At Social Justice Alliance Symposium, Athletes, Sports Leaders Discuss Their Role in Promoting Equality On and Off the Field
Photo by Ryan Pelham/Bowie State University
With diversity and inclusion initiatives under attack across the nation, promoting a powerful message of equity is as important in sports as elsewhere in society, according to athletics leaders, elite athletes and other experts from the University of Maryland and elsewhere at the fifth annual Social Justice Alliance Symposium.
During Friday’s event at Bowie State University, entitled “Take a Knee: Pursuing Racial and Social Justice in Sports,” panelists discussed their experiences at the intersection of athletics and advancing equality and explored strategies they and others can use to promote healing.
“The sooner that we come together and the sooner that we unite, the better opportunity we have to create a much better country,” said UMD Barry P. Gossett Director of Athletics Damon Evans. “This Social Justice Alliance represents all of that.”
A collaboration between UMD and BSU, the alliance honors the memory of 1st Lt. Richard Collins III, who was killed by a UMD student on the College Park campus in 2017. Students, faculty and staff from both schools host programming and infuse social justice lessons into their curriculums to help build a more just and equitable society.
“Our son was prepared to fight for a better world for the benefit of all,” said Dawn Collins, Collins’ mother. “Not Black America, not white America, but all of America.”
Friday’s first panel explored athletes’ opportunities to change society. Speakers included WNBA player Marissa Coleman ’09, gold medal-winning gymnast Dominique Dawes ’02, professional volleyball player Rainelle Jones ’22, former NBA player Etan Thomas, former BSU track student-athlete Zion Tyler, and sports journalist and UMD journalism Professor of the Practice Kevin Blackistone.
Panelists delved into the history of athlete activism, which began long before NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick first knelt during the national anthem at NFL games, Blackistone said.
“Sports and serious issues, i.e. politics, have always been together,” he said, highlighting boxer Muhammad Ali refusing to be drafted into the U.S. Army in 1967 and catcher Moses Fleetwood Walker challenging Major League Baseball’s color barrier in the 1880s.
Today’s student-athletes continue to grapple with social justice issues, including through name, image and likeness (NIL) deals and the transfer portal. While both in some cases give athletes more freedom over their brand and financial futures, they still have a long way to go in terms of equity, panelists said. NIL, for example, largely benefits football and basketball athletes, and those competing in other sports, at smaller schools or as international athletes don’t always have the same opportunities.
With those ideas in mind, speakers offered their advice for young student-athletes. Dawes, who along with Thomas earned the event’s Social Justice Trailblazer Award for disrupting racism in their communities, broke barriers as a Black gymnast and emphasized the impact athletes can have on their fans and peers.
“You have an influence. Be able to use that as an athlete, because all the eyes are always on you,” added Jones, who knelt during the anthem at UMD volleyball games. “If it makes them angry, you’re doing something right.”
The event’s second panel featured university and athletic leaders, including Evans, UMD Assistant Vice President for Engagement James McShay, BSU Vice President for Intercollegiate Athletics and Recreation Clyde Doughty Jr., BSU head women’s basketball coach Shadae Swan and UMD head football coach Michael Locksley.
Locksley, who created the National Coalition for Minority Football Coaches to advance diversity in his field, said mentoring and networking are crucial to “prepare, promote and produce” an inclusive pipeline of leaders.
“The most value that you’ll ever create for yourself isn’t wealth. It comes from doing something for others or for causes greater than your own,” said Locksley, who earned the alliance’s Excellence in Leadership Award—along with Evans, Swan and Doughty—for inspiring student-athletes to engage in anti-racist work. “Start with, ‘How can I pay it forward to create value for the next generation?’”
Representation is key not just across race, but also gender, socioeconomic background and beyond, the panelists stressed. Evans pointed to UMD’s “One Maryland” mantra, which emphasizes collaboration to best serve all students and staff. But, he said, there’s still work to do.
“Athletics are often at the forefront of equity and justice,” University of Maryland President Darryll J. Pines said in a video message. “If we are to address the grand challenges of our time, including racial and social inequality, we will need creativity and contributions from individuals in all parts of our universities and society.”
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