The intersection of race, law and sport has always existed, but its discourse has perhaps never been more prevalent in society than over the past few months.
In a conversation led by American University’s Vice President of Campus Life and Inclusive Excellence Fanta Aw on Thursday, Washington College of Law professor N. Jeremi Duru, AU women’s soccer Head Coach Marsha Harper and AU wrestler Kizhan Clarke discussed the shifting landscape of athletics.
The trio agreed that athletes and coaches must educate themselves on racism and social injustice and said that they must use their given platforms for necessary change.
“When you talk about change, I think a big reason that change happens is because there’s a commonality that people engage in with one another to be able to go ahead and push the needle to create change,” Harper said. “I think that sport is something that unites people, and it’s a very powerful tool.”
As AU’s only Black head coach, Harper has embraced her role, not only as a coach, but as a role model. Since her arrival at AU, Harper has stated that she wants to promote and elevate her player’s voices, and in turn, her student-athletes have been encouraged to discuss social issues and the concrete actionable steps they plan to take.
Women’s soccer has been a medium for the team’s players to connect over social issues and build a conversation. Harper has goals for the women on her team to become stronger citizens and stronger advocates for social justice who are motivated to create meaningful communication around the uncomfortable topics.
Clarke, a nationally-ranked wrestler now pursuing a law degree at the Washington College of Law, explained the current state of athletics and social justice.
In just the past couple of months, there have been wildcat strikes led by NBA and WNBA players, union efforts led by Power Five football players, and a coalition formed by Patriot League women’s basketball players.
To Clarke, the phrase “apply pressure” is more than just a wrestling motto.
“We see NBA players who are applying pressure when they have Black Lives Matter written on their jerseys, and now we see how we’re applying pressure in a positive way,” Clarke said. “At the beginning, you’re probably going to get pressure in a negative way, but you just have to notice that the change you want is going to be worth that pressure you’re taking on.”
As one of the nation’s leading sports law authorities, Duru has studied that pressure and built a career dissecting how the law is folded into the framework of sport.
During the call, Duru said that sports have become an effective medium to push for progress. In a nation as divided as the U.S., athletes have long used their platform to challenge discrimination.
“There are very few things that allow that sort of togetherness, and so in that we’re so fractured, sport allows and demands that sort of togetherness,” Duru said. “I think if we’re going to have hope moving forward, sport must be a part of that movement.”
The conversation later shifted toward the fatigue that comes from fighting for racial justice. There is a long history of sport being at the forefront of progress in American culture, and a lot of the moments that defined the fight for racial justice in the past involve issues that athletes and coaches are still encountering today.
For the speakers on the panel, people need to allocate resources to educate others and provide people with new opportunities. They said that is how this moment keeps its momentum and brings lasting change.
“As dark as these days are, there were darker days,” Duru said. “There have been darker days and people have been able to battle through those, so we have to do our best to battle through these.”