Where things go from here: Next steps for WU BLAC
This article is the second in a two part-series about the Washington University Black Letterwinning Athletes Coalition. The first article explored Black athletes’ feelings of isolation, WU BLAC’s roots on campus and the organization’s efforts to foster community. That article can be found here.
Organizing Zoom calls and creating spaces for Washington University’s Black student-athletes have been steps in the right direction, but they are just the start of WU BLAC’s work. There are numerous other initiatives that the organization’s members have posited to help address issues of isolation, racism and the need for on-campus support, and they have continued to collaborate with the Athletic Department to see the implementation of changes.
Director of Athletics Anthony Azama stressed how, since he arrived at the University in 2017, there has been a shift in the Athletic Department’s overall approach. “I think what student-athletes will tell you is that they’ve seen a change since my arrival that really is focused on the student-athlete experience,” he said. From instituting expanded diversity, equity and inclusion training for administrators and coaches to the creation of a student-athlete experience task force a year and a half ago, he says the department had been working to address places where Wash. U. athletics does not live up to its mission.
But he agreed that there is still significant room for improvement, and WU BLAC’s suggested reforms are already taking shape throughout the department.
Since WU BLAC launched in the summer, members have been able to take a more active role in hiring processes. Junior Kameron Mack and senior Eka Jose, two WU BLAC executive board members, sat in on interviews with candidates for the open athletic trainer position and got to ask questions about how potential trainers would handle issues of diversity and inclusion. The department ended up choosing a white man for the position, but WU BLAC saw the process as a victory.
“Something [Mack and Jose] really liked about him was his dedication to diversity and that he wanted to meet with them often and figure out how he can make the athletic training part of the department… more diverse and inclusive,” said senior Caira Watson-Haynes, one of the WU BLAC co-presidents. “That the guy who was eventually hired was the person that the two [WU BLAC members] on that committee recommended says a lot about how much they do listen to the student-athletes.”
The administration is listening to student-athletes in other ways as well. The push to find and hire coaches and staff who have a commitment to diversity and inclusion mirrors an effort to bring more Black student-athletes and other student-athletes of color to the University. “[We are] enhancing our recruiting budget for our coaches so that they can get off the beaten bath and try to take a deeper dive in trying to diversify the pool,” Azama said. Azama is also working with the University’s Office of Student Success to start an NCAA-compliant student-athlete opportunity fund to support low-income student-athletes.
Mack said that work to increase the number of Black student-athletes on campus was a necessary aspect of what WU BLAC is trying to do. “You can do a lot of initiatives with diversity and inclusion, but to truly make people feel welcome, you need people who look like you in that space,” he said. “We have to recruit more Black student-athletes.”
Yet supporting Black student-athletes does not stop the second they set foot onto campus. The WU BLAC members explained that the focus on creating a better experience for them should highlight retention as well as things like recruitment.
One of the key aspects of that retention is providing expanded mental health resources for student-athletes. Watson-Haynes said that the University’s student-athletes generally have been campaigning for a sports psychologist and that WU BLAC members are hoping that the University would hire a Black sports psychologist. At the same time, she acknowledged that finding the funding for that position would be tough.
Azama said that simply adding a single sports psychologist would not be sufficient to support the University’s more than 500 student-athletes, so the Athletic Department is working with the Habif Health and Wellness Center to explore options when it comes to supporting student-athlete mental health. “I think mental health is a national crisis, and specifically in college sports, it’s something that we’re looking at very closely,” he said, explaining that the department is looking to find partnerships both on and off-campus. “At the end of the day, we all need tools to be able to deal with mental [health] challenges, especially now with the last 10 months that we’ve endured during this pandemic.”
While the department searches for options, WU BLAC is taking things into their own hands. The group is planning to bring in a Black mental health professional in the spring to speak about different coping mechanisms. “Where we can take things into our own hands and bring in our own speakers, that’s something we’re trying to do as an organization,” Watson-Haynes said.
WU BLAC has also planned other events for Black student-athletes. The group hosted a meeting on Nov. 4 with Dr. Brandon Roberts, a Black Wash. U. football alum who won the academic Heisman trophy and now works as a pediatric anesthesiologist in Ohio.
The goal of events like that one goes back to the desire to create a community for Black student-athletes. “It’s just putting a name to the Black faces on campus and letting Black student-athletes know that these are the people they can reach out to if they’re interested,” said junior Samantha Weaver, the WU BLAC communications chair. “It’s bringing those resources to students rather than them having to go search it out themselves.”
In addition to events for Black student-athletes already a part of the University community, WU BLAC is focused on fostering a better relationship between Wash. U. athletics and the St. Louis community more broadly.
“A lot of St. Louis residents don’t even know that Wash. U. has an athletic department or sports in general, which I find to be kind of crazy, because we are one of the top Division III schools in the nation,” Jose said. “Especially since [St. Louis] is somewhere with one, a great African American presence and two, somewhere where we’re spending four years of a very formative part of our lives, it doesn’t really make sense for us to be so separated from the community.”
WU BLAC members said that building more connections between Wash. U. athletics and the St. Louis community can happen in many ways. The group is working to establish partnerships with local organizations who can serve as liaisons between Wash. U. athletics and the broader community. They hope to eventually host events in the community and collaborate with the University to increase fan presence and awareness of Wash. U. athletics. “We want to be engaged with people and want the community to know that we’re here and we’re available,” Mack said.
Those efforts build upon work that has already gone on in the Athletic Department, which has had its own various initiatives to bridge the divide, from a program with Team IMPACT, an organization that connects children with chronic illnesses to college sports teams, to work with Normandy Middle School in St. Louis County. “It’s about engaging the community, specifically the youth, in a way that they look at Wash. U. not as an unapproachable school on the hill, but a school that they feel like they can attend and belong,” Azama said.
The work to address isolation and other negative aspects of Black student-athletes’ experiences at Wash. U. is far from over. But there has been progress, and doing that work has been a crucial part of WU BLAC members’ time at the University. During her freshman year, Watson-Haynes, one of the fastest hurdlers in all of Division III, almost left the track and field team. She told her coach that she was not sure whether she wanted to return to the team for the next season. If she did come back, she recalled explaining to the coach, it would be to create a support system for future Black athletes so that they would not have to experience what she did.
Each year, she came back. On the surface, it was her love of competition and for her teammates and coaches, but something deeper pulled her back as well. “What kept me coming back all four years was wanting to start this organization so I can form this community for Black student-athletes so they don’t feel isolated in their sport,” she said.
Now, years after Watson-Haynes and Jose started the work to create that community, their time at Wash. U. is running short. But Jose was optimistic that what the pair has done has at least gotten the ball rolling. “I’m definitely very optimistic,” she said. “Yes, it will take a while to accomplish or even roll out all the initiatives that we propose. It will definitely be beyond the semester and a half left that I have at Wash. U. and even maybe the time that the rest of the athletes on the exec board have at Wash. U. But eventually, I believe that everything will be executed.”