Allyship is tough. Being a coach is tough. I completely understand. You do not want people to think you are playing favorites, and you especially don’t want people to think you are giving special treatment because of race. It is a tightrope walk while juggling bowling balls. One wrong move and the effects could almost destroy your program. However, we are seeing more and more cases involving white student-athletes saying derogatory racial comments. Within the last few months, we have heard the Appalachian State tennis player saying racial comments towards an opponent and the VA Tech lacrosse team screaming the “n” word in a song. These things are occurring and just as we tell our student-athletes to be proactive in their life, shouldn’t we do the same with educating them?
You want to treat all your players the same because on the court you see them as a player, not a race. Unfortunately, though, within this society, everyone isn’t treated the same. There is too much statistical data that shows the inequality within education, health, schooling, prison sentencing, and so on. Everyone is not treated the same, and if your student-athletes of color feel you do not even believe in the inequalities they will have a tough time believing their coaches are allies. If they do not believe the staff are allies they will not feel comfortable going to you when there are racial issues on the team, within the college/university, or where they are living. If they do not go to you then who will they go to? Their parents, social media. friends, or worse, they won’t tell anyone. They will keep it inside and you will wonder why they are transferring when they seemed to love the team and the school and was doing well on the court. Some incidents are so slight and continuous they won’t even noticeable by you.
The incidents won’t be as overt as someone saying the “n” word, leaving nooses, or making racially charged comments. They might be as covert as microaggressions, the assumptions the student-athletes of color aren’t smart enough to get into that school on their own accord, sly remarks about being from the “hood” or being “ghetto”, comments of being an Oreo, the assumption student-athletes of color are always causing trouble, having to hear the “I was just joking” racially charged jokes that others will take as being funny, or the “quit being so sensitive” comment. It can be an racial incident in a classroom ignored by the teacher or the cumulation of teammates saying racial or ignorant comments on a consistent basis. Put together the above mentioned comments over days and weeks, and this will break a student-athlete down.
As an ally to your student-athletes, you will need to pay attention to bigger pictures and smaller details. What does that mean you ask? First, it means you will need to take stock of what the racial make-up is of your coaching staff, athletic administration, and team. This is important you will want to consider how many touches your student-athletes of color get from faculty/staff/administrators/coaches of color. How long can a student-athlete of color potentially go without contact from a faculty member/staff member/administrator/coach of color? Are they getting contact daily, monthly, sparingly or not at all? Can they go through a day with no contact from an athletic trainer, advisor, strength coach, or coach of color? If so, that needs to be rectified in the hiring process of all positions within athletics as well as your coaching staff. Yes, we know you can’t make people hire employees for color, but you can use your voice on the importance of hiring more diversity, as it doesn’t just help the student-athletes of color, it helps all student-athletes.
Coaches should be helping look for mentors or people of color that your student-athletes of color can talk to if they would like. I completely understand that mentors do not have to be people of color and some of the best mentors for people of color can be white, but it is better to leave it to the student-athlete of color to make the decision.
Next, you need to look at yourself and the privileges that you have. What privileges do you have that your student-athletes of color do not have, and are you using those privileges to help your student-athletes have better experiences? Are you able to use your privilege to assist them in advocating for themselves, NOT speaking for them?
Lastly, are you taking a hard look at your policies to make sure they aren’t in some way disproportionately affecting your student-athletes of color? Do you only have a policy against student-athletes using the “n” word but nothing for other derogatory words? Do you have a policy on certain types of hair that disproportionately affecting your student-athletes of color like dreads, braids, cornrows, and etc.? These are things to keep in consideration that show allyship.
Why are these questions critical to ask yourself and your staff? Because the data shows us that within the NCAA realm, a majority of the coaches are white. The data from the NCAA for 2016-2017 head coaches shows that in the men’s sports at least 75% of the head coaches are white, with one sport having zero racial diversity. On the women’s side, the same thing occurs with 77% of head coaches being white, with one sport having zero racial diversity at the head coach level with all the head coaches in their specific sport are white. This data is across all divisions within the NCAA.
The diversity data on assistant coaches throughout the NCAA levels is better, but not by much. On the women’s side at least 60% of the assistant coaches are white, and on the men’s side, at least 62% of the assistants are white. This is troubling in sports like basketball where only 40.3% of the men’s players are white and 52% of the women’s players are white. In football, the numbers tell the same story as basketball where over 52% of the student-athletes are athletes of color, yet 68% of assistants and 85% of head coaches are white.
What does this data mean and what does it have to do with coaches and allyship you ask? The data makes us ask a few questions:
1. How are these predominately white staffs handling their student-athletes of color?
2. What is being done for those student-athletes of color who might not only be one or two on the team, but also part of a very small percentage of the student body on their college campus?
3. In what ways is the coaching staff making the student-athletes of color feel comfortable on these predominately white campuses in predominately white or rural areas with the understanding that their experiences can wildly differ from their white counterparts?
4. How is the coaching staff preparing to not only help them through what they are experiencing on predominately white teams, but also find ways to make the teams more inclusive?
5. How are the coaching staff assisting the white student-athletes on how to be inclusive themselves and have the difficult conversations with others on race?
6. What are the coaches doing to educate themselves on this subject?
7. Are the coaches having staff conversations and team conversations on this subject, especially when racial incidents occur on campus, in the community, or nationally?
8. Are coaching staffs doing pulse checks on their student-athletes and staff members of color when a national incident occurs such as a high profiles shooting of an unarmed man or woman, or an incident in a hometown where they are from?
These questions are important to ask yourselves and your colleagues because the times of thinking that race has no place on the team or that coaching staffs are colorblind is over. Carol Anderson speaks about colorblindness in her book, “White Rage” when she explains how the Nixon and Reagan administration’s main objective was to contain and neutralize the victories of the Civil Rights Movement by painting a picture of a “colorblind” equal opportunity society whose doors were now wide open, if only African Americans would take initiative and walk through. As Mellody Hobson explains in her wonderful Tedtalk “Colorblind or Colorbrave”, “…researchers have coined this term “color blindness” to describe a learned behavior where we pretend that we don’t notice race. If you happen to be surrounded by a bunch of people who look like you, that’s purely accidental. Now, color blindness, in my view, doesn’t mean that there’s no racial discrimination, and there’s fairness. It doesn’t mean that at all. It doesn’t ensure it. In my view, color blindness is very dangerous because it means we’re ignoring the problem.” Lastly, Julian Bond says, “To be blind to color is to be blind to the consequences of color… And especially to the consequences of being the “wrong color” in America.”
When you tell your student-athlete you are colorblind, you are essentially telling them that you are willing to not acknowledging a part of them that has been oppressed, disenfranchised, racially targeted, or suppressed. You are telling important conversations about race are not worth being uncomfortable or vulnerable. You might say, “Jen, come on, you are being dramatic. My players know I love them and would do anything for them. They know I look out for them and have their best interests at heart.” To that, I will ask you if they really know you do, especially if you are unwilling to talk about something that could potentially affect them on a daily basis. If you aren’t willing to be vulnerable and have these type of conversations that can affect your students experience on campus and in the community, then you might want to rethink the holistic picture of having someone’s best interest at heart.
Your student-athletes can tell if you only recruit one or two student-athletes of color, if they are the ones always hosting the student-athletes of color, they can tell if you only hire white coaches and perhaps have a token coach of color, they can tell if you are involved in the diversity strategic plans at your school, and lastly, but more importantly, they can tell if you are uncomfortable talking about anything race related. They know you know about the shootings of people of color, they know you are aware of the racial incidents on campus, they know you hear things, and they do not see or hear anything from you. Silence is not the best option at this time. Silence will not help you or the situation. Instead, the situation not talked about is going to simmer and get worse. This simmering is going to affect school work, playing, and relationships.
Now that we have talked about the importance of talking about race and allyship for coaches let’s talk about how to start fixing the situation. The definition of allyship by peernetbc.com is “an active, consistent, and challenging practice of unlearning and re-evaluating, in which a person of privilege seeks to work in solidarity WITH a marginalized group.
Allyship is very intentional. Allyship is accountability. Allyship is very uncomfortable, especially for the coach because it can change the power dynamic with your student-athletes of color and staff of color. It can occasionally make you feel uneducated and very uncomfortable, especially when you are hearing about incidents for the first time that you did not know existed.
Here are some action items that can help you, as a coach, understand what you need to work on to become an ally or be a better ally:
1. Understand your privileges, not just knowing your privileges, but understanding how to use your privileges to help create a more inclusive atmosphere for your players and advocating for them with faculty, staff, senior staff, or athletic administration. There will be times your student-athletes of color come to you about macroaggressions or things that occurred in class with faculty. The worst possible things you can do is explain it away or say you don’t think that is what they meant. Those will drive your student-athletes of color away quickly.
2. Understand how your privileges marginalize communities regardless of your intent. Many teams want to do local community services and service projects overseas but do not think about what it potentially can be doing to further marginalize the communities. Are you working with people from those communities and listening to what they want and need? Are you going to Haiti and giving away shoes and clothing without the understand of how the free clothing is affecting those who live in Haiti and are trying to build clothing businesses?
3. Understand the systemic issues that affect marginalized communities. Are you reading up on the systemic issues that can affect student-athletes of color to gain an understanding of those issues? Are you reading on suspension rates of students of color or on the health disparities between races? Having that knowledge could potentially help an injured student-athlete of color.
4. Be willing to step back on issues that affect student-athletes of color and let those who are within the community use their voice. It is easy to want to protect them, but have an honest conversation with them about what they would like to do and how they would like you to SUPPORT them.
5. Be willing to stand up to friends or family when inappropriate or offensive language is being used and hold people accountable, even those you love. If you are white you will hear a lot of offensive language, and it is up to you to stop it. When you are silent you are in complicit in allowing those who are being offensive to think that they are doing is acceptable.
6. Are you celebrating all holidays or just Christmas and other western “American” holidays? Have you asked about other holidays to celebrate? How are your Jewish, Muslim, or Buddhist students-athletes feeling about holidays that are important to them not being celebrated?
7. Do not expect your student-athletes of color to educate you. There are many ways to educate yourself on an issue that does not include making people from those communities educate you. Have you reached out to the cultural centers, faculty members, or staff members who have the resources to help educate you? Here is a starter collection of resources on allyship that are easy to read or watch, and give you a nice base to begin understanding what allyship is, privilege and others on subjects relating to race.
8. These conversations will occasionally make you uncomfortable, angry, embarrassed, guilty, or defensive if you have never thought or talked about these topics. Those are natural emotions, but what do you do with them? Do you allow them to negatively consume you, or will you drive through them to continue educating yourself?
9. If there are townhalls on racial issues on your campus go to them. It shows your players, staff, and recruits that you are vested in learning about this issue as well as want to stay on top of what your school is doing in these situations. Nothing can make a mother of color feel more at ease than a white coach explaining what their school is doing to help protect their child of color and is knowledgeable of the racial incidents on campus.
10. Lastly, are you reaching out to your friends of color to start having these conversations in a somewhat comfortable setting to prepare yourself to have them with your student-athletes of color?
Please know that your allyship will hit obstacles, you will say the wrong thing, you will get busy and forget to check in or read up on situations on campus. Life happens, but you can’t allow it to take over your allyship because it will only take one mistake, one racial incident on your team to go public.
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