A time to be heard

IN THIS EXTRAORDINARY and pivotal time, Black student-athlete voices are emerging at Stanford.

They’re coming from Kyla Bryant and Wesley Stephenson of the women’s gymnastics team, and from football players Thomas Booker and Jacob Mangum-Farrar.

They come from soccer’s Kiki Pickett, basketball’s Jenna Brown, and track and field’s Yinka Braimah and Brielle Smith.

They join Maya Anne Crisencia Dodson, a senior on the Cardinal basketball team, as founders of CardinalBLCK, a community of Black student-athletes whose creation is another step toward securing recognition and accountability.

Dodson takes on that responsibility as a legacy of Carolyn Anne Dodson, and is proud to share a middle name with her grandmother.

A native of the potato farming town of Laurel, Delaware, Carolyn rose early on Aug. 28, 1963. She traveled across Maryland’s Eastern Shore, over Chesapeake Bay and into Washington, D.C., to join the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

She listened closely on that warm, humid day as Martin Luther King, Jr., from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, said to the 250,000 assembled in front of him, "I have a dream..."

It was a revelation that Maya was not aware of until recently, that her Nana, now experiencing dementia, had witnessed one of the most significant events in American history, as King called for civil and economic rights for Black Americans and an end to racism.

When CardinalBLCK (Brilliance, Leadership, Community, and Knowledge) introduced itself with a video describing its purpose and featuring the faces of its members, it was King who provided the narrative from his speech, "The Other America," given at Stanford’s Memorial Auditorium on April 14, 1967.

"We must realize that the time is always ripe to do right," King said, 10 days short of a year before he was shot and killed on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee.

King’s speech, about 45 minutes long, pondered how a nation so wealthy could have so much poverty. Systemic racism divided the country into two.

It was a time of combustion, much like today. The next few months would be known as the "Long, Hot Summer," when 159 race riots erupted throughout the nation. A year later, King’s death ignited the "Holy Week Uprising," the greatest wave of social unrest in the U.S. since the Civil War.

King looked weary that afternoon in Memorial Auditorium, and knew the country was a powder keg. King preached nonviolence and condemned rioting, but understood why the riots were happening and condemned the conditions Black Americans faced that fueled their rage.

"A riot is the language of the unheard," King said.

As unrest continues in reaction to the deaths and shootings of Black men and women at the hands of white police officers, voices from the Black community are amplified once again.

SHORTLY AFTER FLOYD’S death at the hands and knee of a white police officer in Minneapolis, Dodson felt isolated from other Stanford Black student-athletes who also were hurting. She searched the rosters of every team on campus and reached out, creating a group chat. It was meant "to be a space for people to feel supported, to know we’re not alone and that the best support is each other," she said.

"I am blessed to have other Black women on my team," Dodson said. "But that’s not the case on many other teams. Those Black student-athletes in predominantly white sports need support even more than I do."

They needed a strong message from Stanford Athletics to rally behind.

"We felt that Stanford Athletics needed to do a better job to provide public support surrounding the killings’ of Black lives and racial injustice," Dodson said. "We wanted to emphasize how much the Black student-athlete community was hurting and it was disheartening to feel like our institution was not living up to the promise to always be there to support and protect us.

"People look up to Stanford, and especially Stanford Athletics, to set the standard and we felt the standard needed to be raised."

Yinka Braimah, a jumper on the track team, wrote a letter to Bernard Muir, the Jaquish and Kenninger Director of Athletics, a prominent Black leader in the collegiate landscape. On behalf of a dozen Black student-athletes, Braimah expressed their feelings in what would be the first action of a group that would become CardinalBLCK.

In an open letter to the Stanford Athletics Family, Muir responded with a public statement describing his own stories of experiencing racism. It concluded with these paragraphs:

When I watched the violent arrest of George Floyd last week, my first thought was, that could be me. I was angry, scared and unsure. But I found my footing in talking with my daughters, engaging with our student-athletes and realizing that I didn’t have to have all the answers. I just had to be willing to listen and to lend my own voice to the cause.

Please know that I am here for all of you to listen, to comfort and to provide an outlet for your emotions. But I am also more committed than ever to using my platform and privilege to amplify the voices of those who are not being heard. Though much has changed in our country since my birth in Queens fifty-two years ago, some of the uglier elements of our society - including racism - have not. Let us all, no matter our differences, do our part to ensure that meaningful and lasting change happens. We are in this together.

Muir later said, "We realize we can do an even better job, within Stanford and in the broader community, just to celebrate diversity and inclusion even further. The student-athletes want to build on the sense of community, and take stances on social justice, and there’s an opportunity across all of the Pac-12 schools to really engage there."

Dodson and Kyla Bryant worked with Kristen Azevedo, the Assistant Athletics Director for Student-Athlete Development, to formalize CardinalBLCK. The timing was right in another way because Stanford Athletics had begun a process of giving student-athletes the opportunity to create their own community groups and this was an ideal use of that platform.

"It was eye-opening knowing that we need to move, we need to do something," Muir said. "(Deputy Athletics Director) Patrick Dunkley and I got on a call with the group and we talked it out. They felt the athletic department had been silent on an issue that was affecting Black student-athletes, as well as the community. They expected to hear from Stanford on issues like this. That’s where I realized, we really do need to come together and lend our voice."

The main goal of CardinalBLCK was in "creating an open dialogue surrounding racism and social injustice," Braimah said. "I want to see Stanford face racism head on and not overlook issues so clearly visible."

A Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee within Stanford Athletics, created by Melissa Stringer, Stanford’s Associate Athletics Director for Student Services, already was in the works. CardinalBLCK will work with the Diversity committee on a voter registration campaign, focusing on student-athletes while the committee works with staff.

Stringer would like to see Athletics duplicate the university’s "Brave Spaces" program, a self-described "virtual forum for staff from across campus to openly discuss the realities of inequality and anti-Black racism, and how to confront them."

Another area of need, many Black student-athletes have said, is racial sensitivity training for coaches, staff, and student-athletes. Too often, offensive comments go unnoticed, differences are not addressed, coaches do not invite conversation, and Black student-athletes feel alone.

"OUR MISSION IS to provide a safe space for Black student-athletes to connect, share, and foster a meaningful community that will support them long after their undergraduate experience is over," reads CardinalBLCK’s mission statement. "We endeavor to make a valuable impact not only on Stanford’s campus, but on a larger scale as well. CardinalBLCK realizes the power of our collective voices, and we strive to empower our Black student-athletes to use their influence in positive ways."

The reality of being Black at Stanford is battling perception. It is common for Stanford students of any race to question whether they belong at such a prestigious and selective university. But Black students encounter that twofold. Many feel they must overcome the idea they wouldn’t have made it if not for sports, or if not to fulfill a racial quota.

"It’s a real thing," said Howard Bryant, author and writer for ESPN.com, and a leading voice on race in sports. "There’s always some reason to deny Black people admission. And when they get into the corporate world, somebody in the office will say, ’They’re an affirmative action hire.’ There’s always some way to de-legitimize the Black presence.

"Because of that, players absolutely need to take advantage of this moment to expand their leverage. You’re in a position right now where people are finally listening to you. So, if you have something to say, say it. People are actually finally taking this seriously."

It can be difficult for white teammates to understand what a Black teammate goes through. Beyond the demands of athletics and academics, Black student-athletes often face the burden of being a spokesperson for their race, or in weighing whether to strike back at microaggressions that pummel them daily.

"When I see or experience racism and tell a non-Black peer about it, usually they desperately try to provide a ’non-racist’ justification for that individual’s actions when there is nothing to debate," Braimah said. "It could be something as straightforward as a non-Black peer saying the n-word, and people will try and defend their actions by telling me that they are otherwise a nice person and believe that should excuse their racism, which it does not."

At Game Faces, where Stanford student-athletes speak to an audience about their own mental-health challenges, Cardinal safety Frank Buncom described in 2019 a situation many Black individuals share, at Stanford and elsewhere.

After watching a women’s volleyball match at Maples Pavilion, Buncom and a Black football teammate stepped into an elevator at a parking garage and found themselves alone with a white woman in her 40s.

Buncom, who was wearing a hood, removed it and smiled to ease the woman’s obvious tension, and to help ensure his own safety in case she had a gun. The woman moved to the far corner while clutching her purse. When the door opened, she scurried quickly to her car, looking over her shoulder to make sure she wasn’t followed.

"Did you see that?" Buncom said.

"It’s a damn shame, bro," replied the teammate.

Buncom realized that even the small gesture of removing his hood for the woman’s comfort was an admission he was not being true to himself.

"I have always loved being Black and have strived to be ’unapologetically Black,’ a term that means not being sorry for who I am," he said. "I will no longer bottle myself up to ease one’s prejudices."

The incident reflects a larger problem in what is commonly referred to as "the Stanford bubble."

"Stanford students’ dedication and commitment to excellence hinders their ability to recognize some blatant problems in the university’s social climate," Braimah said. "Not a lot of people want to take responsibility or admit that they are a part of the problem. This narrow-mindedness has made having discussions with some peers difficult because a lot of people have an automatic defense response."

Dodson, who designed her own major of engineering and ethics, is rare in that she is a Black woman engineering major who has professional aspirations in her sport. She knows of no others at Stanford and previously considered a different major because she had no one to show her the way.

She credited an elective class in African & African American Studies - Global Black Feminism taught by Dr. Jamele Watkins - for helping her to feel confident in her choices.

"I don’t often see Black professors, let alone a Black woman," Dodson said. "The class opened my eyes to my identity as a Black woman."

Last spring, Dodson took a class called Mechanics of Materials under Joseph Towles. "It was my first time having a Black professor in a class for my major. At times, it can feel like engineering is not for someone who is Black, or for a woman.

"It reminded me that I belong."

Feelings of inclusion are crucial at a place where only 7% of undergraduates, 3% of graduate students, and 2% of faculty at the beginning of the 2019-20 term were Black. But should those reminders be necessary at all?

Kenneth Shropshire ’77, a Stanford economics graduate and football player, authored "The Miseducation of the Student Athlete" and described, in a 2017 Wharton School of Business podcast, the feeling of being Black and an outsider on his own campus:

"A bunch of African American guys largely from South Central Los Angeles, where Stanford was recruiting at the time, were all together one day and saw another one of our recruits with a group of white students coming out of class. This is the first time we saw somebody off on their own. He was coming out of a sociology class. I said, ‘What are you doing brother’’ He said, ’I’m assimilating.’ We joke about that to this day, the formality of the language that he used and the idea of how unique it was to integrate into this community that we had no familiarity with.

"That story recreates itself today... Do you integrate into the rest of the campus or not?"

INTEGRATION AND EQUALITY have been a process at Stanford, going back to its founding. Stanford’s first president, David Starr Jordan, was a proponent of eugenics, which aimed to improve the genetic composition of the human race largely through selective breeding.

Stanford did not have a Black athlete in the 20th century until basketball’s Eddie Tucker in 1950. The first Black football player, walk-on running back Tom Williams, played one season, in 1958. The first Black baseball player was current Arizona State Athletics Director Ray Anderson, in 1973 - 26 years after Jackie Robinson broke the major leagues’ color line.

When Morrison Warren, Stanford’s first successfully recruited Black football player, graduated in 1965, he was the only African American male in his class, with no acculturation or support system to help him along the way.

Warren, whose brother Kevin is Commissioner of the Big Ten, said his first Stanford practices were packed with spectators eager to see the novelty. The 1962 season opener at Tulane was to be Warren’s first varsity game, but no hotel in New Orleans would take a team with a Black player. Tulane offered its infirmary instead. Stanford could not guarantee his safety and ultimately left him behind.

It wasn’t until John Ralston took over as football coach in 1963 that Stanford began to actively recruit Black players. Ralston developed a relationship with admissions director Rick Snyder, helping convince the office to look at potential rather than solely academic achievement. Soon, Stanford began to diversify its student body. Within a decade, Stanford, with an influx of Black players, won two Rose Bowls, as the Stanford "Indians."

The racially-tinged nickname was made official in 1930 as a nod to football coach Pop Warner, who previously built the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, a boarding school built to assimilate Indigenous peoples into white culture, into a power.

By the Rose Bowl seasons of 1970 and 1971, students began to take offense at the Indian caricatures. For 20 years, Timm Williams, a member of the northwestern California’s Yurok tribe, danced on the sidelines as "Prince Lightfoot." He wore a headdress, chanted, and cast hexes at opponents. Stanford’s increasing number of Indigenous students were horrified. They organized the Stanford American Indian Organization to campaign against an Indians mascot.

In 1972, Stanford rid itself of "Indians," and is believed to be the first institution or organization - high school, college, or pro - to disavow an Indigenous-related name.

In 1989, Stanford made Dennis Green the first Black head football coach in today’s Pac-12 and was Stanford’s first Black head coach in any sport. From 2012-16, Stanford was the only major athletics department in the country with a Black athletics director, head men’s basketball coach and head football coach.

In 2016, Stanford’s Simone Manuel became the first Black woman to win an individual Olympic gold medal in swimming, in the 100-meter freestyle. In golf, alum Tiger Woods has broken an array of racial barriers in winning 15 major championships.

And going into his 10th season, David Shaw, the Bradford M. Freeman Director of Football, is Stanford’s winningest football coach, with an 86-34 (.717) career record. He is the longest-tenured Black head coach in the history of a Power Five program, and Stanford and Colorado are the only FBS programs to have had three Black head football coaches.

But Cardinal student-athletes believe Stanford can do better: Is having only two Black head coaches (Shaw and track and field director J.J. Clark) fair representation? Are there biases in recruiting, particularly in sports that are mostly white or hinge on finances for accessibility to top competition?

"Stanford’s never been a perfect place," Shaw said. "But it’s never been a stagnant place either. We’re always looking to improve and get better in everything we do.

"I know the lines of communication are open. Our leadership - President Marc Tessier-Lavigne and Provost Persis Drell - wants to hear from our faculty, staff, and our students. Not everything that students ask for they’re going to get, but at the same time, they have an opportunity to influence the direction."

No Stanford football player is known to have kneeled during the National Anthem, but Shaw has nothing against it as long as they have a well thought-out reason.

"I will hear them and give them guidance and encourage them to use their voice," Shaw said. "But I also encourage them to be educated. I encourage them to do some reading and research. So, if you’re going to make a public statement, you can actually back it up, to say, ’This is why I believe what I believe.’"

Dodson said she feels she would be supported by her coaches if she decided to kneel. She also feels that white teammates need to kneel alongside her. Race is, after all, a human problem, not solely a Black problem, and institutions are not going to change unless students demand it. To not do anything should no longer be an option.

"As an African American at Stanford, you have to speak for yourself because sometimes you won’t be spoken for otherwise," said basketball All-American Chiney Ogwumike ’14, a WNBA player and ESPN national radio host, in a 2017 interview.

"A lot of African American students have strong voices, because it’s required. It’s not like you can walk casually down campus and think that everything is going to be what you think it is. You have to enact it through your voice.

"Racism is everywhere. People have low expectations, and then you start talking and they get another idea of what’s going on. That’s what you get overall. Race isn’t a problem at Stanford, it’s a problem of people."

Ogwumike felt her Stanford experience "was positive because we have so many professors and students who want to dissect racial identity in ways that we can make society better. That’s one of the strongest impressions I had at Stanford, that we have a lot of staff who are willing to make the world a better place."

One of those was Tara VanDerveer, Stanford’s Setsuko Ishiyama Director of Women’s Basketball who heads into her 35th season as the Cardinal’s head coach.

ON APRIL 29, 1992, rioting erupted in Los Angeles when four LAPD officers were acquitted on charges of excessive force in the arrest of Rodney King, whose beating was videotaped and widely circulated on television.

Not only did anger boil up in L.A., but in the Black communities of East Palo Alto and East Menlo Park. VanDerveer had a strong connection to those communities, creating an informal big sister partnership with kids at the Onetta Harris Community Center in East Menlo Park that involved clinics, holiday parties, tutoring, basketball, and just talking. When Stanford reached the 1992 NCAA championship game, a busload of kids from Onetta Harris came to L.A. to watch Stanford win its second title in three years.

As the riots escalated, VanDerveer and her sister, Heidi, headed to Onetta Harris. The center became a gathering place for youths who did not know what to do. Some threatened to vandalize downtown Palo Alto and Stanford Shopping Center, others were just angry and frustrated and did not know how to harness it.

VanDerveer talked to them, listened and sympathized, and even brought out the basketballs. The center became not only a gathering place, but a safe place. The late Aaron Johnson, then director of the Onetta Harris Center, credited VanDerveer for protecting the kids and helping the community at a time of crisis.

The seven shots fired into the back of an unarmed Black man, Jacob Blake, by police on Aug. 23 in Kenosha, Wisconsin, provoked similar outrage.

In the days that followed, Nneka Ogwumike ’12, Chiney’s sister and also an All-American under VanDerveer, toggled between phone calls and Zoom meetings as president of the WNBA Players’ Association trying to figure out a response that was fair to her players and forceful in impact.

The Milwaukee Bucks were the first major professional sports team to strike in protest of police brutality and racial injustice and the rest of the NBA followed. Major League Baseball and Major League Soccer postponed some of its contests. But in no league was the call for justice so united as in the WNBA.

Ogwumike, a Stanford psychology graduate, spoke to players, administrators, and union reps. Some wanted to play, some didn’t, but Ogwumike kept the conversations alive until every player and every team agreed to take a stand.

On sports’ day of reckoning, the WNBA stood tallest, and it was Ogwumike, the daughter of Nigerian immigrants and a ninth-year forward for the Los Angeles Sparks, who brought the league together.

"With our platform there’s so much more that we feel that we can do to create some serious change," Ogwumike said to ESPN’s Holly Rowe.

Ogwumike addressed all the players gathered in the WNBA bubble in Bradenton, Florida. She also spoke to them at a candlelight vigil, encouraging them to speak from their own hearts. For the next day or two, she answered questions on the national news. Ogwumike did exactly what was needed.

"The players in the WNBA recognize an authentic person when they see one," VanDerveer said. "Nneka is an incredibly unselfish team player. Really mature, a really caring person. She is an absolute Stanford treasure. To see what she’s doing now, we’re proud of her."

With our platform there’s so much more that we feel that we can do to create some serious change.
Nneka Ogwumike to ESPN’s Holly Rowe

TO BE BLACK in America is to live with rage. It can simmer, but returns with every atrocity, and melts into fatigue. Dreams are repeatedly shattered. However, there always must be hope.

Twelve days after Floyd’s death, Dodson joined a multi-racial crowd of 900 in front of Georgia’s Forsyth County Courthouse to protest racial injustice.

Dodson understood the significance of that peaceful afternoon in Cumming, Georgia, in light of the region’s loathsome racial history. In 1912, 1,098 Black residents were forced out of Forsyth County almost overnight by mobs who committed a series of lynchings and pillaged properties. In 1987, Black people and white people alongside each other in a "walk for brotherhood," were jeered and pelted by rocks and bottles.

For decades, Forsyth was among the most racist counties in the country. Citizens took pride in the claim that no Black people lived within its borders. As late as 1980, the U.S. Census Bureau recorded one Black resident. In 1997, there were only 39.

Today, there are 6,370 Black residents of Forsyth County, including Dodson’s parents, who moved there in recent years. Maya, who has opted out of this season, has been living in Forsyth County during the COVID-19 pandemic.

With Dodson in attendance, there were no incidents at a June 6 protest on the same streets that Black people were vilified not long ago. On a tiny scale, the "I Have a Dream," speech that Carolyn Anne Dodson long ago witnessed in Washington, D.C., seemed just a bit closer to reality.

Less than two months later, Blake was shot. The cycle never seems to end.

Though frustration and anguish is ever-present, there are those who remain determined to take steps forward. By doing so, they shoulder the burden of so many others before them. A group of Stanford’s Black student-athletes are taking those steps.

"It’s not time to be scared," Maya Dodson said. "We have to capitalize on the moment."

That’s why, at Stanford and elsewhere, change draws a little bit closer.

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