‘It’s never on our minds’: Student-athletes discuss racial justice protests

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As the sound of the national anthem rang out during the Gymnastics East Conference’s inaugural championship night session in March, three teams that had bounced on the gym floor in monochromatic warm-up gear suddenly stood in silence, moving nervously.

Brown, the fourth team present, ducked into a different posture under an American flag hung on the gymnasium wall. Although a few gymnasts remained standing, most went down on one knee, facing forward.

Repeated by the team throughout the 2021-22 season, the protest mirrored those of the women’s and men’s basketball teams, together marking one of the most visible efforts to protest racial injustice among college students. -Brown athletes since the murder of George Floyd in May 2020.

“It was really powerful to have that at the start of every competition,” said women’s gymnastics team co-captain Mei Li Costa ’22. “Usually you sit there very anxiously waiting for the meeting to start”, but, during the protests, “you take this moment to really reflect on this injustice”.

Men’s basketball team co-captain David Mitchell ’22 said he was one of five players on his team to sit for the anthem throughout the season. As a black man, he “didn’t feel a connection to the anthem,” he explained. “The way I should be treated and the way everyone else should be treated – (the anthem) didn’t really coincide with that.”

Grace Kirk ’24, one of several members of the women’s basketball team who chose to kneel, cited similar motivations to Mitchell. “I’ve seen what America has done to people who look like me and to people who are darker than me too,” she said. “What I am as a black woman was not…in (the anthem writer’s) visions of American patriotism, so I already know then that it’s not something that is for me.”

Amid a national toll of racial injustice spurred by the police killings of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, protests like these have taken on greater momentum in Brown’s athletics, forming a fundamental part of the student-athlete efforts to address systemic racism, many athletes said. The Herald.

The three teams hosted Zoom chats in the summer of 2020 to discuss issues around racial inequality, with some attributing books and films about racial identity in America to their athletes.

“We were late to talk about these things,” Costa said, mentioning that the gymnastics team focused their conversations particularly on how racial inequality plays a role in gymnastics.

Monique LeBlanc, head coach of women’s basketball, said her team had created a spreadsheet of materials people could refer to in order to learn more about the Black Lives Matter movement and facilitate discussions across the board. of the team. “The black women on the team have been phenomenal in sharing their experiences,” she said. “Our teammates stepped up and said, ‘I’m exhausted, but I’m still ready to be here and share my story’…was really amazing.”

Kirk said the team talks were “a success”, especially after he asked that the players be allowed to have conversations without the coaches present.

But Kirk noted that the talks sometimes got contentious and meetings eventually stalled.

Many men’s team players, in addition to holding conversations, also attended protests against police brutality in their hometowns during the summer of 2020, Mitchell said.

But as Ivy League athletic competitions were canceled in the 2020-21 college year, it wasn’t until a year and a half into the summer of 2020 that teams had the opportunity to protest during collegiate competition.

Mitchell said he made the decision to kneel ahead of the 2022 season. There were “so many examples (in 2020 and 2021)…that really opened my eyes to a lot of racial injustice that was…not really in front of me,” he said.

For Kirk, the decision to kneel was based on personal experience. In the summer of 2020, she heard her name being called from outside her family home in Minnesota as her father was restrained and arrested by police officers, she said. She said officers charged him with a crime, but the charge was eventually dropped after the family pleaded for his release. “I was so traumatized,” she said.

“They say the system (which) tried to dismantle our foundation as a family did it in the name of justice,” she said. “If that’s what this flag represents, I can’t support it.”

“When I see the flag and I’m supposed to look at it for a minute or whatever before my game, … I see the policeman’s American flag on his uniform,” Kirk said. “I won’t stand (the anthem), and I can’t because I feel like then I’m letting myself down, I’m letting my family down and I’m letting down the millions and millions of people who are came before me doing this.

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Kirk also questioned the need to stand for the anthem. “I don’t think a flag is the best way to express patriotism or gratitude for freedom,” she said. “I really think you can do it without defending a piece of hardware.”

Costa expressed a similar sentiment, explaining that kneeling adds valuable reflection to what she considers a typically superficial moment. “The anthem is such a performative thing most of the time,” she said. “You don’t really think how amazing America is.”

Kneeling, she added, “instead keeps (racial justice) at the forefront of your mind.”

But for all three teams, conversations about whether to kneel did not result in a consensus. At least one player from each team stayed up for each game, according to Costa, Kirk and Mitchell.

Costa said some of her teammates cited support for the U.S. military as a reason to defend the anthem, though she maintained the protest was “not meant to disrespect veterans.”

Gymnastics head coach Sarah Carver-Milne said the coaching staff encourages gymnasts to make their own decisions. “The first thing we tell them when they come to campus is to use their voice and stand up for themselves, stand up for what they believe in,” she said.

The athletic department also encouraged “student-athletes, coaches and staff to use their platform and take a stand,” Kelvin Queliz, associate director of athletics, strategic communications and content creation, wrote in a email to the Herald.

Mitchell said the men’s basketball team also left the decision up to individual players. “We knew there would be some people who would stand up (and) there would be some people who would sit down, but we respected that fact,” he said.

Kirk described longer and more emotional conversations within the women’s basketball team about whether players would kneel. She said that before her first scrimmage, the team had a six-hour meeting about their plans for the anthem.

“It actually turned into an opportunity for non-white players to talk about their experiences,” she said. “There were tears.

Kirk added that after the meeting, a majority of the team decided to take a knee.

Those who stayed up for the anthem explained their reasoning to the rest of the team, which was invaluable, Kirk said. “At the time, it might have hurt a little more to hear so much negative feedback from a few particular people, (but) in the end, we all understood each other so much better,” he said. she declared. “It was a really, really powerful moment for us.”

But kneeling or sitting down for the anthem wasn’t the only way teams were taking action for racial justice.

Last November, the women’s basketball team visited the John Hope Settlement House in Providence, an organization based in the late 1920s by African American community leaders to provide social services—such as child care, education, and food distribution—to the Providence community.

According to Kirk, the team read books to children at the facility, which she described as an “incredible” experience.

“A lot of my teammates have been pushed out of their comfort zone… looking after kids who are not privileged, who are actually in dire need of help and someone to come hang out with them,” she said.

LeBlanc said the team organized a book drive for the Settlement House after the visit, focusing on providing “culturally competent” books, and was making another visit this week.

LeBlanc added that the team also raised money for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s Legal Defense Fund and the Rhode Island Coalition for Black Women during the summer of 2020.

According to Mitchell, the men’s basketball team has been making efforts on social media to promote racial justice initiatives. For example, Mitchell mentioned that some team members posted during Black History Month to shine a light on black pioneers throughout history.

Still, some athletes regretted that their programs didn’t do more. “There’s definitely a lot more we could and should have done to keep those conversations going,” Costa said, adding that the gymnastics team hadn’t followed through on their plans to volunteer in the community, that they attributed in part to public health problems.

Kirk also noted that the women’s basketball team could have been more “prepared and proactive” in promoting racial justice during Black History Month. “An Instagram post is not enough,” she said. “I wish we had taken the opportunity to have more of these tough conversations because I think everyone grew out of it.”

Additionally, Kirk noted that she would have liked to see more effort from her team’s coaches to facilitate conversations and learning about racial justice.

“I hope and wish and encourage my coaches to continue to practice and listen to the discussions,” she said. “If it’s just the black players telling them, ‘Hey, this is how you have to train me as a black woman, this is how I regularly feel walking into a (predominantly white institution) “, it’s not fair to us.”

Kirk, Mitchell and Costa all said they expect their programs to continue with similar efforts to address racial injustice in the future.

Our teammates “are all very attentive. They are all very diligent,” Mitchell said. “They all know we have power and a platform both on this campus and in the city of Providence.”

“It’s not a phase, it’s not a trend,” Kirk said. “I think stopping us would send a message (that) we’re done.”

Kirk pointed out that for the black players on the team, racial injustice is not something they can walk away from.

“It never calmed down,” she said. “It’s never in our minds.”

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