Black AU athletes form coalition to grow community among themselves and amplify their voices

Student-athletes involved talk about the decision to form the group

Black AU athletes form coalition to grow community among themselves and amplify their voices
hoto for Black Athlete Coalition Story.

Amid nationwide protests and discussions about racism and injustice, Black student-athletes at American University formed the AU Black Athlete Coalition in September. They hope the organization will create an environment for Black student-athletes to openly share their experiences in a safe space, grow a community among themselves and hold AU Athletics accountable for its anti-racist promises. 

The idea for a Black affinity group within the athletic department started with redshirt senior wrestler Elijah Murphy, who was trying to find ways to foster change.

“Throughout all of this, there has been a lot of talking,” Murphy said. “And, personally, I wanted to find ways to promote actionable steps to promote sustainable change.”

After talking with Spencer Bonahoom, AU’s senior academic counselor for student-athlete development and leadership, Murphy reached out to six more athletes: basketball players Indeya Sanders and Marvin Bragg, women's soccer players Toni Williams, Sylvie Prepetit and Juliana Saling and volleyball player Rachael Bennett. The group held meetings to try to formulate what a Black Athlete Coalition could look like at AU.

“We talked about strengthening the community here at AU,” Williams said. “Obviously, the Black student-athlete population is very small. There’s not that many of us, and we all don’t even know each other too. So we wanted to create a space that is comfortable for everyone, but is also geared towards change, education, support and reaching out to the other members of the AU community.”

Student-athletes felt that an organization like this was a long time coming for AU and the athletic department. Across the country, Black student-athletes have created coalitions within their universities and conferences. Many share the same overarching goals, which include forming a community within their athletic programs and creating a platform to speak out against racism that they have faced in their athletic careers and their everyday lives. 

Once the original group reached out to more Black athletes about the coalition, there was a lot of enthusiasm for the idea. 

“We know a lot of people at different schools who have groups like this and who have had tons of positive feedback from it,” Prepetit said. “And we were like ‘it’s time to start doing these things here at AU.’” 

“I know I was super happy because I know from my experience, I’m on the women’s soccer team and we have a lot of diversity,” Prepetit added. “But in comparison to some other teams on campus, they don’t have as much diversity. So, it’s making sure that you feel comfortable in your space to talk about your experiences that you may not be able to do in your team environment.”

After initial brainstorming sessions, it was time to reach out to the rest of the Black athletes at AU. At the first meeting, which took place over Zoom, the students got to know their fellow athletes, explain some of the plans they wanted to implement and hear more ideas.

“I was very surprised because there were more people that joined the Zoom call than I expected, which was great to see,” Bennett said. “People were taking advantage of what we were trying to do and they wanted to be a part of it. It was more of an open conversation instead of watching what you were saying. We could say what we needed to say.”

Some Black athletes viewed teamwide discussions they have had about race and social justice positively. However, others were disappointed that those discussions only happened after this summer, and their teams quickly moved on without discussing it afterward.

Murphy said he wants this coalition to continually push the athletic department to address racism at all times, and not just when protests erupt on campus or across the country. 

“One of the first initial goals was to become a sustainable entity,” Murphy said. “One of the biggest things on my mind was how I don’t want this topic of anti-racism and social injustice, I don’t want it to be a moment.” 

The coalition has a bevy of long-term goals, which include working in conjunction with other Black organizations like the Black Student Union and partnering with the Center for Diversity and Inclusion. They also aim to build an alumni network for Black student-athletes, create partnerships with Black-owned businesses and have the athletic department work with Black-owned businesses.

In order to sustain the group, organizers said they informed incoming freshmen athletes of the coalition and made sure they knew that they were welcome. 

“There were a good amount of freshmen and underclassmen in the first meeting,” Sanders said. “And I thought that was really good to see them come out. Even a freshman from my team joined the second meeting. It’s very important to let them know that they’re not alone at a school and within an athletic department that is predominantly white. And that they have people they can go to that understand their similar struggles and how they feel.”

Since the coalition first formed, Black coaches and Natalie Rogers, the new associate athletic director for student-athlete well-being, have heavily supported the student-athletes. 

“I was really happy that they welcomed the idea for AUBAC with open arms,” Saling said. “In all of our meetings they have been very productive in just saying ‘let us know what we can do to help. We’re here to get this rolling and support in any way we can.’”

There are currently only two Black coaches on staff at AU, new women’s soccer Head Coach Marsha Harper, and men’s basketball Assistant Coach Eddie Jackson. Since there are not many Black people within the athletic department, it has meant a lot to the student-athletes to have Rogers and these coaches at their side. Student-athletes said the trio allows them to fully express their experiences.

“Having a Black coach, in particular, has helped me a lot,” Bragg said. "We can talk about issues, and I can come to [Jackson] differently than I can come to my head coach or the other assistants because he’s a Black man just like I’m a Black man. He understands just a little more where I’m coming from and sees my views because he understands who I am.”

Rogers, who has spent 17 years working in athletics, in addition to her career as a tennis player at the University of Michigan, said that before the summer, she had only seen a few instances of Black athletes attempting to build coalitions. Most of the time, they were very loosely organized. She has already been involved with the formation of the coalition, supporting leadership and their ideas.

“We don’t want this to fizzle out,” Rogers said. “We want this to be here and to grow because it’s not only about talking about our issues, but also bringing in the University community so that they can understand as well, and become allies and help.”

The athletic department has moved toward embracing and fostering environments of anti-racism since June. It created the AU Athletics Anti-Racism Education Collective this summer, held roundtable discussions on racial injustice, and also joined the Patriot League’s Anti-Racism Commission. In July, Patriot League women’s basketball players publicly launched a social justice coalition, which Sanders is a part of. While the consensus is that these are all steps in the right direction, many Black student-athletes, including Prepetit, say there is still much more work to be done. 

“Our athletic department is doing what they can do in terms of making sure they are taking the right steps,” Prepetit said. “I am really happy this is all happening because I think this is going to really force us to actually make some changes within AU.”

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