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“We have work that needs to be done”: listening to the experiences of athletes of color

September 4, 2020

For many athletes, the community they find in their team is one of the most rewarding aspects of their Bowdoin experience. For some athletes of color, though, their teams have not been a supportive community. Instead, bias incidents have continued to arise, and discussions about race have fallen by the wayside.

Courtesy of Muffy Paquette
ON THE FIELD: Kendall Rogers '21 runs down the field in a game during the 2019 season.

“I think all athletes of color have been dealing with racialized experiences, and I think for so long, they’ve been forced to stand up to those racialized experiences [and] to also spearhead these conversations,” said Kendall Rogers ’21, a member of the men’s lacrosse team and the president of the Athletes of Color Coalition (AoCC), in a phone interview with the Orient.

In a survey conducted by the AoCC and shared with the Orient, members of the AoCC were asked: “Have you heard a white athlete say the N-word?” Approximately 60 percent of respondents replied that they had.

“Yes, I’ve heard many white athletes say the N-word. In fact, one of my teammates said it this year when a song came on. I told him that he shouldn’t say that even if it’s just a song. He apologized but I heard later from other teammates that he did it multiple [times] after I told him that it wasn’t right,” one respondent wrote.

“Yes, multiple times. The most disappointing time was when I was out with my teammate and she said it in front of me,” wrote another respondent.

The AoCC, founded in 2016, is an organization that allows athletes of color to share their experiences on their respective teams. Many members of the AoCC believe bias incidents happen so frequently because there is not enough discussion about race on their teams.

“We had no discussions about race at all until the AoCC talk on June 1, and half our team was not there,” said Ayana Opong-Nyantekyi ’23, a member of the women’s swim and dive team, in a phone interview with the Orient. “I think that already shows a disengagement.”

The lack of conversation and apathy from fellow athletes leads some athletes of color to feel uncomfortable within their teams, even those that are considered to be some of the more diverse teams on campus.

“When race comes up, it can be difficult as well because this past year, one of our coaches was complaining about music playing in the locker room and said the N-word,” said Lester Jackson ’21, a member of the football team, in a phone interview with the Orient. “It forced our team to have a lot of uncomfortable conversations about race because it felt like some of the guys never even thought about it, how they felt about it or what they would do when something like that happened because they’re white and that’s not something that crossed their mind. But for the Black players, it was really heavy for us, and uncomfortable.”

A representative from the athletic department declined to comment on the handling of this incident because it is a personnel matter. The individual involved is still on the football team’s coaching staff.

“When people are talking about the athlete/student divide, we need to be more clear on the language about that, because it is the white athletes who create this divide. Because even when you have athletes of color on their teams, they still are not feeling welcomed or not feeling included,” said Safiya Osei ’21, a member of the women’s rugby team who has decided to take a step back from rugby this semester, in a phone interview with the Orient.

However, not all athletes of color feel that their teams do not have sufficient levels of dialogue on race. Preston Anderson ’22, also a member of the AoCC, joined the sailing team as a walk-on during his first year at Bowdoin. Anderson believes his team has done a good job accepting new sailors and addressing race in a broader context.

“The captains and the coaches do a really good job of making sure everyone feels welcomed onto the team,” said Anderson in a phone interview with the Orient. “We have specific team meetings to make sure team culture is something that we’re focusing on, which I think is unique for our team.”

While Anderson says that he hasn’t personally experienced any incidents that made him feel uncomfortable or unwelcome on the sailing team, he notes that the team has taken steps to address race specifically, especially this past summer.

“We definitely want to foster a good team dynamic and good team culture because I think that that’s one of the reasons why we’ve been successful [in our sport],” said Anderson.

Ezra Sunshine
ANCHORS AWEIGH: A Flying Junior sailboat catches wind in choppy water.

SOME EXPERIENCES FROM ATHLETES OF COLOR:

Due to a lack of overarching support from the athletic department, the individual experiences of athletes of color depend on their team’s inclination to engage in conversations regarding race, and therefore differ widely.

“There’s never truly been a true system in place to help the athletes of color or deal with some of the biases and certain uncomfortable experiences that they were having,” said Rogers.

There is neither required allyship training nor required discussions about race for coaches or captains, which some athletes believe explains the lack of discussion about race on some teams.

“There doesn’t really seem to be training or an infrastructure for captains and coaches to learn about how to talk about race, how to lead these discussions and beyond that when someone comes to you with stories,” said Opong-Nyantekyi.

“The only thing that’s mandated for teams to do is hazing training,” said Rogers.

Rogers believes the lack of allyship training affects athletes of color even before they are enrolled at Bowdoin.

“If our coaches aren’t equipped to talk to the athletes of color that are on the teams, they’re not equipped to recruit a diverse field of people,” said Rogers. “And I think that is a part of the reason there is a racial and wealth disparity within the athletic department.”

Although there hasn’t been required programming in the past, each year the AoCC hosts a conversation on race and athletics. The event is completely student-organized—the AoCC leadership invites student-athletes to share their experiences and brings a professor to talk. After these presentations, the AoCC moderates a discussion with student-athletes about specific incidents addressed in the talks.

The athletic department did not make the event mandatory for athletes, and many coaches followed suit.

“Again, that goes back to how nothing’s mandated on race and not every team, especially the ones that need to be there—the hockey, the football, the lacrosse—those teams aren’t showing up,” said Rogers.

When bias incidents occur, many BIPOC athletes turn to fellow athletes of color for support, sometimes because they do not know who or where to report incidents. Many experiences and bias incidents therefore go unreported.

“There needs to be [a more transparent] reporting process because a lot of people don’t know where to go or what to do,” said Opong-Nyantekyi. “That’s why this club is so important, because we do share a lot of things with each other when incidents have happened, but it needs to be made apparent to the athletic department.”

Students can report bias incidents to the Dean for Student Affairs, the Senior Vice President for Inclusion and Diversity, the Title IX coordinator or the Vice President for Human Resources. Students can also submit an incident using the Campus and Community Index: Bias Incident Report. Athletes can also talk with Ashmead White Director of Athletics Tim Ryan. However, in the future, some hope for there to be a more comfortable reporting process for student-athletes and more transparency after incidents have been reported.

“The process for reporting a discrimination incident with your team is going to the Dean’s Office, and there’s no accountability or checks and balances within the athletic department and making sure that it’s being addressed within the athletic department,” said Rogers. “And, I think anyone that’s been on a team knows that you’re going to try to deal with it inhouse before you go to a dean or the athletic director to fix these issues.”

ANTI-RACIST WORK WITHIN THE ATHLETIC DEPARTMENT:

Recently, the athletic department has been prioritizing bringing race and the experience of athletes of color to all sports teams.

“We recognize that we have work that needs to be done, and we’re going to do it,” said Ryan.

In January, Ryan appointed Katie Greene as the assistant athletic director for operations, diversity, equity and inclusion Coordinator. Since entering her role, Greene has created a committee that will have internal conversations regarding diversity, equity and inclusion within the department.

“I don’t think that all the pressure should be on the AoCC to develop those ideas and bring that forward,” said Greene in a phone interview with the Orient. “This has to be a group effort. It has to include the administration in the athletic department. It has to include the coaching staff.”

Starting next week, all sports teams will be drafting action plans for diversity, inclusion and engagement. The department has pushed back the start of workouts from September 14 to September 21 to focus on drafting plans. The NESCAC’s cancellation of fall sports due to COVID-19 will also give teams more time to focus on this work.

“I think this initiative is reflective of events across our country. It’s also reflective of what we have heard from our athletes and coaches of color. And we have an opportunity to devote significant time to make sure that we have plans in place that will guide our work going forward, and we will have the opportunity to be able to start that work right away,” said Ryan. “I think that is really important. Because without a plan, we’ll just keep continuing along in the ways that we have in the past. And that hasn’t been good enough.”

The athletic department will host a staff training in the middle of September with Jen Frye, an educator who focuses on anti-racist work within athletics.

The AoCC is also receiving staff support. In the last couple of weeks, Felix Abongo, assistant coach of the men’s basketball team, and Lara-Jane Que, head coach of women’s track and field, have been appointed as staff liaisons for the AoCC. While these coaches serve as a connection to the athletic department, they will have no impact on decisions and actions taken by the AoCC.

“It’s important to underscore that this is not a one-or two-week commitment. This is something that we all need to be focused on, on a day-to-day, week-to-week, month-to-month basis,” said Ryan.

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One comment:

  1. Recent Alum says:

    ‘ In a survey conducted by the AoCC and shared with the Orient, members of the AoCC were asked: “Have you heard a white athlete say the N-word?” Approximately 60 percent of respondents replied that they had. ‘

    How many people responded to this survey? A few thoughts: just one white athlete saying the n-word could account for all 60% of those respondents. And since only AoCC members — not all athletes of color — were surveyed, the results of this question might skew high (for instance, if it were true that athletes of color who had heard a white athlete say the N-word were more likely to become members of the AoCC).

    It would help the reader understand the scope of the problem if the Orient would provide this essential context.


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