College athletes coming together to promote change

SAN JOSE, Calif. — Whether talking to a teammate, close friend or complete stranger, San Jose State football player Drew Jenkins has a go-to question when discussing hot-button topics: “Are you OK with the society you live in?”

“And most of their answers are no, they’re not OK,” the sophomore defensive back said. “So, then you should take it into your own hands and see if something’s going wrong. You should be able to do something about it. You don’t want to just sit on the sidelines, just like you don’t want to sit on the sidelines when you’re in a game.”

A political science major, Jenkins has spent the past several months suiting action to words, joining fellow students across the country in using the platforms they have as athletes to speak out about issues like racism and police brutality. They are helping educate their peers about what it feels like to live as a minority, embracing the responsibility to try to create tangible change.

For many, the push has led to the formation of athlete groups dedicated to inclusion and outreach. In fact, every Pac-12 Conference university now has some form of coalition to support Black and minority athletes — eight of those organizations were established over the past year, some still in the early planning stages, while others have built on what they already had in place.

At San Jose State, Jenkins and teammate Christian Webb are involved in a group called People of Change and led a march last year. Last Friday, they made a presentation to their teammates on Black history and why it is celebrated in February “just to educate them on this month,” Jenkins said.

They also hope to hold an event in the coming weeks to raise money for further community action, with plans to meet as an entire organization sometime in March if it can be done safely under COVID-19 protocols.

Many of the groups emerged in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death last May while he was in the custody of Minneapolis police.

“It’s just somewhere to go and people that you trust and that you feel safe also voicing your opinion with,” said University of California baseball player Darren Baker, whose father, Dusty, manages the Houston Astros. “I think it was something that was long overdue. It’s unfortunate that some events around the country had to happen for this to finally become a thing, but I’m glad it did.”

At Stanford, defensive end Thomas Booker is part of a movement on campus he and others considered essential in the current U.S. climate. The group, called CardinalBLCK, is mostly meeting over video calls for now with members scattered. While still firming up a mission statement, the group aims to be progressive in community outreach.

“We felt like we needed a community that had all of our interests in mind and at heart,” Booker said. “What we envision for the organization to be is, first off, a place that Black Stanford student-athletes can go to and have similar faces and opinions and ideas expressed for them, where as before there wasn’t ever a real formal organization for that. Stanford is a majority-white institution so sometimes it can feel isolating, specifically as a student-athlete and all the stereotypes that come along with that.”

Stanford athletic director Bernard Muir, who is Black, has served in a supporting role for CardinalBLCK. He acknowledges the administration won’t always handle things perfectly and this is a forum for everyone to find ways to be better. Stanford athletes approached him after Floyd’s killing.

“I think the country was hurting,” Muir said. “Certainly our student-athlete population was hurting, so they wanted to come together and talk and vent their frustrations and talk about their own experiences here on campus.”

The moment Jenkins can get everybody together again in person he plans to host a town-hall forum for all San Jose State athletes to tackle social justice issues in a safe space.

He and Webb led a march from campus to City Hall last year, and Jenkins made sure all his teammates who were eligible to vote became registered for the presidential election in November — 102 in all.

“That right there is huge to me,” said Spartans quarterback Nick Starkel, a grad transfer working to complete his master’s degree in justice studies. “For me, personally, it was an opportunity for me to listen and to learn, and to be able to empathize with my teammates of color. Because I don’t know what it’s like.”

Cal women’s basketball players Cailyn Crocker and Sierra Richey — Crocker is Black, Richey white — helped set up the Racial Justice Council with support from administration in Berkeley and their outspoken Black head coach, Charmin Smith. The group features two representatives from each of the school’s sports teams. Three separate discussions were held on social issues and 600 athletes attended at least one session.

“The education piece is going to be huge, because the foundation of this council is really educating and making people feel more comfortable,” Crocker said. “Cal generates and creates some of the best people in the world, and if they have this foundational understanding of people and backgrounds and ethnicities and races already, once they get out in the real world it’s going to be a better world for everybody. That’s thinking kind of big, but that’s a huge foundation of who we are.”

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