SportsMonday Column: Student-athletes are finding their voice

Sunday, August 30, 2020 - 4:02pm

Michigan defensive back Hunter Reynolds leads a student athlete BLM protest throughout Ann Arbor Sunday afternoon.

Michigan defensive back Hunter Reynolds leads a student athlete BLM protest throughout Ann Arbor Sunday afternoon. Buy this photo
Allison Engkvist/Daily

Tariq Speights has been a Black man in America for 20 years. That’s 20 years of living the pain inflicted by prejudice — the pain of living in a country where he never feels fully welcome, where he’s constantly judged by the color of his skin.

The pain, he says, has been a constant in his life. But on Sunday afternoon in Ann Arbor, Speights did something he never thought he’d have the chance to do.

He stood in the shadow of the Hatcher Graduate Library with a white megaphone in his left hand and began speaking.

“It doesn’t matter what we look like, what we do, where we come from,” Speights said. “Everyone can use their platform today.”

It’s a message aimed at everyone who, someday, may be in his shoes. On Sunday, hundreds gathered in the Diag in solidarity, hoisting signs and donning t-shirts with messages of support. Speights had been in groups like that before, protesting in his hometown of Santa Clarita, Calif. But he’d never been the one to take the megaphone and demand change.

Now, Speights, a linebacker at Eastern Michigan, sees his role changing in real time. And he sees that change because he’s a college athlete in a time when college athletes have an unprecedented voice, whether that’s fighting racial inequality or fighting for their rights as athletes.

“Any protest, any people standing up and speaking on what they care about is important, but for me, it hit a little different, it being student-athlete led and I’m a student-athlete,” Speights said of Sunday’s protest. “So yeah, that was huge and to see how many of my teammates, how many Michigan student-athletes came out, it’s big. Us student-athletes have a unique ability to be able to touch people. So being able to get people to come out for who we are and not as much of what we do is big.” 

Over the summer, college athletes’ voices dominated the landscape of American social media in a way they never had been before. When George Floyd was murdered by a Minneapolis police officer, college athletes spoke out, demanding change. When the Big Ten canceled fall sports, college athletes spoke out, demanding transparency from the conference. When other conferences threatened to follow suit, college athletes spoke out, demanding comprehensive safety protocol.

Six miles away from Speights’s Eastern Michigan, Hunter Reynolds was one of those athletes discovering his voice.

Reynolds, a senior cornerback at Michigan, understands the voice playing for the Wolverines gives him. Even as someone with limited playing time in his three years in Ann Arbor, he has the ingrained influence that comes with wearing the winged helmet.

“Due to social media, you’re just seeing it more because there’s been numerous incidents over the course of the summer where something’s happened and a player’s just tweeted something out and the tweet ends up with 50,000 likes and 10,000 retweets,” Reynolds told The Daily on Saturday night. “In 2005, if a college athlete spoke about something, they were really just limited to the local press.”

For Reynolds, that’s meant sharing the struggles he faces as a Black man in America in a way he never has before. This summer, he founded College Athlete Unity, a group of Michigan players demanding an end to racial injustice.

So when Speights reached out to him earlier this month with the idea of an athlete-led protest following the police shooting of Jacob Blake, an unarmed Black man in Kenosha, Wis., Reynolds knew there was a unique opportunity at hand.

“(Speights) felt it was important to host something where we keep the conversation going and let people know that Black men and Black women being killed by police isn’t normal,” Reynolds said. “Things shouldn’t just go on as normal. And he reached out to me and once he described what he wanted to do, I was all in for it.”

For other student-athletes at both Michigan and Eastern Michigan, the message resonated. Alexis Alston, a freshman on the Eagles’ soccer team, was one of them.

All summer, she had protested in her hometown of Amherst, Ohio. But as soon as she heard rumblings of Sunday’s protest, she knew it had the potential to be special.

“A lot of people are inspired and look up to college athletes and it’s important for them to also know they have a voice,” Alston said, walking down Liberty Street amid chants of No justice, No peace. “And people will listen to it. Coming from a college athlete, more people are bound to listen and take note of what they say.”

On Sunday, that was the message of the day. Really, for these athletes, it’s been the message of the summer. And watch out, Reynolds says, because the next time Michigan Stadium is packed with 110,000 people, it’s still going to be the message — even if he hasn’t decided what form that’s going to take.

“Anything that’s done, it’s seen by millions of people,” Reynolds said. “So due to that, any messaging that we have has an opportunity to fall upon many eyes.”

Four years ago, when Colin Kaepernick was blackballed by the NFL for kneeling during the national anthem, doing the same would have been unthinkable for most college athletes.

But on Sunday, Reynolds wore an image of Kaepernick kneeling, his afro replaced by the outline of a Black Lives Matter fist. And as he and so many other athletes made their voices heard, the unthinkable felt within reach.

Mackie can be reached at tmackie@umich.edu or on Twitter @theo_mackie.