By Matthew Kredell
As America pushes for progress in social justice, athletes are using their platform to be leaders in the cause.
The USC Price School of Public Policy hosted an online discussion on athletes and their evolution as change agents Oct. 29 titled “Taking a Knee: Athletes and Social Justice Advocacy.”
“The nature of what it means to be both an athlete and a student-athlete has really changed tremendously over the years, with the influence of money in sports and most recently with the movement for social justice,” said Dana Goldman, interim dean of the Price School. “And so the role our student-athletes take in our communities and our society has transformed, and that’s why I believe today’s discussion is so important.”
LaVonna Lewis, USC Price’s associate dean of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, moderated the conversation with USC athletic director Mike Bohn, former USC and NFL safety Darnell Bing, and Julie Rousseau, who chairs the USC Athletics Black Lives Matter Action Team.
“These are critical times and I think the role of athletes in these times is being amplified in multiple ways,” Lewis said. “People of color and their allies and advocates are really challenging some of the ways we think about engagement and conversations around the role of athletes in civil society and the influences they can have.”
Lewis opened the proceedings by expressing how proud she is of Bing, her former student at USC Price, for nearing completion of his doctorate. Bing is now an athletic counselor at Mt. San Jacinto College. He also coordinates the Umoja program, a community and critical resource at the College dedicated to enhancing the cultural and educational experiences of African American and other students.
“I think for a student athlete or athlete in general, they have a very unique place in society,” Bing said. “They are idolized and recognized by young people, by older people, and by their peers. So they actually have the opportunity to touch many people’s lives or encourage these individuals to vote. … They’re allowing themselves to really utilize their voice and take ownership of their voice.”
There’s a history of professional athletes such as Jessie Owens, Jackie Robinson, Arthur Ashe and Colin Kaepernick bringing attention to social issues. But the panel agreed that it is more accepted than ever for athletes to make their voice heard, and a large part of that is the support they get from teammates.
When Mookie Betts of the World Series champion Dodgers kneeled during the national anthem, teammates Cody Bellinger and Max Muncy showed their unity with a hand on his shoulders.
Bing brought up LeBron James of the NBA champion Los Angeles Lakers, who spoke eloquently on matters of shootings of unarmed black people by police during the NBA Playoffs and also spearheaded More Than a Vote, a voting rights organization.
Rousseau mentioned that NBA player Chris Paul organized a march of 2,500 people to Winston-Salem State University for early voting.
These professional athletes have helped college athletes begin to realize their potential as activists.
“Those are images that our student athletes are seeing that they want to mimic and say we can do even more,” Rousseau said.
USC athletes have made a substantial impact at the University this year, and Rousseau’s position is evidence of the results. The former coach of the WNBA’s Los Angeles Sparks was appointed in August to chair the USC Athletics Black Lives Matter Action Team.
Bohn established the team in June as a response to a letter from the United Black Student-Athletes Association (UBSAA), which came together to develop a platform when USC student-athletes discussed their pain and anger following the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer.
“This is part of the history of how much an athlete can influence change,” Rousseau said. “Really allowing our student-athletes at USC to be change agents and be part of the process of moving us closer to more of a diverse, equitable and inclusive environment I think is powerful. From our United Black Student-Athletes Association that presented the 12 recommendations to Mike Bohn – what they wanted their experience to be like and the changes they wanted to see – really is the impetus for the work that we’re doing with the USC Athletics Black Lives Matter Action Team.”
Bohn formed the team to work with the UBSAA to institute meaningful reform within USC athletics.
“I think it’s about student-athletes voices being heard,” Bohn said. “I think one thing that sports and intercollegiate athletics in particular does for our awesome nation is it’s a rallying point. I think as our student athletes are heard, its impactful because we’re learning. I think it’s important for sports to be a great leader in helping people learn and grow and be inspired.”
Another of the recommendations that Bohn embraced from the UBSAA was to have no athletic activities on election day. Taking that theme a step further and following the lead set by James and his More Than a Vote campaign to turn sporting venues into voting centers, USC availed Galen Center for voters. Many USC student-athletes are volunteering their time to work at the center.
Rousseau pointed out that creating an environment where the student-athletes can be involved in this way encourages them to be more than athletes.
“I think that really helps them expand in terms of what contributions they can make not only to the University while they’re at USC but beyond,” Rousseau said. “It’s about creating leaders that are ready to move forward and make that contribution to their own community. I think it’s up to us to make sure we give them those opportunities to expand outside of just their athletic experience.”
Bohn also gave credit to USC student-athletes for their letter to Gov. Gavin Newsom that helped open up the lines of communication to allow college football to be played in California this year.
He said that he thinks the social advocacy work of student-athletes in recent months has already made a big impact on the athletics program at USC.
“If we all continue to lean in and grow and expose each other to a lot of different things, we’re all going to be a lot happier and we’re all going to be more effective leaders,” Bohn said. “The lessons I’ve learned through these challenges of COVID and the social injustices of our time … has really made our team of leaders better. I think that comes from the top with (USC) President (Carol) Folt and her leadership team to our deans. I think our future’s bright because we’re all getting better from this.”
Bing urged athletes to stay committed to creating change.
“After the election, the things that have taken place to cause these protests will continue to take place – we have to be honest,” Bing said. “We’re still having young African-American men and women being murdered at the hands of law enforcement. … As long as we continue to be in unity and continue to fight against these things in a respectful way, that’s the only way we’ll be able to create any type of change. So it’s important that we continue on with what we’re doing now after the election, because the adversity won’t stop there.”
Rousseau said she is confident about the continued improvement in equity and inclusion for USC athletics because of the leadership shown by Bohn.
“Mike always talks about being the No. 1 student-centered athletic department, and he means it,” Rousseau said. “So that’s why I’m hopeful-I am working for a leader who says this matters, black lives matter, and our student-athletes need to be educated and prepared not only to thrive at USC but beyond. And he’s not only saying it, but he’s putting the effort into it.”