Football places Vanderbilt's Oren Burks in position to tackle society's pressing questions
There wasn't a game plan for this.
Oren Burks understood how to represent Vanderbilt football on a national stage during Saturdays in the fall, but this day was different. The heat outside screamed July in the South, still nearly two months from the 2016 home opener, and the spotlight he would soon step into wasn't shining on the gridiron.
Burks had been selected to speak at the Southeastern Conference Football Media Days, an annual four-day frenzy of more than 1,000 football and media representatives in an Alabama hotel. Teammates Zach Cunningham and Ralph Webb and head coach Derek Mason would join him for a marathon of interviews about the upcoming season. Mostly, they would discuss the usual: goals for the season, keys to success, game schedule, position changes, team depth. Burks could answer questions about those matters without hesitation. They weren't the ones he prayed about.
Two days earlier, Burks caught the eye of SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey during a meeting of more than two dozen SEC student-athletes. The commissioner was struck by comments Burks had made in the meeting and actions he had taken that lent weight to his words. So he approached the redshirt junior with a request: Sankey wanted to highlight Burks in his opening speech for Media Days, particularly for Burks' role in creating a student organization aimed at breaking down stereotypes and building a sense of community for Vanderbilt's African-American men. To Sankey, Burks was an example of a student-athlete who was skilled at tackling sensitive issues and eager to influence change. And in a summer when social justice issues captivated the national dialogue, he could show how college athletes were making a difference.
Of course, holding Burks up in this light, on this stage, would invite questions on topics bigger than football. It was an opportunity for which Burks had been waiting.
So, as he does for any big game, Burks began to prepare. Except this time, there were no films he could study or predrawn schemes to guide his moves. When the event kicked off, he wouldn't have coaches at his side signaling plays. All they could offer was their confidence and encouragement. "Trust your gut," they told him. "Use the platform responsibly." The rest was up to him.
The day before he addressed media, Burks found some rare quiet time to think. He logged off social media. He reflected on advice from family. He asked God to guide his message.
Then, when it was time, he donned his uniform: a crisp navy suit and a red polka-dot tie. Burks was ready.
As Burks spoke that day, the nation was reeling from a week of police-related violence, racial tensions and bloodshed. Six days earlier, Alton Sterling, a 37-year-old black man, was shot and killed by white police officers in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. The day after that, Philando Castile, another black man, was fatally shot by a white officer in Minnesota. And the day after that, five police officers were killed by a black man in Dallas — the deadliest attack on law enforcement since 9/11.
Debates fumed over black lives and blue lives, police brutality and gun laws. The concerns that gripped a nation gripped many college athletes, too.
Social justice issues — which continue to drive headlines one year later — have spurred a new wave of student-athlete activism. Commonly considered the "front porch" of a college, athletics provides a natural platform that students are using to speak out and take action. And in the last school year alone, there was no shortage of controversial issues that prompted their attention: Sexual violence on college campuses. A divisive election. Bathroom bills. Immigration laws. LGBTQ rights.
The renewed interest in social change and civic values among student-athletes reflects broader trends in the general student body. In a 2016 survey of more than 137,000 college freshmen by the UCLA Higher Education Research Institute, more than half of the first-year students indicated they had spoken up about a cause publicly, while 22 percent had participated in a demonstration. The 47 percent of freshmen who felt it was important to promote racial understanding marked an all-time high in the 40 years since the topic was included in the study. Fifty-nine percent believed it was important to understand other countries and cultures, an increase of 10 percentage points from a decade earlier.
As student-athletes amplify their voices — whether through a social media post that reaches thousands, an earnest conversation with university leaders or a bent knee during the national anthem — athletics departments have found themselves navigating what is, for some, uncharted territory. "We need to understand that we're starting to see a return to activism, and we need to recognize that athletics has a platform, whether you want to have it or not," says David Williams II, Vanderbilt athletics director and vice chancellor for athletics and university affairs. "We really need to sit down and engage in discussions about social justice with these kids. Because you cannot separate what's happening from these kids' lives."
As they watched their oldest child answer questions at the SEC Media Days last summer, Wanda and Orlanda Burks had one of their own. Is that really our son?
The Oren Burks they knew preferred to stay behind the scenes. An introvert by nature, he listened more than he spoke.
Yet there he was, offering candid thoughts in his characteristically calm demeanor on issues society often struggles to discuss. "We just need to value human life more," Burks told reporters. "Whether you're a cop or you're an African-American, it doesn't matter. We need to value human life."
The sudden and proud realization that their child had developed in ways they hadn't anticipated was not completely foreign to Wanda and Orlanda. They remember the shock that came during an awards ceremony when Oren was in sixth grade. He already had amassed a pile of certificates — honor roll, safety patrol, physical fitness — when it came time for the program's final award. "When you listen to the description of the award, it was for citizenship, kindness, just being an all-around good person," Wanda recalls. "So it was like, wow, what kid would possibly be able to win that in elementary school?"
Wanda and Orlanda turned to each other after hearing Oren's name called, tears starting to brim. "What has this kid been doing?" Orlanda remembers thinking. "We just knew he did his homework!"
Later, they would understand: Their son had been watching as his parents devoted hours to the children's ministry at their Fairfax Station, Virginia, church. He'd paid attention as they visited prisons and homeless shelters, signed up for walkathons and led donation drives. Then when he was old enough, he followed their lead, stuffing food into bags for the hungry and raiding his closet for clothes to donate.
Oren got a new taste for civic involvement in eighth grade, when he volunteered to knock on doors and poll voters for a class project leading into the 2008 U.S. presidential election. More interested in getting class credit than swaying votes, he was surprised when doors swung shut in his face. The experience illustrated the exceptional ability of politics to trigger heated emotion and deep-rooted views. It also laid the foundation for a skill he would use later: conversing with people who see the world differently, and forming connections before they reach for the door.
Teammates quickly recognized those skills during his first year at Vanderbilt. They selected him as the representative of the Commodores' freshman football class and came to him with their ideas and concerns. Burks, in turn, would approach the head coach. "We were just thinking," he would say to Mason, "what if we did this?"
"He's able to maneuver in a bunch of different situations," teammate Khari Blasingame says. "So if there's something the guys need to take to coach, they feel comfortable taking it to Oren because they know he'll take it to him in the right way. That's just the type of guy he is."
During his first playing season, a nasty hit steered Burks in a new direction. He strained his left medial collateral ligament, sidelining him for four weeks. Not only was the injury a blow to his season, it also left him feeling isolated. He arrived early to the athletics facility for rehab and stayed home when the team traveled for games. An epiphany came on one of those Saturdays as Burks watched his teammates play on TV. He was alone on his couch — his roommate was playing — and alone, mostly, on the entire floor of his dorm, which was largely occupied by football players. With all of his friends on the road, Burks wondered who would help him if he needed something. Was there anyone he could turn to outside football? I need more friends, he told himself. I need to branch out.
A class project soon after provided another unexpected nudge. Burks, a human and organizational development major, needed to interview and write an essay about an influential person. He chose his 85-year-old great-uncle, Andrew Jackson White. Burks knew that White had been involved in the civil rights movement and spent more than four decades as a Baptist minister. But he hadn't heard all the stories: White's conversations with Martin Luther King Jr.; the inspiration he gained from meeting Rosa Parks; the discussions they held as part of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Burks listened intently as his great-uncle spouted wisdom shaped by uncomfortable memories, infused with literary references and church teachings and polished over time. The more White spoke, the more a recurring thought grew louder in Burks' head:
Dang, I need to get to work.
They gathered in a dormitory meeting room, seven students with one big idea.
They talked about their experiences as African-American men on a predominantly white campus. The stereotypes that seeped into peer interactions. The subtle biases they sensed.
Burks had met some of the other students in the room during his injury rehab, when he would stay after class to socialize in an effort to make friends outside athletics. The only football player in the group that day, he shared his frustrations about people judging him simply for his sport.
"I've seen the side of athletics where these guys are genuinely good dudes," Burks says, "but they have a perception."
Together, the students hoped to break down stereotypes and bring people together, and they planned to do it through a new organization on campus for African-American men. They would call it REVAMP — Revitalizing and Empowering Vanderbilt's African-American Male Population.
Their first event, a "Black Excellence" panel of Nashville business professionals and leaders, drew a standing-room-only crowd. Word about the group spread quickly. University administrators and faculty emailed their praises. Burks and the other leaders worked to maintain momentum, developing a mentorship program that paired older students with incoming freshmen and hosting casual gatherings with activities such as video games and water balloon tosses intended to, quite simply, have fun.
In 2016, one year after its creation, REVAMP was voted Vanderbilt's most outstanding student organization. For Burks, who is entering his final semester of college this fall, the group tops a long list of campus causes to which he has devoted himself.
As Vanderbilt's Student-Athlete Advisory Committee president last year, he worked to bridge the gap between athletics and the general student body by advocating for students to attend sporting events and encouraging student-athletes to join in other campus initiatives. He also got involved with the Project Safe Center on campus, which provides education on domestic violence and sexual assault along with resources for victims. Burks knew that four former football players had been charged in a rape in the summer before his freshman year. His concerns about the incident spurred him to action, and he became certified in a bystander prevention program to help facilitate sexual assault prevention trainings for his team. Before Project Safe representatives begin their workshops, Burks takes a moment to address the team. "Take this seriously," he tells his peers. "This is something that's extremely important."
Coming from Burks, the message is heard loud and clear.
Burks' schedule stays full year-round. This summer, he studied abroad in Australia and is completing his fifth internship in Nashville. With classes, meetings and practices, he often reminds himself: “Be where your feet are.”
Taped inside his football locker, four words offer a reminder: "Best version of you."
Football helps Burks fulfill that goal. He has made a name for himself as an outside linebacker, a three-year starter and a co-captain in one of the most competitive conferences in the country. His dreams include football — he hopes to play for as long as he can.
But his sport is just one piece of his story. Long after he hangs up his helmet and pads, his core identity will remain the same.
"When I'm off the field, when I'm done playing football, I will still be an African-American male," he says. "So it feels natural to speak on issues that directly affect people who look like me."
That's why Burks has no interest in just sticking to his sport. When issues that touch his life arise on campus, in the community or elsewhere, he won't stand quietly on the sidelines.
Vanderbilt's athletics director noticed that quality in Burks when he was a sophomore, when he began popping into Williams' office to propose ideas or address concerns. "I think early on, he recognized a part of himself that was greater than being a student-athlete," Williams says. "I think what he was trying to find out was, what is that? And his way of finding out was getting involved."
Occasionally during those meetings, Williams would share stories of his own experience as a college student, back when he was an undergraduate at Northern Michigan in the 1960s. Williams competed on the track and field team before turning his focus to campus demonstrations. Unsure at that time if he could be a student-athlete and speak out, he quit his sport to participate in protests against racial segregation and discrimination.
Those experiences have shaped Williams' attitudes toward student-athlete expression and motivate him to ensure young people he works with feel heard. "My job is to develop young people," he says. "It just so happens I'm doing it in this environment.
"Having students like Oren, having REVAMP, having those sorts of things, it's a lot easier to do here because you have people who want to be proactive."
Burks is just one of the many recent examples of student-athletes using their platforms to influence change. And while there's a long history of athletes who did so before them, the voices of today's generation — with the help of social media and a relentless news cycle — are more amplified than ever.
Student-athlete activism moved to the forefront in fall 2015 in Columbia, Missouri. Students were calling for the ouster of Tim Wolfe as president of the University of Missouri system over his responses to a series of racially charged incidents on campus. One graduate student conducted a hunger strike, refusing to eat until Wolfe resigned. The protests, which spanned weeks, reached their boiling point when more than 30 football players announced they would boycott all football practices and games until the president stepped down and the graduate student ended his hunger strike.
The boycott was short-lived: Wolfe resigned within 72 hours. The protesters dispersed, the hunger striker ate and the football team took the field. But the ripple effects extended to campuses across the country. Many university officials and athletics administrators asked: Could this happen here?
Burks and some of his peers had similar questions of their own. How was their own campus climate? How would administrators respond if protests broke out here? They brought the questions to Williams and Mason, who welcomed the conversations.
The discussions continued last summer when Colin Kaepernick, then the 49ers quarterback, took a knee during the national anthem, and hundreds of athletes in high school, college and professional leagues followed suit. "I constantly encourage them to talk about the issues," Mason says. "It doesn't mean I'm going to agree with their stance, but I do believe they need the opportunity to be free thinkers. I believe that's part of becoming an adult."
Anxiety within police departments was running high last summer. Sensing the tensions, Burks felt compelled to take action.
The Dallas Cowboys provided inspiration when they entered training camp that summer arm-in-arm with members of the Dallas police force and their families. A similar solidarity walk with the Vanderbilt University Police Department, Burks thought, could send a positive and powerful message. His teammates agreed.
"This is a fight that needs to come from both sides," Burks says. "We wanted to recognize they're doing a good job, and there are some systems that need to be adjusted, but it's a communal effort."
The walk from the football locker room to the indoor practice facility would be a short one, but the invitation would leave a lasting impression on the police.
"We knew kids were going to come back into the year with a lot of questions, concerns, anxiety, and we didn't know what to expect," says Leshaun Oliver, a lieutenant with the campus police department. "So when our student-athletes reached out to us, it brought some relief. They weren't dismissive of what was going on around the nation but wanted to say, 'We're appreciative, and we want to stand with you.'"
So, on a Thursday afternoon before the first preseason football practice, the student-athletes and police officers met over dinner, conversing — many of them for the first time. They talked about their shared concerns. They talked about their shared hopes.
And then, both in their respective uniforms, side by side, the two groups began to walk.