On the Offensive and In the Lead

College athletes are leading boycotts and prompting conversations about racial injustice. They're also embracing their power to initiate change at their institutions and beyond.

July 2, 2020
 
Zach Bland/Mizzou Athletics
University of Missouri football players participate in a march last month from their campus to the county courthouse to protest the killing of George Floyd and register to vote.

With a single tweet, Kylin Hill, a nationally ranked running back for Mississippi State University's football team, seemingly provided the final push for state lawmakers to change the state flag, which is the last in the nation to retain the Confederate battle emblem.

“Either change the flag or I won’t be representing this state anymore,” Hill, a Mississippi native, tweeted on June 22. “I’m tired.”

Hill's teammates largely backed him, as did college coaches, athletes and administrators from throughout the state. Days earlier, intercollegiate athletics organizations had amplified the call for a flag change by announcing that they would not hold championship events in Mississippi, putting more pressure on lawmakers to act. Then Walmart announced it would stop displaying the flag in its stores, and the influential Mississippi Baptist Convention denounced the flag as "a relic of racism and symbol of hatred."

Just a week after Hill spoke out, Governor Tate Reeves signed legislation hurriedly approved by the lawmakers last weekend to remove the flag that had flown over Mississippi for 126 years and caused decades of division among state residents.

Hill isn't alone in using his position and visibility as a Black athlete to push for change. University of Iowa football players recently called out the racism exhibited by Chris Doyle, a strength and conditioning coach, leading to Doyle’s removal after more than 20 years in the program. Kansas State University athletes announced on Twitter on June 27 that they will boycott practice until a student is removed from the university for an insensitive tweet about George Floyd, the Black man killed by a Minneapolis police officer in May.

In this period of national unrest in response to Floyd’s death and other incidents of police brutality against Black people, when structural racism in almost every aspect of American life, including in higher ed, is being challenged and debated, college athletes are increasingly speaking out about racial issues and organizing protest actions. They're also publicizing their causes on social media, which gains them supporters and puts additional pressure on college administrators to address their concerns.

“Nobody has more power than the athlete,” said Dave Ridpath, past president of the Drake Group, an organization that advocates for academic integrity in intercollegiate sports. “The fans and boosters have a lot of power, but the most powerful person they’re ignoring, that’s the athlete.”

Ridpath said the athletes are starting to realize and wield the power they have over coaches, university officials and even boosters and fans and are speaking out as a collective more than ever before due to social media. He said it's difficult for coaches and other athletic department officials and university administrators to push back against the athletes when they are organized.

The Kansas State Student-Athlete Advisory Committee, or SAAC, which represents the interests of athletes to administrators, the Big 12 conference and the National Collegiate Athletic Association, expressed the desire of athletes to join calls on college campuses for an end to racism in all forms. Abigail Archibong, SAAC's coordinator for diversity, equity and inclusion, said college athletes around the country typically avoided commenting on controversial topics and appearing to speak as representatives of their universities. But she and other Black athletes have now reached a breaking point.

"My fellow Black student athletes and me are tired," said Archibong, who plays on the women's volleyball team and will be participating in the boycott. "We’re tired of hearing racial and insensitive comments from fans and students but still having to smile and give our all-out effort for them on the court, field or track."

Savannah Simmons, who plays on the Kansas State women's basketball team and is biracial, said the voices of athletes carry more weight with college administrators and the public. She said she and other athletes view racial injustice as an issue that's "bigger than sports."

"Outside of our jerseys, we are human just like everyone else," Simmons said. "At the end of the day, sports is a part of our life, but we are Black forever."

Several University of Texas at Austin athletes shared a statement on June 12 that said they won’t be participating in recruitment or donor-related events until there is a commitment from university leadership to change several building names and UT’s alma mater, “The Eyes of Texas,” which athletes said had “racial undertones.” Black athletes make up much of the university's sports teams, and they “believe that it is time we become active on our campus,” the statement said.

“The role of a student athlete at the University of Texas brings with it responsibilities beyond that of an average student,” the statement said. “As ambassadors, it is our duty to utilize our voice and role as leaders in the community to push for change to the benefit of the entire UT community.”

Bill Rhoden, an award-winning sports journalist and commentator, said recently during an NAACP virtual town hall that athletes are realizing their power lies in working as a group and that this is more effective than when one or two people speak out about an issue. Rhoden, author of Forty Million Dollar Slaves: The Rise, Fall and Redemption of the Black Athlete (Crown Publishing Group, 2006), sees the latest examples of collective action among both professional and college athletes as “an evolution.”

“The power dynamic has not really changed that much,” Rhoden said. “What’s changing is more Black athletes understanding that they are the game, they are the power, and if they can do things collectively, they can move mountains.”

Robert Green, chief executive officer and founder of Pre-PostGame, which advises athletes and their families on their sports careers, said the activism among athletes is a “turning point” in college athletics. Pre-PostGame is representing the families of former Iowa football players with grievances against the university's program. Green said if the families and players had not spoken out, Doyle would still be on the coaching staff because of his reputation for contributing to a successful football program.

“This is a blueprint going forward for colleges and coaches,” Green said. “This isn’t even just for Iowa; this is for all the student athletes … As long as you win, you can do what you want to these kids and families. What we’re saying is that’s not going to be the result.”

Ridpath, who was an athletic administrator at Marshall University in Huntington, W.V., said college athletes typically fear speaking out about any issues, especially those involving their university, because of coaches’ ability to reduce playing time, take away scholarships or limit professional sports opportunities when they have left the college program. There are also rules, spoken and unspoken, about athletes’ social media use and talking independently with news reporters. These are restrictions that don’t exist for the average student, Ridpath said.

Ramogi Huma, executive director of the National College Players Association, or NCPA, which represents the interests of athletes nationally, said the fear of consequences from coaches and other officials kept athletes silent in the past. But for the current generation of Black athletes, who have grown up repeatedly seeing viral videos of police brutality for which officers are not held accountable, “their outrage is greater than their fear,” Huma said.

“One common thing is the players using their voice and threatening to withhold their labors,” he said. “Players are moving towards zero tolerance for racial injustice, and that’s to be applauded … They’re over the failures of society and they’re using their platforms to take a stand. There’s a lot they can do in their circles. They have a lot of platform and power.”

Huma said University of Missouri football players’ decision to boycott games and other athletic activities in 2015 in response to racist incidents on campus and inadequate responses from administrators serves as an “important model” for what some football teams are achieving now. The Missouri players' actions were seen as a turning point for the student-led movement against administrators' weeks-long inaction. Two days after the football boycott was announced, Tim Wolfe, the Missouri system’s president, stepped down. But the organizing among athletes seen today reaches far beyond single institution issues and is “reflective of the universal outrage around the world,” Huma said.

Before the tweet from Hill, the Mississippi State football player, Governor Reeves said the chances of lawmakers voting to change the state flag were slim. The Southeastern Conference, the NCAA Division I conference in which Mississippi State competes, had said none of its championship events would be held in the state if the flag was not changed, and the NCAA also expanded its policy on the Confederate flag to bar championships in “states where the symbol has a prominent presence.” Huma said these actions from NCAA and conference leaders were helpful, but the athletes were “key to getting that done.”

When Hill announced he would not play for Mississippi unless the state flag came down, numerous teammates -- both Black and white -- stood by him. Although some Mississippi fans took to social media to call for Hill to be reprimanded, there was an outpouring of support from collegiate and professional athletes outside the state and political, religious and advocacy organizations. Several of the university’s head coaches went to the state capitol last week to lobby lawmakers to remove the flag. Lawmakers approved the legislation to do just that on June 28, and Reeves signed it into law on June 30.

Mark Keenum, the president of Mississippi State, said in a statement that members of the athletics department “played a significant role” in making the change happen. The university itself stopped waving the state flag on campus in 2016.

“Mississippi State was effective in joining a sweeping coalition of Mississippi stakeholders in making this victory possible,” Keenum said. “Now, we must continue the long and complex work of effecting meaningful racial reconciliation, ensuring social justice, and providing opportunities for economic prosperity for all Mississippians.”

Huma said moving forward, when the active protests and outrage about police brutality and racism have died down, athletes will keep the issue of racial injustice “in front of the public.” He said he expects many college athletes to kneel during the national anthem this upcoming season, should the fall season be played as scheduled considering the risks of the coronavirus pandemic.

As stories about Iowa coach Doyle’s mistreatment of Black football players were shared on social media and in news articles, Kaevon Merriweather, a defensive end for the Hawkeyes, told fans in a statement that they should not support the team at all if they could not support Black athletes speaking out and kneeling for the anthem.

“I would rather play in front of 1,000 fans who care about us as people outside of football and what we are standing for, than 70,000 fans who only care about us when we are in uniform and on the field entertaining them,” Merriweather said.

Archibong, the Kansas State volleyball player, said she's considering kneeling before competitions. The university has reminded athletes of their freedom to express themselves this way, she said.

Kevin Warren, the first Black commissioner of the Big 10 athletic conference, told USA Today that he would “personally empower student-athletes to express their right to free speech and peaceful protest,” which includes their right to kneel during the anthem. Huma said such expression will help to change the hearts and minds of white fans who have pushed back against calls for racial justice.

“By in large, they will not turn their backs on their teams even if it bothers them,” Huma said. “It’s a way for them to grow. I think there’s a special place that sports has in our nation. It can help normalize equal rights and fair treatment of Black people, minorities and women, when otherwise it would’ve been much harder to do.”

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