that it’s not for the right reason or something bad can happen at the end of it. That is a real possibility for a lot of people when they engage with cops. And, like I said, that’s not my total experience. I’ve had really amazing experiences. I’ve had conversations with cops. I’ve talked with them. I’ve had dinner with them. So I have a pretty diverse background, but even with all of that, the fear is still there because of how people view and see me.

What’s your perspective on the current social unrest, the protests that are going on in our country right now? What gives you hope about our country’s current situation?

When I look at social movements from the ’60s to all the major social movements — the anti-war movement, civil rights movement, women’s rights movement — all the major movements through our history have been dominated in large part by young people. In this instance, we’re seeing that again, and not just African Americans that are out in the street. We have a lot of people from different backgrounds, races, creeds, who are out there protesting. I think that is very hopeful.

I think, for the first time, because of cellphones, because of what we’re able to see, we’re now seeing, unfiltered, the experiences that many African Americans have been talking about. I think people are starting to say, “Something is wrong here. We have a problem.” The people out in the street who are protesting peacefully are demonstrating that in very meaningful ways. What we have seen over the last several years has been very troubling, and I think it’s come to a pass. I think people are saying this has to change. So, what’s hopeful for me is how diverse this group is. What’s hopeful is people actually want to know more and want to be able to step into somebody else’s shoes and understand some of those experiences.

What role do you believe student-athletes can play in this, in creating change?

I’ve long believed that sports provide a really amazing opportunity, where we see firsthand how black people and white people and brown people and other colored people can come on a team and strive for common purpose. I think in those interactions, when you look at the history of sports and the role they’ve played in so many social movements, from the women’s rights movement with Billie Jean King, you have Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Russell, Colin Kaepernick. We’ve had such a rich legacy of civic engagement, of participation, of trying to push the world a little bit farther. We’ve seen people do this many, many times in sports. I think what sports really do at their essence is create a laboratory where different people live and experience and share ideas and push each other and love each other and be angry at each other and be able to articulate those concerns. I think that environment offers the best opportunity to learn. Sports have always done that for us, and I think it will continue to be one of the most important elements of continuing to show people the best of who we are. I think sports can continue to be the change agent in our society.

One of the things you’re passionate about is college students getting involved in our democracy and voting. Currently, student-athletes across the country are rallying around that idea. Missouri’s football team ended a march with 62 players registering to vote. The Big Ten launched a voter registration initiative recently. What has it been like seeing those types of pushes and actions from and for student-athletes?

It’s so important … what Democracy Matters at its core tries to do is say, “Look, we have to engage the political system. We have to advocate for campaign finance reform. We have to advocate for the overturn of Citizens United. We have to make sure that real ideas and good ideas dominate and not that a person who can spend enough money to control a political candidate.” Part of our mission is really to encourage civic participation and engagement. I think it’s important because, as we have these issues in the street where people are marching for the greater good, we must remember that it must be tied to political outcomes. Otherwise, we’ll be having this fight over and over and over. We must get people in office that will listen to some of the concerns of the greater society and be able to pass laws to address some of those issues. If we don’t do that, I’m afraid this whole movement won’t be as successful as I think it has an opportunity to be. We need people to vote. We need people to engage. We need people to hold their representatives accountable.

For student-athletes and administrators, whether at a conference or institution, what advice would you have as more of these initiatives and programs are put together? What core pillars should be included?

One of the interesting things that I found out when I started Democracy Matters many years ago is a lot of young people didn’t know how to go out and engage, how to go out and create social movements. So I always tell them that the most power you have is the power to being able to talk to each other. What we have to learn to do is to truly engage without rendering judgment about where people stand. We really need to have colleges where uncomfortable conversations must be had. We must share our universal experience, and they will be different. We have to allow the space for people to have differences, for people to not understand everything that is going on in their friends’ lives. But the willingness to engage is how we’re going to have those meaningful conversations. Especially on college campuses, we have to get back to really talking to each other, rather than talking at each other. We really have to get back to understanding that we all may have different experiences that are important, but it is important to listen to the people who have not been given a voice to have those conversations. We can move really, really far if we start really appreciating the diversity of view that is so important and has formed our college experiences. This is a conversation we must have. We must have a firm conversation about race with all of its historical contents and all of the ugliness that comes with it. We have to be able to put it on the table once and for all.

We are in a moment where people are open to really thinking about the worldview that they inherited, and it’s being challenged in many ways. We have to be willing to continue to tell our stories and share our experiences, not in an angry way necessarily but in a forceful way. I think if we do that and if we recognize each other’s humanity, we can start having that meaningful conversation. I think we have to unlearn centuries of really bad thoughts, and we have to call to a truer history of our experiences and not shy away from them but lean into them. If we can start leaning into these conversations, I think you will see that we can understand each other — we can empathize with each other. But learning from each other, empathizing with each other, educating ourselves, reading about some of those experiences and those challenges will put us in a foundation where we can have those conversations in a meaningful way.