While individual athletes and coaches may be able to make some impact when speaking out on important issues, no matter how many followers someone has, there's strength in numbers.
This is something Penn State’s members of the Big Ten's new Anti-Hate and Anti-Racism Coalition know all too well.
In response to recent civil unrest and outrage across the United States and the rest of the world, the Big Ten formed a group to fight against and work toward remedying this injustice.
Named The Anti-Hate and Anti-Racism Coalition, the coalition's mission statement reads:
“We seek to collectively and constructively eliminate racism and hate in our society while creating tangible action within our Universities and surrounding communities using the platforms of empowerment, education, and accountability.”
Penn State’s 10 members on the coalition include: Vice President for Intercollegiate Athletics Sandy Barbour, James Franklin, junior guard Myles Dread, junior defensive tackle PJ Mustipher, junior swimmer Olivia Jack, men's soccer coach Jeff Cook, women's lacrosse coach Missy Doherty, women's basketball coach Carolyn Kieger, swimming and diving coach Tim Murphy and faculty athletics representative Dennis Scanlon.
Six of Penn State's members of the coalition are white, but Dread — one of the coalition's Black members — knew he wanted to get involved from the very beginning.
He just didn't think it'd necessarily be with a conference-wide initiative.
"With everything going on and the way the country was moving, I was assuming that people were going to start doing things in their communities," Dread told The Daily Collegian. "I didn't expect the Big Ten, which is such a huge entity, to make such a stand, and I was very happy to be a part of that."
Coaches on the committee have primarily worked to enable their athletes and ensure them the ability to speak out about injustice they, or those around them, have experienced.
“My job is to try and help our guys think through these things, think critically and then find their own voice," Cook told The Daily Collegian.
Kieger also shared a similar sentiment to Cook, but her situation is slightly different.
According to a 2018-19 NCAA demographics survey, the racial and ethnic breakdown of Division I women's basketball was 32% white, 45% Black and 23% other.
The second-year coach shared what her role is as a white coach leading a team in a sport that has more athletes of color than it does white athletes.
Last season in the Big Ten, Kieger's first, she was one of 12 white women's basketball coaches out of 14 in the conference, while only 36% of the conference's women's basketball players were white.
"We have different backgrounds, we have different things that we have to go through. So, in order for me to be an ally for my players and for the Black community or people of color, I have to do my part,” Kieger said. “I have to do more than just listen. I have to educate myself, and I have to find out ways that I can do more and I can give more back to the community and I can support them."
Cook is also a member of the inclusion subcommittee for the coalition, and has worked to formulate ideas on how to better include athletes who are routinely and systemically marginalized.
Cook has made a point to try and understand the lived experiences of his non-white players.
“I have talked to the players about how it feels when you're a Black student athlete at Penn State. How do you feel? Do you feel included? Do you feel welcome? Do you have an equal voice?” Cook said. “I can't really understand or know what it's like to walk in the shoes of a young Black male who's coming to college for the first time from a predominantly Black community for example, like some of our own student athletes have.”
Athletes of all types have a number of factors that weigh on the decisions they make.
However, many opt to use their platform in spite of backlash they may receive.
But, unlike professional athletes, collegiate athletes face potential repercussions from their own institutions, as many fear their standing on a team or with the university may be affected by their words or support for certain causes and movements.
“As a collegiate athlete, there's a lot on the line in terms of our future in our sport, our education and, in some cases, people's scholarship money that goes into the decision of protesting seasons, protesting practices, opting out, any of those kinds of decisions,” Jack told the Collegian.
“It’s hard to speak out about our opinions because of the backlash that we might have. There are times that I have been worried about the things that I say, because I wonder if it’ll change a certain person’s perspective that might affect my ability to swim at Penn State or still attend Penn State,” she added.
Even those at the top of their respective sport are not free from ridicule or scorn for speaking out about police brutality and racial injustice, as star athletes have been told to stick to sports countless times.
Dread countered and pushed back against that notion.
"The people who say 'shut up and dribble' — they don't have a job in politics either," Dread said. "You see a lot of people with jobs in whatever field saying 'shut up and dribble,' but your job has just as much to do with politics as mine."
It's a notion that comes from a level of hypocrisy and conditional support that has perhaps always been there, but has become amplified in recent months, Jack said.
"I realized especially this year, there's this sort of hypocrisy where fans will support athletes when they're competing the way that fans think they should, or their image is to a fan’s certain standards," Jack said. "But the second an athlete speaks out about something that they believe in or shows any sort of humanity outside of their sport, there seems to be this attitude that those athletes are for fans entertainment only."
Dread's not asking for special treatment.
He, like Jack, is simply asking for people to recognize his humanity, and the fact that his life matters off the basketball court as much as it does on it.
"I'm the same person that you love wearing a jersey as I am when I'm not wearing a jersey. What I believe in is important to me, just as much as basketball is important to me, and my life matters just as much as yours," Dread said. "I'm not asking my life to matter more than yours or more than anyone else's. I just want my life to matter, just as much as everyone else.
Many of Penn State's coaches on the committee are keenly aware this hypocritical dynamic exists while recognizing the risk their athletes are taking by speaking out, and the fears about repercussions that may be in play.
They're doing what they can to vocalize support and try to ease some of these concerns.
“Wherever someone falls on these issues, I want them to be able to speak freely without worrying 'Oh well if I say the wrong thing, coach is gonna be mad or coach isn’t going to start me in a game, or it's gonna affect my playing time,'” Cook said. “This is way bigger than who plays in a Big Ten game, or who makes the starting lineup, so I want them to feel that freedom of expression.”
Kieger similarly recognizes the current moment this country and the larger sports landscape are going through and the issues that are being reckoned with.
Kieger has made it abundantly clear — the issues her players are speaking out about and protesting for, transcend basketball.
“It's way bigger than basketball; it's bigger than our team, it's bigger than our community. This is something that is a worldwide fight right now — equality and doing what's right, and protecting all people with the same rights, especially here in America," Kieger said. “Everybody deserves the same rights, and for us we have a lot of time that we talk about these kinds of things."
Not only do athletes face challenges when speaking out about inequalities, some feel they are valued and supported more so for their athletic ability rather than their qualities as a person and their impact on society.
“Even if people are supporting us in our athletic events, we may not get the same level of support if we aren't wearing our uniform," Jack said. "I think people are forgetting that the whole issue people are debating right now has to do with people's rights and people's lives, and the fact that there is a lack of equality in certain people's experiences in this country. I think fans forget sometimes that athletes are human beings and they make assumptions that they aren’t."
The coaches involved with the coalition have voiced their support for their athletes during these times, but many are trying to do more than that.
Among the women's basketball, men's soccer, and swimming and diving programs, those coaches are trying to act on ways to create tangible change rather than just paying lip service to these ideals.
“We've done a lot of brainstorming sessions as a team about what we can do as a unit of 32 people here on campus to help fight for social injustice,” Kieger said. “For us it's, more about using that voice to create action steps. It's one thing to say your point of view, and it's a completely other thing to go and try to impact, to influence, be culture drivers and lead by example. We're trying to have action steps to actually ignite change and make a difference.”
Cook has also taken concrete steps to ensure his words and the team’s beliefs turn into impactful changes.
He has opted to address two different specific topics within his team and among Penn State athletes in general: voting and combating the racial inequities that exist within standardized testing
“It sounds like a simple concept, and I thought it was two months ago, and then you start to learn about registering, online ballots and all the media surrounding voter fraud and voter suppression, how challenging it can be sometimes to navigate that world," Cook said. "I've been really shocked, to be honest. So we've made sure that we've tried to work on that piece first."
Cook also believes there are more equitable ways to assess a student athlete's potential for success academically than standardized tests, which disproportionately impact people of color.
As a member of the coalition, Murphy is also making sure he and his team are focused on action, in addition to voicing their support.
“I think the long term goal is to listen better and to learn to act on things in a timely basis, so that we're not having the same conversation a couple years down the road, that the conversation that we have is something that progresses forward,” Murphy said. “That involves listening and understanding, and then it involves acting.”
Debates about if progress is being made in the fight against racism and hate continue on — but when it comes to progress, Jack wants humanity to take center stage.
“I honestly believe that somewhere along the lines, some people have forgotten what humanity looks like and what it sounds like and how it is to treat people with that level of humanity,” Jack said. “Progress to me would look like people figuring out how to be more humanitarian toward each other, and people finally [realize] that it's okay to go against your parents, your community, if what you believe will help other people have a more equitable life.”
Sports editor Jake Aferiat contributed to this story.
Three Penn State student-athletes are doing more than engaging in protests and using their voices to fight for social justice.