FROM THE VAULT: Students Of Color Seek Athletics Platform To Create Change

For a few months in 2020, it seemed like the world stopped. The COVID-19 pandemic brought things to a screeching halt and the issue of police brutality came to the forefront of society during the summer after the death of George Floyd.

This story, by former editor-in-chief Bridget Reilly, focuses on how Marist athletes and the athletic department responded to these issues of racial injustice

By Bridget Reilly • July 7, 2020

When invited to discuss the diversity climate at Marist College, specifically in athletics, senior psychology major and safety on the Marist football team, Randy Paul said, “How much time do you have?”

In the athletics department at Marist, there are only two administrators of color as well as just a handful of mostly assistant/part-time coaches of color. As for student-athletes, they make up the majority of the diversity that exists at the school. It’s a makeup of anywhere from 90 to 95 percent, according to Paul and Alyssa Gates, Director of Student-Athlete Enhancement.

“I believe that we have a lot of different backgrounds, different races,” said Paul. “Now, are there systems in place to accommodate these types of different intersectionalities? No.”

There are not many outlets for black student-athletes on campus, especially noted within the athletics department. The college as a whole is “disproportionate,” making these student-athletes feel isolated with support out of reach. 

In response to the recent events regarding the social injustices that plague our world, specifically sparking with the death of George Floyd and several others, Marist athletics and its athletes are looking to take an active part in bringing change to campus. 

The athletic department has been making statements on social media and coaches have hosted team Zoom meetings to address the changes they wish to bring about on their teams. Specifically, eyes are on John Dunne and Jim Parady as they are the head coaches of the most popular teams as well as those with the most black student-athletes: men’s basketball and football. More than half of the men’s basketball team and about 40 percent of football are student-athletes of color. Because of this, these teams have the most fire underneath them to implement changes within their programs. 

Jim Parady made a statement to his team, addressing his delay in response, acknowledging his position within the sport, and his influence to make a change. The team also put together a video discussing their stand against these issues. Along with Parady was Dunne, making a statement for the program as a whole, saying the team is working to see things from another’s point of view through educating one another. In June, Assistant Coach Serge Clement shared via All-Access Coaches Corner’s Twitter account his knowledge on social injustice and how teams of any level should address it in their respective programs.

Beyond these two programs, women’s lacrosse coach Jessica Wilkinson and women’s cross country coach Chuck Williams made personal Twitter accounts to address racism. Since the creation of their accounts, all of her and his tweets have been about their stand against racism, and the outlets they’re using to actively educate themselves on these issues. Special teams coordinator/safeties coach for football, Cameron Gibson also has been taking action in peaceful protests and emphasizing that actions speak louder than words. The iconic photo of Tommie Smith and John Carlos on the Olympic podium during the 1968 Mexico City Summer Olympics was posted by the Marist cross country and track and field Instagram page, emphasizing the need for public statements. Marist Athletics also posted on Instagram to celebrate Juneteenth.

“It’s important for us to make sure that everyone gets educated, and that this doesn’t fall on the shoulders of our black athletes and our black coaches and our black administrators and our black faculty members,” said Gates. “These opportunities for our black student-athletes to converse with us and dialogue with us have been very eye-opening, and they’ve been very helpful. But they are not the ones that have to do the work. We have to do the work.”

Under Paul’s football profile, there is an article discussing his trip to Austin, Texas for the 2020 Black Student-Athlete Summit. He saw it as his first real coping opportunity he experienced as a Marist athlete, and the most rewarding. It’s an experience he believes anyone in athletics should have under his or her belt.

Paul traveled with three other black Marist athletes: Jada Tijani ’20 (women’s tennis), Darien Townsend ’21 (football), and Chidera Udeh ’21 (volleyball). For three days the athletes attended several sessions, discussing mental health and identity foreclosure, among many others. Nowhere else before at Marist did Paul discuss the issue of being only seen as an athlete and nothing beyond that. Nowhere else did he learn how to set up for a future outside of sports and market for himself.

Nowhere else did he learn that he was so much more than an athlete in the red Marist Nike gear.

“I was just so moved the entire time there,” Paul said. 

Paul later went down to Austin again to attend a men’s only retreat to expand his knowledge and network of people. They discussed Ubuntu, the African philosophy, which is a concept that the sense of self is formed through relationships with others. In other words, “I am because We are.” Not only did Paul benefit from these retreats, but he saw the promising results that would come from others attending the retreat as well, especially those involved in Marist athletics. What he and his fellow athletes learned in January was suggested to the “higher-ups” to prevent social injustice issues, much like those that are being seen today, and to create systems to support black students.

“I think Tim Murray [Director of Athletics] needs to go to this…If he’s really committed to all his athletes, he needs to take the time and spend three days in Austin, Texas…I think it would be better if him, Dunne, and Parady go down there,” said Paul. “It’s time for them three to go down there and lead the charge because [they] have the most black students on [their] teams. So you need to go down there and go make sure that you make this right. You want to learn? That’s how you learn.”

Gates, a sought-out outlet for many athletes throughout their time on campus also sees this as a crucial time to learn from others that are not like us and don’t look like us. 

“We need to kind of get perspectives from people that have differences, and I think we like to be around people that are like us,” Gates said.  “This would work our ability to learn about others’ experiences, and really back our own privileges and understand what someone else has experienced and what their struggles have been.”

Paul is not one to wait for the action to take place, rather he creates his own, inspiring others in the Marist community to do the same. He organized a peaceful protest in his hometown in early June. The idea was sparked by a restaurant owner that stated he was going to throw watermelons at people protesting in Huntington Village of Huntington, New York. 

“[He said] that we are animals, that we are savages, all these different things,” said Paul. “So I said to myself, ‘well if you’re going to throw a watermelon, how about I give you a watermelon, and invite you to throw it?’”

He gathered 600 people and they marched down the main road of the village that is also known as the town’s bread and butter, according to Paul. While protesting, he wore a specific shirt that reads, “More than an athlete.” This has become a way of life for him. When coming to Marist, Paul was seen as only a guy who plays football and that didn’t “add any other value.” Because of this, he made it imperative that he didn’t suffer from identity foreclosures by participating in groups and events outside of his sport, such as service trips and fundraisers to name just a few.  

“I always made it a fight to prove I am more than what you think I am. Whatever you think I am, whatever stereotype you have on me, I am bigger than that. I am way bigger than that,” said Paul. “That’s how I look at it. That’s why I wore that shirt…I live my life, literally. I’m living my life to prove to people that I’m better than just an athlete.”

The entire village was shut down and among the protestors was the Police Commissioner of Suffolk County PD, elected politicians, the town supervisor, etc. On June 18, Paul had a press conference with elected officials such as the Suffolk County district attorney, town supervisor, deputy county executive, continuing his fight for change. 

The faculty and staff at Marist College, specifically in the athletic department, are looking to initiate change in the department’s functions. According to Gates, there are projects in the works, such as workshops, to help “train” and “educate” the administrators and athletes. A black student-athlete group has been created in order to help make connections, share experiences, and support one another. This was announced in early July and the first meeting is scheduled for Thursday, July 9. Athletics has also been reaching out to alumni with many willing to get involved in helping the students of color know they have a network outside of Marist, especially from former athletes who share a lot of the same experiences.

“[We] do this stuff now so we can get the ball rolling and we can provide mentorship for our black student-athletes,” said Gates. “We can provide a networking opportunity to those folks that are out there doing the work and can get with our student-athletes and help them navigate some of this.”

Unfortunately, due to the global pandemic of COVID-19, these meetings may have to take place virtually. However, as Gates said, “We don’t want to wait.”

Several current student-athletes have reached out to the athletics department, sharing ideas on how to fight these issues. Gates mentioned that not all of these athletes were those of color, showing care for their peers and their willingness to do more than throw words out in support. They are ready to act. These ideas include fundraising for social justice causes and surveying student-athletes of color about their experiences on campus and how it has impacted them. These data results would then be given to the “appropriate constituents” on campus to implement change.

Not only do these changes need to be made in extra curriculars, but it also starts in the classroom. Gates teaches a Sports and Society class each year that is offered to any student. It covers topics such as this and comes with a community-based learning component. She mentioned that Marist athletics tends to go into the specific district for this, but Gates is looking to go into different districts to have more of an impact on students of color. 

“Not doing it for a photo op…This is something that we should not worry about sharing on social media or worry about posting on our Instagram,” said Gates. “It’s just something that is the right thing to do.”

This class is valuable in learning more than what lies on the surface of sports, but classes covering traditional history classes and political science courses are just as valuable. Those staple classes will help students to learn different aspects of history that were neglected to be taught in their elementary schools. Education is the key to understanding the lives of others and how its history applies to the current climate. 

The pandemic has given us time to slow down and pay close attention to what is going on around us. It has taken us to this point, and it cannot be more clear that the world needs become a unit to make progress in this movement. It’s time to make change not only at Marist but around the world. 

According to Gates, her department will hold weekly meetings to develop programs and workshops (virtual and in-person for the future) for the athletics department. They are looking to gain momentum now for the fall, rather than start planning and having conversations once the Marist community is back on campus. 

“The biggest thing for our teams and our athletes now is, let’s see you follow through with what you are posting on social media,” said Gates. “Your words are a start. They’re only a start.  They’re only a sliver of what this needs to look like. The action is really the follow-through.”

If we talk the talk, Marist, we have to walk the walk.

Edited by David Connelly

Photo from Randy Paul

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