By: Garrett Freund and Jack Driggers
Student athletes standing in the wind wearing matching black adidas shirts with gleaming yellow-gold letters reading Black Lives Matter gathered on a recent September Tuesday in front of Gate 20 of Memorial Stadium. They had not gathered for an athletic event but to start a conversation about race in the Athletic Department at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
It was all part of the greater race and social injustice conversation happening across the country reignited after the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other Black Americans. Black adults are about five times as likely as whites to say they’ve been unfairly stopped by police because of their race or ethnicity, according to Pew research, and have 2.8 times the rate of death compared with whites in National Institutes of Health data.
Athletes across the country are speaking out to promote change and equality for people of color, including in Lincoln, Nebraska where members of UNL’s Minority Student-Athlete Collective are using their platform as they have seen trickle down from the professional ranks.
At the rally, For Emily Cheramie, a senior on the rifle team, said the Athletic Department is not upholding its mission and pillars.
“The mission of our Athletic Department is to serve us, the student athletes, our coaches and staff, and you our most loyal fans, by these five pillars, integrity, trust, respect, teamwork, and loyalty,” she said. “Until we stand with and support all of our student athletes, staff, coaches and fans.”
“You must care for and protect your student athletes as much as you do your own image. We are the face of Nebraska athletics,” she said.
Following the rally, Nebraska Athletic Director Bill Moos provided a statement to UNLimited Sports:
“We have had the opportunity to meet with members of the Minority Student-Athlete Collective throughout the summer and have had productive meetings, with very open and honest dialogue. From my perspective, last week’s rally was well done and very powerful with several student athletes sharing personal stories with their peers. At the University of Nebraska, we are committed to providing every member of our family with a safe, welcoming and inclusive environment and we will continue to strive to build a greater community based on diversity, equality, inclusion and respect. We recognize that there are areas in our Athletic Department where we must continue to evolve.”
On stage at the rally, men’s track and field athlete Sadio Fenner shared his perspective through poetry:
“Why can’t I be judged by the principles of my character, the contents of my soul and not the color of my skin?” Fenner said. “You can’t judge me, the artist, my own masterpiece, drawn up on an ebony canvas, detailed of blood, sweat, tears, the years of paint, mixing, mixing paint to mix the paint, to paint the history of what came before and everything else that came after.”
Women’s Basketball Coach Amy Williams also took the stage to share her experience about growing up Spearfish, South Dakota where she was not exposed to much diversity in her community.
“However, when I became a member of the women’s basketball team here at the University of Nebraska, I was gifted with an opportunity to play with and ultimately become lifelong friends and teammates. With teammates from all different backgrounds, races, lifestyles, cultures as we fought together side by side working towards common goals I gained something that had been missing in my life when it came to race. I gained perspective.”
MSAC called for change within the Athletic Department following its list of demands released in August, which includes more people of color serving as senior administrators, head coaches and psychologists within Nebraska Athletics. The group requested that the gap between the minority staff and minority student-athlete population to be eliminated within five years, and within three years, to shrink by 50%. Another ask is for a statue to be dedicated to George Flippin, the first Black football player to compete at Nebraska.
“Personally, I would just like to see the Athletic Department be a bit less afraid of pushback and backlash from the fans and the community and whoever,” said men’s gymnast Samuel Phillips. “I feel like their hesitation to go all out and support us is what is holding them back. It’s making us more angry with them.”
Phillips said he is planning more physical protests like taking a knee in the future.
“I know I have presented the idea to my teammates, about having a meet dedicated to the Black Lives Matter movement. And having some of our proceeds, even though we are a nonprofit we would have to figure out the logistics of that, but somehow supporting the Black Lives Matter foundation, selling shirts or something and having a meet dedicated to it. And they all seem to be on board, so in a matter of time we’ll have more of an idea or what we’re doing.”
Women’s gymnast Megan Verceles-Carr said there won’t be a real impact without “big sports.”
“Right now, we’re just not sure if that is what we’re able to get — that statement that we need to be made and expressed largely to create change that we are after,” she said.
Michael Knowles of the men’s track team said it’s sad when his teammates stay quiet.
“I know everybody has a teammate on their team that’s like really into Black culture, but when it is time to speak up, they never say anything. (But) you listen to rap music; you say this and do this, but when it’s time and it really matters, you fold. And you don’t really show that you care about me.”
For Taylor Johnson of the women’s track team, students on campus are doing their part to support the minority student athletes, but the fans still have a ways to go.
“(We) want to see the fans show support for them as people, too,” she said.
Daniel Pearson, a senior golfer and president of the NCAA Student-Athlete Advisory Committee, said his group is actively involved in trying to find ways to speak up and show support even though the administration has yet to release a public statement.
“We have to make sure that we are getting our message across and if they aren’t going to help us, who is? (And) we are doing it with administration but they aren’t necessarily supporting us, they are still kind of holding us back with the things we say, the things were allowed to do and the things were allowed to post and stuff.”
Over the summer, Pearson attended Black Lives Matter rallies in Denver and was inspired to keep pushing for change.
“I think in a leadership position it’s really important to listen and hear the people that you represent,” he said. “And also have as much empathy and stand with and support what they need.”
Associate journalism professor Trina Creighton, a prominent voice on race and social justice who teaches the 250-student Social Justice and Human Rights class, said she does not shy away from showing students examples of racial injustices.
“I get sad when I have to show this to my students, but they have to see that. They have to see that in order to learn something needs to be done.”
Creighton said she tries to expose her students to things they didn’t get in high school.
“I believe if the history books had been honest about what happened, I don’t think we would be in the state we are in today. Had it been honest about Blacks’ contributions and Latinos’ contributions to America, we wouldn’t be where we are today. That’s one thing that has changed for me, I am never going to pretend like things are OK if they are not. When I see something now, I say something.”
For the young student athletes realizing their power, Creighton said she is proud.
“I have noticed that what the professionals are doing is translating in a very positive way,” she said.
At press time, three media organizations, The Daily Nebraskan, KLKN and KOLN, covered the student athlete rally.
Knowles said the media is quick to report about athletes when they are on the field, court or track but not otherwise.
“The reason it’s not getting that much publicity is because people don’t really care about the things we’re asking for and trying to establish for all student athletes and people participating in sports,” Knowles said. “So, the media doesn’t cover that. They don’t want to talk about that.”