Student athletes at the University of Nebraska are pushing for more diverse leadership in athletics using the social media hashtag #LegacyOverImage.
The campaign, which started last Thursday, calls for closing the gap between minority student athletes and minority athletics staff within five years, lessening the disparity by 50% in three years.
“The student-athlete minority population is significantly higher than the staff minority population,” student athletes wrote in a statement circulating on Twitter. “This leads to the isolation and tokenization of minority staff within their respective departments.”
Starting in the fall semester, student athletes requested that the university hire people of color as senior administrators, coaches and psychologists, as well as staff with hiring power.
The school’s student newspaper, The Daily Nebraskan, reported that the university currently has one minority head coach, Pablo Morales, who coaches swimming and diving. The University of Nebraska hasn’t had a Black coach since it opened in 1869.
Student athletes also asked the university to offer modules on racial injustice for incoming freshmen, make a public statement in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, donate 0.5% of athletics proceeds to local Black-owned businesses and annually release gender and racial diversity breakdowns for Nebraska athletics.
To commemorate the school’s Black athletic history, they called for a memorial to George Flippin, the university’s first Black football player, who was denied a captain position by his coach in 1893. Students proposed that Flippin’s picture be included in the university stadium alongside former captains.
“Having difficult conversations is an important step in our effort to be anti-racist,” the student athletes’ statement reads. “It is essential that we follow up on our conversations and promises with action. The motto ingrained on our Memorial Stadium states, ‘Not the victory but the action: Not the goal but the game: In the deed the glory.’ This is our deed as Nebraska student-athletes.”
This movement at the University of Nebraska follows a wave of activism in college sports this summer. In June, student athletes at the University of Texas made a similar list of demands, including the renaming of campus buildings, contributions to Black-owned businesses and an outreach program to Texas inner cities. Auburn University football players joined their local Black Lives Matter protest. More than 60 University of Missouri football players knelt for eight minutes and 46 seconds – the amount of time a police officer knelt on George Floyd’s neck – and marched to register to vote.
Dr. Richard Lapchick, director of The Institute for Diversity & Ethics in Sport, said student organizing by athletes could have “an enormous impact.”
He’s also the chair of the University of Central Florida’s DeVos Sport Business Management Graduate Program and the president of the Institute for Sport and Social Justice – and he’s been calling for more diversity in college sports for decades. He sees student athletes now recognizing their potential as leaders for racial justice.
“I think that other Black students on campus are going to be looking to them,” he said, “because they know [student athletes’] voices will be heard more than the typical Black student on campus, and they’re empowered.”
A civil rights activist since the 1970s, Lapchick witnessed “pockets” of athlete student activism over the years but never a wave like this. Not only are athletes – in college and otherwise – calling for change, but sports fans are responding, he added, citing a recent marketing research study by Nielsen Sports. The report found that 70% of sports fans in the U.S. support the Black Lives Matter movement, and 59% expect athletes to help advance the cause.
“This is a whole new ball game in America,” he said, and a ripe time for college sports to get on board.
But college athletics has a long way to go in his view. Lapchick’s institute gives diversity report cards to athletics institutions, and the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s (NCAA) overall grade has hovered at C+ since at least 2016.
“I chair a program in graduate school where if you get anything below a B, it’s considered a failure,” Lapchick said. “If you get two grades below a B, then you’re out of the program. To have the Cs that college sport has been getting over such a long period of time is very disappointing, especially for someone whose been in higher education for 50 years now. I would’ve thought that we would be where our ideals sit and live.”
But he thinks there are many ways to change that. He recommends colleges encourage student athlete activism and civic engagement by getting them registered to vote, suspending athletic activities on election day, celebrating Juneteenth and putting some game proceeds toward anti-racist causes. He’d also like to see colleges honor Black athletics history on campus through history exhibits and athletic facility names. Plus, he wants athletics leaders – in college departments and conference offices – to be prepared to talk about race with their athletes through diversity and inclusion training.
On a conference level, Lapchick is advocating for the NCAA to adopt a rule, like the West Coast Conference has, which requires each member school to include one underrepresented candidate in its hiring pool for any athletic director, head coach, senior administrator or full-time assistant coach position.
“Sports is so important to us as a country,” he said. “We’re going to be a better institution of higher education if we listen to those voices and change our practices to make them more diverse and inclusive on our campuses and use the possibility that athletes have as leaders to make an impact.”
Sara Weissman can be reached at email@example.com