Oftentimes athletes are treated as just that — athletes, and nothing more. But Monday night, a panel of Black athletes and experts on race in sports were given an hour and a half to just speak. Not about plays, practices or games, but about their experiences.

“Normally when you’re a football player, you get interviewed, but nobody really asks you questions about how you think but more just how you play, how you produce on the field,” sophomore defensive back Quinten Johnson said. “It was cool for somebody to really want to hear what else I have to say.”

TEDxUofM hosted the salon via Zoom, titling the event “Race in Sports: The Black Athletic Experience.” The four panelists included Johnson, professor of Sports Management and Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in the School of Kinesiology Dr. Ketra Armstrong, Sports Management Ph.D. Elena Simpkins and former Michigan volleyball player Elliot Brooks.

“I think especially with the omnipresent conversations with race that were happening, especially in those summer months, it was just pretty obvious to me that the only answer was to turn this platform into a series of ways to highlight the voices which don’t have a platform,” moderator and Community Engagement Lead at TEDxUofM Natalija Skoko said. “ … But we haven’t always been intentional (at TED) about the identities of the people who are hosting these conversations, so I just wanted to be more mindful of that this year.”

The moderated questions that began the panel touched on many topics including critical thinking of student athletes, the intersection of being a Black woman in sports, racial perceptions and stereotypes, cultural differences and struggles and the importance of Black athletes as role models. 

The panelists built off each other’s points, demonstrating the expertise and personal experience each have had, culminating in an accessible way to better understand the intersections being discussed. 

“These types of platforms are necessary to showcase our student athletes and change the narrative of who the Black student athlete is,” Armstrong said. “So we need more of these.”

With the audience questions that followed the moderated portion came even more positive discourse. From what appeared to be a primarily white audience came multiple questions about privilege, allyship and “seeing” color, all of which were met with insight and grace.

“Allyship, allyhood, accomplice, all of those things are very important,” Simpkins said. “It’s like … with great power comes great responsibility. So, it’s important that if you say that you are an ally, it’s important that you understand that ally is an action, it’s not a passive word. … You’re using whatever position that you have to bolster someone else.”

Added Armstrong: “Take a step back, check your own privilege. It takes courage to say ‘Oh, I don’t know.’ … Be gentle with yourself. Anybody who works in this space — be it from inside the community or outside the community — it’s hard. … We have to be willing to learn”

The panelists continued the discussion about their own experiences as well, and not only as athletes. 

Simpkins spoke on what it’s been like as a Black woman in a sports field. Men in her same program had aspirations of general manager and president, while women’s dreams were restrained to supplementary roles. It wasn’t that the women didn’t want to be general manager, but that it never felt within their reach, while to the men it was quite accessible, she said.

Despite being on a panel built for sharing, Brooks expressed her struggles with speaking up all the time.

It has at times been challenging to say what you truly feel,” Brooks said. “I always believe it’s important to be diplomatic. You always have to be aware of the space you’re in, the opinions that you’re giving.”

And part of that is the burden she held as a student-athlete: One where she is given a platform simply by being an athlete. Sometimes, it adds an unfair obligation to speak up when one might not want to or be able to.

“I do think that there is an unfair expectation for student-athletes to have to say something,” Armstrong said. “Not every student has the social consciousness that they want to bolster. It doesn’t mean that they’re not activists, but they’re activists in their own way behind the scenes.”

And while that may be true, that was not the case for the two student athletes that virtually sat beside Dr. Armstrong and Dr. Simpkins. In front of over 100 people, they spoke their truth and gave a voice to Black athletes that isn’t always given.

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