Women’s basketball players across the Patriot League knew they had to step up. Following the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and so many other Black people at the hands of police, the student-athletes knew something had to give. They wanted to push for action, and they wanted their conference to be by their side. But for too long, they were met with near-silence.
Even after the killings turned into protests, and protests turned into national news, the Patriot League said little in support of the protests and their Black athletes. Student-athletes felt vulnerable.
“When you look at the issues that lie before us, many of these things pertain to Black athletes,” AU senior guard Indeya Sanders said. “And, especially since at a certain point the Patriot League hadn’t said anything, Black athletes and our allies felt that we weren't being well-represented and taken care of by the Patriot League.”
The Patriot League did not respond for comment. On Sunday, the league sent a tweet in support of the coalition’s advocacy.
In the early weeks of June, women’s basketball players assembled to discuss the challenges that lie ahead. At Bucknell, senior guard Abby Kapp and others on the women’s basketball team began putting together a conference-wide coalition that unified the Patriot League’s student-athletes.
It was an action that the Patriot League could not ignore.
On July 7, women’s basketball players from around the Patriot League publicly launched the Patriot League Social Justice Coalition. After months of work and an influx of men’s basketball players, there are now more than 50 student-athletes in their coalition, including three AU women’s basketball players.
The Patriot League Social Justice Coalition has taken to social media, including creating accounts on Instagram and Twitter, promoting their mission of ensuring equality and justice. One post on their instagram specifically outlines their intentions and future actions based on their observations of the country.
The coalition immediately sent a list of demands to Patriot League commissioner Jennifer Heppel, which was obtained by The Eagle. For these athletes, it wasn’t enough to keep touting education and awareness initiatives, and it was time to create actionable solutions — solutions that will address problems long after even the coalition’s youngest members graduate.
At the forefront of their list, the student-athletes demanded that the conference must respect their perspective. This means that players have the full-fledged right to protest without the fear of repercussions. The coalition has discussed multiple forms of protest, which could notably include kneeling for the national anthem.
Just last year, the AU women’s basketball team raised the idea of holding an anthem-related protest to their coaches and AU Athletic Director Billy Walker. Walker and the women’s basketball coaches both told players they would have the full support of the administration, should they choose to go down that path. The team has not made a final decision, but that level of support is important to the players.
“To know that our athletic director, our coaches and our teammates support anyone who would be kneeling, it means a lot just to know that they have our back for sure,” Sanders said.
Other on-court forms of protest would look similar to initiatives done by the WNBA and NBA. The coalition has pushed for game day initiatives that support the Black Lives Matter movement, which would include monetary support from the University toward Black charitable organizations, as well as pregame BLM shirts for the players, and BLM patches on their jerseys during games.
As one of its foremost demands, the coalition also challenged the league to reassess its hiring policies and commit to recruiting more Black athletes, coaches and administrators. This means hiring Black administrators in roles beyond “Head of Diversity and Inclusion,” where hiring boards often pigeonhole Black employees.
“Being a minority, this will open doors not only for myself, but for many who come after me,” Jennifer Coleman, a junior on the Navy women’s basketball team, said of the coalition’s anti-racist work.
The AU women’s basketball team has additionally agreed to suspend team activities on Election Day, per The Next’s Jenn Hatfield. Players in the coalition also have several different action plans related to supporting Black businesses and educating those within the D.C. community.
Players from the coalition have spoken to commissioner Heppel and came away from the conversations in a positive mindset. While Kapp and Sanders both said the conversation signaled progress, the conversation was only the first of many they plan to have.
All 10 Patriot League schools have representatives in the coalition and have now expanded to include men’s basketball players in the conference.
“The burden of navigating through white spaces to the Black person, Indigenous person, person of color is too traumatizing and isolating,” said Keelah Dixon, a senior on Colgate’s women’s basketball team. “In addition to that, we must face systemic racism in every aspect of our lives. After seeing a man lose his life for no apparent reason, and suffer for nine minutes straight, I refuse to accept anything less than persistent anti-racism, consistent allyship and relentless self-education and self-reflection.”
More collectives form
Since the coalition formed, the student-led social justice coalition has talked with the Patriot League Anti-Racism Commission, which administrators launched on July 6 — the day before the women’s basketball players’ coalition went public.
The anti-racism commission is made up of student-athletes, coaches and administrators across the conference, including Walker and AU women’s soccer coach Marsha Harper.
“The formation of the Patriot League’s Anti-Racism Commission is a crucial step in truly cultivating America’s next leaders,” Harper said in the Patriot League’s press release. “I am hopeful that this will go a long way in stimulating sustained education, discussion, and more importantly – ACTION towards equity amongst all races through efforts to eliminate systemic racism. I am thrilled to be a part of this essential Commission.”
Kapp, who is on the commission, said that, while it is a positive step, not all 50 members of the student-led coalition would be able to join. As such, they felt it was important to have a group that explicitly represents the calls of basketball players in the Patriot League.
Sanders has also been involved in a third collective that AU recently launched, the AU Anti-Racism Education Collective, which is led by Spencer Bonahoom, AU’s senior academic counselor for student-athlete development and leadership. Bonahoom frequently collaborates with peers at other DMV-area institutions to brainstorm initiatives relevant to the local area. The collective has become a significant part of that.
The collective includes over 150 staff, players and coaches at AU, with smaller groups of seven to eight students, one of which is led by Sanders. This allows players and administrators to work at the University-level in addition to the conference-wide initiatives, beginning with meetings every three weeks to educate and discuss the country’s deep-seated history of racism.
The additional space they’ve provided holds administrators as well as students accountable and creates a space that is uniquely important for the student-athletes.
“They get a little more out of it when they can engage with their peers and get a group that they feel connected with,” Bonahoom said. “They have the kind of that shared identity of being a student-athlete.”
Bonahoom and Sanders stressed, however, that the education collective must act upon social justice initiatives once they establish their goals and gain an anti-racist foundation.
“I don't think people are moved to action unless they really understand and feel the importance of it,” Bonahoom said. “But we will be putting actionable items on the table.”
Kapp said that as a predominantly white university, it is good to see the Bucknell administration get behind their movement over the past few months. Bucknell head coach Trevor Woodruff, the Patriot League coach of the year, helped spread the news of the coalition across the conference.
Women’s basketball players, and particularly Black women’s basketball players, have long set the tone for athlete activism. Over the past two years, WNBA MVP Maya Moore has taken unprecedented action, putting her career on hold in the middle of her prime to fight for equality and justice. Just last month, Jonathan Irons, a Black man who was sentenced to 50 years in prison in what Moore and others said was a wrongful conviction, was released after Moore pushed the judge to overturn Irons’ conviction.
Across the WNBA, stars, including Washington Mystics guard Natasha Cloud and Atlanta Dream guards Renee Montgomery and Tiffany Hayes, opted out of the WNBA’s Bubble to focus on fighting for social justice and criminal justice reform.
“What the WNBA is doing is inspiring, and it's definitely something that we all take into consideration when we think about why we are fighting for social changes,” Kapp said.
The players want to keep the energy and focus on what matters beyond basketball and athletics. Their collective organization is unprecedented, and they will continue to push for reform in their conference.
Sanders said this is especially valuable and that, in addition to the student-led coalition, they’re more likely to use the platform that they have.
“We're not like the big Power Five schools, you know, we're not Duke, we're not UConn,” Sanders said. But we still have a platform and the ability to reach other students on our respective campuses.”