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Toxic racism permeates numerous St. Olaf athletic programs

During the recent outcry against racism at St. Olaf, I received a letter from Mercy Garriga ’18 detailing her decision to resign from the women’s track and field team due to blatant racism and destructive microaggressions condescendingly issued by coaches and players alike, targeting her as well as numerous other St. Olaf athletes of color. The letter, posted below in its unfiltered, unedited entirety, prompted me to launch an ongoing investigation exploring the treatment of students of color in the St. Olaf athletic program. Over the weekend and throughout the protests, I compiled stories detailing some of the devastating racial injustices that have occurred during the past two years, interviewing athletes who have experienced inequality firsthand, and some of their white allies who have witnessed such incidents and feel compelled to promote change.

Immediately upon reaching out to the St. Olaf athletic community, I received a plethora of stories and statements that have led me to realize an unsettling truth: boiling underneath the superficial surface of statistics, win-loss records and teammate camaraderie, several St. Olaf athletic organizations have maintained serious racist tendencies among their players and coaches, an ugly trend perpetuated for years without proper identification and amendment.

Rudo Nyakanda ’19 and Juliette Emmanuel ’19, like Garriga, are former women’s track and field athletes of color who decided to quit after being burdened with a season’s worth of microaggressions that alienated them from the remainder of the St. Olaf team.

“When we joined the cross country and track team last year we had great expectations,” the two said. “However, it took us only a few weeks to realize that the track and field and cross country teams at St. Olaf are not welcoming to people of color, especially black people. It’s weird that in a campus that’s supposed to encourage diversity and in which we all are meant to feel comfortable, we never at any point felt that we belonged to this team or anywhere else around campus. So we decided to quit.”

After Garriga voiced her concerns to the coaches, barely any efforts were put forth to educate athletes on the importance of inclusion, aside from a reportedly half-hearted meeting in which the dialogue failed to gain interest or sustain itself following the gathering’s dismissal. This nonchalance prompted Nyakanda to quit – when she vocalized these reasons, her former coaches expressed disappointment in her for not communicating with them beforehand, shifting the responsibility of initiating inclusivity to a student of color rather than taking it upon themselves to do so. This frustrating interaction is merely one of several cases in which coaches have muddled and botched communication with athletes of color, a major factor in Nyakanda and Emmanuel’s resignation.

“Countless times, certain coaches wouldn’t encourage me or congratulate me for my personal achievements, but never failed to do so for other athletes around me,” Nyakanda said. “For example, I recall when I won a competition at the U of M, and despite the fact that I was first, my coach never congratulated me, but instead congratulated my other teammate who was in the same race and happened to have a lower performance than mine. We started by boycotting practice, then slowly missed meets, all in the hope that our coaches would notice that something was wrong and do something about it; however, nothing was done and, as always, everybody kept quiet and kept pretending that everything was alright (which, by the way, is a big problem) despite being aware of the situation.”

Beyond the rift with the coaching staff, Nyakanda and Emmanuel also experienced microaggressions from their fellow runners, immediately feeling alienated from conversations and events, if not ignored entirely.

“Every time during practice, in the locker room or on the cross country and track table, we would not feel welcome, and instead get weird looks that made us feel uncomfortable and different,” Emmanuel said. “In fact, most of them wouldn’t engage in conversation with us. One day during practice, I recall one of my teammates making a very racist joke towards another teammate, saying ‘Oh you look so tanned, should I call you Shaneeka now?’”

This inexcusable example of unapologetic racism exposes noticeable and concerning trends among the St. Olaf athletic community. The responsibility lies with the student athletes who initiate these destructive acts with racial slurs and microaggressions. Furthermore, it also rests firmly on the shoulders of complacent coaches who fail to initiate serious action to purge racism from their programs. Currently void of any serious dialogue about or punishment for acts of racism, coaches must be more proactive in educating Ole athletes on microaggressions while enforcing inclusivity at all times with a more discerning and critical eye.

“I see opportunities to converse on issues of identity being missed or lost because of a lack of training, acknowledgement and sensitivity in our head coach,” claimed a women’s hockey player who has chosen to remain anonymous. “I believe most student-athletes want to talk about it and desire a change of culture. Yet, racist individuals still exist, both in the department and on my team. A challenge in itself, when it is supposed to be a group of people working towards a common goal in competition.”

Alternatively, some St. Olaf athletes of color insist that they have experienced nothing but a warm, welcome community with no discrimination upon joining their respective teams. Take Alden Aaberg ’20, a Japanese-American student running for the men’s track and cross country teams, who has felt included since day one of fall semester.

“I’m only a first year, but since I arrived on campus and was introduced to the track and cross teams I have never felt discriminated against in any form, be it microaggressions or blatant racism,” Aaberg said. “My coaches and teammates have made me feel welcome from my very first day here. In fact, I have experienced much less racism here at St. Olaf than I did in high school. I feel that my teammates are all extremely supportive of all people of color.”

Aaberg’s perspective is extremely important in forming a well-rounded perception of racism within St. Olaf athletics. This article doesn’t exist to play the blame game, nor should it be interpreted to imply that all Ole athletes and coaches are exclusively, inherently racist – to do so would disregard the positivity and kindness that many white athletes continually display towards people of color. However, we must acknowledge that racism does indeed plague certain athletic organizations, as raising awareness and plainly identifying social injustice is a necessary step towards eliminating it and making way for a better, more inclusive standard of living for future Ole athletes of color.

If St. Olaf baseball is any indication, the issues this article focuses on clearly need to be made public. The racism within this organization has run rampant, leading to a discriminatory atmosphere that must be abolished. Players have observed and experienced brutal instances of segregation on top of daily instances of microaggressive behavior towards students of color on the team. Some have chosen to speak out against the toxic politics and culture permeating practices and social events.

“Some of the players have come up to [an athlete of color on the team] and commented on how he looks like David Ortiz,” an anonymous player revealed. “He will say ‘no, I don’t,’ but they would persist. David Ortiz does not look anything like him, the only thing they have in common is that they are two athletes of color. One time, in front of a social gathering, I heard certain baseball players using the N-word, specifically mentioning how they could not use the word anymore because a person of color is now on the team. Our coach even used Donald Drumpf’s victory in the 2016 election as an example of being an ‘underdog’ as motivation while addressing the team.”

This is particularly disheartening considering the exponential international growth that baseball has witnessed at the professional level. Some of the most prominent and renowned MLB players grew up outside the United States, from Masahiro Tanaka and Yu Darvish coming from Japan, to Aroldis Chapman and Yoenis Cespedes hailing from Cuba. Adrian Beltre and Robinson Cano are from the Dominican Republic, Miguel Cabrera and Jose Altuve are Venezuelan and Carlos Correa and Francisco Lindor are Puerto Rican. Gift Ngoepe just became the first African-born MLB player after debuting with the Pittsburgh Pirates just over a week ago, recording a hit in his first at-bat. Despite being “America’s pastime,” baseball has achieved an extraordinary level of international participation and inclusivity, judging players by their achievements on the field and the content of their character rather than the color of their skin. As a diehard baseball fan, my heart aches to see St. Olaf baseball trending in the opposite direction, heading backwards toward the racial segregation players like Jackie Robinson worked tirelessly to eliminate over 70 years ago. It’s archaic and has no place anywhere in the world, much less on a campus striving for equality.

The past week of student activism has been extremely beneficial towards promoting positive change, finally inspiring administration to acknowledge and address the demands of students of color. Yet, a vast measure of work remains to be done. With numerous racist offenses and microaggressions displayed by a noteworthy portion of Ole athletes and the detached, dispassionate responses from athletic coaches who fail to seriously consider and address such matters, St. Olaf athletics would be a great place to start.