Are College Athletes the Next Revolutionaries? - OZY | A Modern Media Company
Rasir Bolton #45 of the Iowa State Cyclones drives the ball as Brandon Knapper #2 of the West Virginia Mountaineers puts pressure on in the first half of the play at Hilton Coliseum.
SourceDavid K Purdy/Getty

WHY YOU SHOULD CARE

Student-athletes are standing up in the face of social injustice like never before.

By Joshua Eferighe

  • More and more college athletes are risking their careers, scholarships and education to take public, political stands against racism.
  • They’re reinforcing a broader movement calling for change.

Rasir Bolton surprised many when the Penn State basketball player decided to transfer to Iowa State after his freshman year in 2019. Earlier this month, Bolton revealed why he had made the move. Nittany Lion head coach Pat Chambers had used the word “noose” to describe the pressure he thought Bolton was feeling. Bolton complained to school administrators, as did his parents. Chambers, while admitting his use of the word, never apologized.

In earlier generations, a young college athlete’s public stand against a former coach would have stood out as a rare example. Today, Bolton is among a growing set of emerging athlete-activists who are using their sports platforms to raise larger questions around racism and injustice in the weeks since the police killing of George Floyd.

In June, Oklahoma State star running back Chuba Hubbard called head coach Mike Gundy “completely insensitive” after a photo of Gundy wearing a One America News Network (OAN) shirt — the media organization has called athletes “thugs” — surfaced online. Florida State defensive tackle Marvin Wilson called out the team’s head coach, Mike Norvell, after Norvell claimed in an interview that he “went back and forth with every player” during individual conversations after Floyd’s death. The players only received a text — and there were no one-on-one conversations, Wilson said.

Wilson also posted a video saying that the team had met and decided to collectively register to vote, and to raise money for charities that put Black kids in school as well as for charities working with locals in Tallahassee. And Hunter Reynolds, a 21-year-old defensive back for the Michigan Wolverines, is co-leading College Athlete Unity, a group of college sports players that aims to amplify their calls for social change.

At this moment in time, college athletes are finding a voice and not being afraid to demonstrate it.

Austin McCullough, a senior basketball player at Campbell University

“I feel at this moment in time, college athletes are finding a voice and not being afraid to demonstrate it,” says Austin McCullough, a 21-year-old senior wing at Campbell University.

The fear that McCullough refers to, while seemingly absent from the minds of this new generation of college athletes, is real. It’s the fear of losing starting time or their education, and of endangering their prospects of going pro. For years, students faced social media monitoring and censorship. Even what they could eat was controlled. It wasn’t until current Washington Wizards player Shabazz Napier made public in 2014 that he went to bed hungry some nights that Division I lifted restrictions on how much teams could feed their players. It’s hard to feel comfortable speaking up against racial inequality when you’re not even allowed to tweet freely.

But multiple athletes speaking out has served as a catalyst emboldening others to break their silence, says Reynolds. “People can be afraid to speak out on issues because they fear the potential backlash, but seeing other people in similar positions speak out as part of a bigger group can encourage them to use their voice,” he says.

Cari Champion, who hosts Vice Entertainment’s new weekly talk show, Disruptors With Jemele Hill and Cari Champion, and founded the nonprofit organization Brown Girls Dream, agrees. “I think it’s the current climate,” Champion tells me. “So many times the marginalized communities feel unheard and so now in this new age of protesting it looks different.”

That’s what students at Campbell University are doing. After Floyd’s death, they began conversations on what student-athletes could do to contribute to change. They decided voting was key. They’re now partners with Secure the Vote and are working with a target of 100 percent voter registration for the entire athletics department. “Our hope is to empower and hold each other accountable to fulfill our rights as citizens to vote,” says Lauren McNamara-Clement, a 21-year-old senior forward for Campbell’s women’s basketball team.

The glimmer of hope offered by the awakening of this generation of college athletes could outlast the turmoil, death and discomfort that 2020 has brought. They know their voices matter, and they’re willing to use it to change not just college sports but America itself.

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