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College Sports: A Work in Progress

Each fall, Charmin Smith, head women’s basketball coach at University of California, Berkeley, welcomes three other Black female Division I head coaches and their teams to campus for the Raising the B.A.R. (Basketball Activism and Representation) Invitational. She rebranded Cal’s annual tournament to reflect a focus on social justice and equity.

It’s really important that we see Black women in this position of leadership as head coaches in our sport,” says Smith, who is co-chair of the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) Committee. “In my tournament, you’re always going to see four Black females leading their teams. We also highlight things they’re doing in their own communities and on their campuses to promote social justice.”

Smith acknowledges that much progress has been made since she was a student-athlete at Stanford University in the 1990s — notably DEI divisions in athletic departments — but most athletic staffs don’t reflect the student-athlete populations. “We still have an industry in which the people making the hires are predominantly white males,” she says.

Action taken

While there has been steady advancement over the past 40 years, the murder of George Floyd in 2020 has proven to be a seminal moment that has propelled student-athletes, coaches, and administrators to face issues of race and racism in college sports. As the Black Lives Matter movement mobilized after Floyd’s death, Black student-athlete groups were formed around the country that openly stated their issues and insisted that administration recognize their concerns.

Dr. Aaron Goodson, director of mental health and performance for Duke University Athletics, notes that Black student-athletes have long built community, but “in 2020, there was a demand in a lot of ways for it to be formally recognized.

“Saying, ‘I want [administration] to not only formally acknowledge but provide support for me and my peers to feel safe, comfortable, and valued,’” he says. “They were making demands and holding administration’s feet to the fire.”

Goodson says a key issue he and his department address is that student-athletes are typically ages 17 to 23, a crucial time of identity development. Among the things young people explore is how the world perceives them, which can be discouraging for people of color who feel like they are only valued for their athletic accomplishments.

“The sense of belonging, the sense of understanding self, and the questions about the implications of what that means for their life experience all come into play,” says Goodson, who works with students individually and in team settings.

Part of the demands that intensified in 2020 was the call to make athletic departments more diverse. Goodson says one of the actions that Duke took was to make more support available from mental health professionals of color. He says he also looks forward to collaborating with faculty on campus to pursue and publish research on issues related to student-athletes of color.

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