Convention sessions highlight student-athlete activism
Panelists and presenters emphasize ways to continue racial and social justice movement across NCAA
Derrick Gragg summarized the past year of activism and social and racial justice efforts within college athletics with one sentence during the virtual 2021 NCAA Convention.
“It is critical for us all to remember that this is a movement rather than just a moment,” said Gragg, NCAA senior vice president of inclusion, education and community engagement.
Gragg’s words opened the Association-wide education session “Supporting Student-Athlete Activism: Going Beyond the Moment,” which he hosted this week.
It was one of three education sessions dedicated to the topic of student-athlete activism and racial and social justice. The sessions, while reinforcing part of the NCAA’s eight-point plan to advance racial equity, were designed to help equip NCAA members with tools and insight to continue the movement into 2021 and beyond.
“I believe we have now planted the seeds and spread the roots of change,” Mackenzie O’Neill, a women’s soccer player at Missouri Western and chair of the Division II Student-Athlete Advisory Committee, said during an education session. “We carry this momentum with us now and the water to keep those roots growing and to spread this change for years to come.”
Like O’Neill, the student-athletes who participated in these sessions offered their diverse perspectives on the vast activism efforts seen from their peers across the country.
Angel Bautista-Ponce, a track and field student at Colorado Mesa and Division II SAAC member, noted how the Student-Athlete Unity Pledge and United as One campaign sparked an event of unity within the Grand Junction, Colorado, community. He said the event consisted of a march from downtown to the Colorado Mesa campus, and attendees included the city’s mayor, law enforcement officers, several student-athletes, coaches and administrators, among others. It ended with historians from the town speaking to the audience.
“It was really nice to see how United as One became the pathway to my community and my institution holding those educational sessions, to encourage each other to love one another but to remember where we come from and where we want to end up as a community,” Bautista-Ponce said.
Bautista-Ponce’s experience was unique to his community but broadly in line with what many student-athletes witnessed across the country in the past year. Often, student-athletes led similar efforts.
“More athletes are using their voices confidently to speak out and educate themselves and others about social issues that matter to them,” Alexis Stanley, a women’s lacrosse student at Concordia-St. Paul, said in a student-athlete panel discussion during Gragg’s session. “It takes one person to stand up and speak out for a lot of people to follow, and we’re seeing that.”
NCAA Director of Research Lydia Bell helped capture the sheer amount of passion and participation in these areas. During the session Gragg hosted, Bell shared results from a survey that nearly 25,000 student-athletes participated in last fall. Part of the survey included questions on activism and racial justice.
Of note in the survey, which closed Nov. 2, more than 80% of white and Black student-athletes indicated that they planned to vote in the 2020 election. Additionally, nearly 90% of student-athlete participants said they had conversations with friends or family-focused on race or racial justice in the six months before taking the survey. More than 75% of all respondents said they made an effort to learn more about race or racial justice during that time period. Full survey results will be shared in February.
“I think we can all agree there’s been a real upswell and upswing in student-athlete activism this (past) year,” Bell said. “We’ve seen so much leadership from student-athletes across the membership. These (numbers) definitely give us a good sense of the range of ways that student-athletes have been participating in activism and particularly around racial justice.”
One session — “Student-Athlete Social Justice and Activism”— highlighted some of those specific ways. Among them was another SAAC-led initiative. Last fall, Division I SAAC proposed civic engagement legislation that was passed and prohibits countable athletically related activities like games and practices on the first Tuesday after Nov. 1, which is Election Day. Division II SAAC has proposed similar legislation for the 2022 NCAA Convention.
The “Student-Athlete Social Justice and Activism” session consisted of a panel of Division II student-athletes and administrators who discussed their involvement with other activism initiatives. The panelists also offered advice to those student-athletes, coaches and administrators looking to support future efforts. Some of their advice included education, listening actively and empathically, unpacking personal biases, empowering student-athletes interested in activism efforts, and taking action.
Shawn Munford, faculty athletics representative at East Stroudsburg, said supporting student-athletes in these areas starts with creating a “safe space for dialogue and conversations.”
“I think it’s very essential you provide a space where your student-athletes feel comfortable, where they can come and be vulnerable and know that it’s confidential and they can share their thoughts and opinions and express their perceptions and not be judged for doing so,” he said.
Munford pointed to another Convention education session he attended — “Initiate, Maintain and Elevate: Fostering Brave Conversations on Racial Justice” — as a great resource for his peers to learn from. Hosted by NCAA Director of Inclusion Niya Blair Hackworth and Andrew MacIntosh, vice president of curriculum at the Ross Initiative in Sports for Equality, the session focused on the process of advancing racial justice conversations within athletics. It also provided tools and best practices that allow those dialogues to create a more inclusive climate.
“They want to talk about these issues, so I think it’s really incumbent for institutions to create spaces for (them),” Mac Intosh said of this generation of student-athletes.
Yannick Kluch, an assistant professor of sports communication and media at Rowan, offered more guidance on how to help student-athletes be more impactful with their activism. He presented during the “Supporting Student-Athlete Activism: Going Beyond the Moment” session and offered several action steps for student-athletes, coaches and administrators. Additionally, Kluch emphasized the need to use existing resources from local organizations on campus and in the community or those from national entities like the NCAA. Specifically, he mentioned the A4 series put on by the NCAA’s leadership development staff last summer, the NCAA inclusion webpage and the 2021 Inclusion Forum in June as beneficial resources.
Kluch closed his presentation by echoing Gragg’s opening remarks.
“This is a movement, not a moment. It might feel like a moment right now because everybody is talking about it, but this moment has been years and decades in the making,” he said. “So this is a movement, not a moment. Get on board because we need you.”