“George Floyd mattered. Breonna Taylor mattered. Black Lives matter. As St. Olaf athletes, we’re fighting for change.”
In a video created by St. Olaf athletes this summer in response to the murder of George Floyd, members of St. Olaf sports teams voiced their support for the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. In doing so, they joined a nationwide chorus of athletes calling for an end to racism and police brutality.
The Milwaukee Bucks received international attention in August when they went on strike to protest the shooting of Jacob Blake by police and continued police brutality against Black Americans. The NBA strike followed in the footsteps of work done by the WNBA, who have been key leaders pushing for racial justice, boldly moving forward conversations about the role of athletes and sports teams in anti-racist work.
The debate in the United States over the place of athletes in activism has raged for decades, as white spectators and franchise owners desired to be entertained by and profit off of Black and brown athletes, while those same athletes fought to be treated as human beings in a racist country. Today, on soccer fields, basketball courts, in tennis tournaments and courtrooms, an ever-increasing number of athletes are publicly demanding racial justice.
Both professional and college athletes are uniquely positioned to use their platform to disrupt spaces and call attention to injustice.
“It’s important for athletes to take the initiative and take on those roles because then people can see it constantly instead of just on the news,” K’Lynn Lewis ’22, a player on the St. Olaf women’s basketball team, said.
And while professional athletes are most visible on a national level, Division III college athletes are visible within their own communities.
“We can’t always rely on professionals,” Lewis said. “There’s so much we can do here at St Olaf.”
One of the groups taking action at St. Olaf is Oles Against Inequality (OAI), a group led by members of the football team. OAI organized the recent “Seven Feet for Seven Shots” protest and march. One of the organizers, Gabe Alada ’22, said that he hoped that the march would prompt dialogue and bring awareness and urgency to fighting for racial justice. Alada also said that he hoped OAI would help “start those conversations between teams.”
St. Olaf athletes are not only fighting structural racism in the United States, but also within the athletic department. 2020 is the first year that the athletic department has talked specifically about racism and anti-racism. I asked athletic director Ryan Bowles why this was. “I don’t know, quite honestly,” Bowles said. “I don’t have a good reason for you.”
The murder of George Floyd in May was a catalyst for Bowles.
‘“I had a conversation with Bruce King … and said ‘It’s time to start using the r-word racism and call it what it is,”’ Bowles said.
Yet Bowles’ statement raises the question — why was it not time to address racism when Philando Castile was murdered? When Trayvon Martin was murdered? When horrific racism has been happening since long before St. Olaf was founded?
Just saying the word “racism” is a long way from creating the systemic change necessary to dismantle institutional racism, and the lack of action by the athletic department has caused harm to many athletes.
Lewis highlighted the lack of women of color, especially Black women, in sports at St. Olaf, a critical issue that is overlooked far too often.
“My coach and my teammates have my back,” Lewis said. “But there are certain things that they will never understand when I step out on the court. How people see me and how people think I am. It’s not just basketball. There are so many other sports where you don’t see women of color.”
Anti-racism work in athletics must center women of color, yet St. Olaf is one of many institutions that fail to support women of color in sports.
“The WNBA have always talked about the issues and never get the credit,” Lewis said. “They’ve been doing it since the beginning.”
In our conversation, Bowles was quick to acknowledge the learning that he and others have to do to create change.
“This has been a time of reflection for me as the athletic director, both me personally and the athletic department as a whole,” Bowles said.
Before the “Seven Feet for Seven Shots” march on Sept. 4, Bowles expressed his support for OAI.
“I want them to use their voice,” Bowles said. “I want them to use their platform. I want them to be a part of the change. We’ll be right there with them, supporting them, and we’ll never tell them to not do something.”
Yet in the aftermath of the protest, amidst increased calls for racial justice, Bowles’ response highlighted the discrepancy between the athletic administration’s words and actions. While he expressed support for student athletes using their platform to cause disruptions and demand change, that support did not extend to athletes calling out administration and racism at St. Olaf.
Late on the morning of Sept. 6, athletes on the swim and dive team posted a statement on their Instagram account in support of the Cultural Union for Black Expression (CUBE), BLM and BIPOC students. The first sentence of their post stated that, “The St. Olaf swim and dive team condemns the despicable unwillingness of PDA and the administration to take action against institutional racism and the systematic oppression of BIPOC students on campus.”
By the afternoon, the post had been archived.
Bowles explained in an email to the team, “While the St. Olaf Swimming and Diving account may be entirely student run, it represents you, all of your teammates, your coaches, me, every staff member, our athletic department and our college, the good and the bad. A post, on a team account, becomes the stated opinion of and viewpoint of all of the aforementioned groups. It is not an account where the personal opinions of you or a group of you should be posted.”
A captain of the swim and dive team, Olivia Jones ’21, expressed her team’s frustration at the athletic administration’s response to her team’s post.
“We’re pretty upset because we felt like it was our duty to express our support of the students who spoke out on Friday, and just in general who are being treated so poorly by admin,” Jones said.
Jones also voiced frustration at the hypocrisy of the athletic department, who calls on athletes to use their voices yet silences them when they speak out against administrative racism at St. Olaf.
“We’re encouraged to be leaders on campus and make a change for the better,” Jones said. “And while it doesn’t align with the admin’s perspective, we don’t think President Anderson is actually working to enact what is stated in the mission statement and what we all came here hoping would be true of the campus climate, which is why we felt like we were still in line with the values of the St. Olaf community.”
While the athletic administration encourages athletes to “use their voices,” disruptions that condemn racism at St. Olaf are deemed unacceptable. Using the swim and dive team’s Instagram as a platform for speaking out “seems so much more useful and powerful,” Jones said. “But it was taken away from us.”
Yet athletes are continuing to mobilize. Alada expressed a desire for more communication and unity amongst all of St. Olaf’s sports teams, a goal that he plans to pursue with OAI. The football team is also having conversations about kneeling during the national anthem to call attention to racism and police brutality.
While Bowles told me that he supports student athletes making the choice to kneel, the athletic administration has failed to issue an official statement of support.
Regardless of administrative support, Alada said that he will likely kneel during the national anthem this season. In doing so, he will be following in the footsteps of members of the St. Olaf football team who kneeled in 2017.
For Lewis, change necessitates a greater focus on female athletes of color, as well as administration taking the time to check in on BIPOC students.
“There are so many things happening in the world that really affect people of color and it’s just kind of like, oh it happens, let’s move on and go to your classes,” Lewis said. “I don’t think they realize that it hurts us a lot, and we think about it all the time. It’s hard to focus in classes. That could have been my dad. That could have been my uncle.”
Along with other athletes, Lewis is prepared to use her platform to push for the change she wants to see.
“If we want administration to do more, we can’t just have this march and event and sit down and be quiet, we have to do more,” Lewis said. “Athletes are visible on campus and I think it’s very important that we use our voices. People on campus can see and [we can] give them that courage to speak up.”
Athletes who boldly call out racism and advocate for systemic change often face backlash. At the same time, athletes have unique platforms on which they can demand justice and inspire movements — to use that platform is a powerful action.
When I referenced athletes and activists like Colin Kaepernick, who was blacklisted from the NFL for daring to disrupt and unequivocally assert that Black lives matter, Alada spoke with reverence.
“To know that what they’re standing for is the right thing to stand for is a beautiful thing,” Alada said. “They’re using their platforms in the best way. They’re tired of this. I’m tired of this.”
Disclosure: Gabe Alada, interviewed for this article, is a Sports Writer for The Olaf Messenger.