Taiya Shelby wanted to capitalize on the moment.
In late May of that year, Vanderbilt officially chose Candice Lee as its athletic director. Four days later, George Floyd was killed by a Minneapolis police officer in a horrifying act that spurred demonstrations around the world, catalyzing a wave of protest, pushback and reflection.
In the weeks after Floyd’s killing, college athletes joined the swaths of people pushing for justice and equality. Many marched and mobilized, and some created campus and even nationwide coalitions with ambitions of inspiring change. With newfound support from the school administration, Vanderbilt’s group launched shortly thereafter, infusing its hopes of establishing a community with a commitment to social justice and expanded voting access among its core pillars.
Three years after Floyd’s death May 25, 2020, after many of the student-athletes who led those initial efforts graduated, a new generation has refashioned those groups. While some athletes then spoke about sweeping change, many now have refocused on narrower goals such as mental health, empowerment and creating support systems to uplift one another. While the objectives of many of these organizations have shifted, their ability to make a lasting impact for young Black athletes endures in different forms.
“The [Vanderbilt] group became more community building than community service or education,” said Shelby, the outgoing president of the university’s Black Student Athlete Group, which in the past two years has de-emphasized activism in favor of uplift.
“I’m at a predominantly White institution, and there aren’t many conversations about what’s really going on in the world, and I don’t even know for my own sake. So to have a community and know that I can go somewhere on this campus and feel safe was important to me because a lot of times people — well, I know I — didn’t always feel that every place I went was a safe space.”
Early energy, then a shift
Heading into the fall of 2020, the Black Student Athlete Group’s priorities were more expansive.
After a summer of peaceful marches, anti-racist reading lists and “tough conversations” about race, some of the group’s earliest members wanted to move from spreading awareness to taking action. With the November elections upcoming, they focused on increasing local turnout and removing hurdles to voting.
That September, the group helped organize a registration drive that signed up more than 200 voters. It later hosted open sessions during which students could learn about the basics of voting, and it arranged for the school to use a pair of student shuttles to transport students to polling stations on Election Day.
The group’s initial actions accompanied a wave of student-athlete activism and mirrored similar groups that emerged at schools across the country after Floyd’s death.
Hunter Reynolds and his University of Michigan football teammates spearheaded the creation of College Athlete Unity, an advocacy group featuring athletes from across the country that, among other efforts, marshaled Big Ten football players to demand the conference and the NCAA provide better safety protocols.
University of California Santa Barbara soccer player Evann Smith collaborated with her teammates and athletes from San José State to create Athletes4CHNGES. The group organized a run to try to raise $1,000 to donate to Black Lives Matter, encouraging student-athletes around the country to run, walk, bike or swim 8.46 miles to acknowledge the 8 minutes 46 seconds a police officer initially was thought to have knelt on Floyd’s neck. They raised nearly $80,000.
“In the first hour, we raised like $3,000,” Smith said. “I remember the day of the run I was crying tears of joy because I’d never done something that brought so much passion out of me.”
Since then, the same emotions that prompted the initial protests — sadness, anger, frustration — exhausted many college athletes as some of the animating issues shifted out of national focus.
Leaders of Black college athlete groups said their members grew disengaged with “redundant” or saddening conversations about police brutality and systemic racism. They also faced their own day-to-day issues with racism, dismissiveness and isolation amid busy schedules that made organizing in any form an additional chore. Furthermore, the departure of upperclassmen who led many of those early initiatives left a void in direction and leadership.
The response at some schools was to re-center Black athletes and focus more exclusively on building up communities and safe spaces.
“I think creating an outlet was a very natural response,” said Deja Chambliss, a gymnast and the outgoing president of George Washington’s Black Student-Athlete Alliance. “We started with those very ambitious goals, you know? We want to change the world with this group. But Black athletes, Black individuals, are tired. And so it became an outlet to just talk about your feelings: ‘How are you doing? What do you need in this moment?’ We worked so hard to make a change, we also found ourselves no longer focusing on what we needed.”
At Vanderbilt, Shelby found the Black Student Athlete Group’s reinvention to be an enjoyable challenge. After Black athletes were siloed from other teams, let alone the fuller student population, Shelby and her leadership group worked to build bonds by hosting or planning events to connect members with other athletes and Black students on campus, as well as those at Nashville’s four historically Black institutions. They also requested more Black personnel be hired across the athletic department.
The Black Student Athlete Group hosts a scavenger hunt for new students designed to help them learn about Black athletes and figures in Vanderbilt’s history. Its meetings feature discussions about athlete activism and navigating player-coach relationships. It also hosts other events, including a fall block party, a sneaker ball and a year-end award ceremony to highlight the achievements of Black athletes.
“There’s been a very big shift in our programming,” track athlete Haley Bishop, the group’s incoming president, said of its social events. “… It helps us get our numbers up, but it is hard to balance education with having fun and being a safe space.”
Some success, some struggles
As athletes at schools such as Vanderbilt continue to chart their path forward, athletes at a handful of other schools benefit from significant support from their universities, using that cooperation to strive for a seat at the table.
Leaders of B.L.U.E.print (which stands for “Black Leaders who Undertake Excellence”), an athlete-led group formed in August 2020 at Texas A&M, credit the school’s athletic director, Ross Bjork, for backing its efforts.
The group hosts monthly forums, educational sessions and events, including a September gathering open to all Texas A&M athletes to educate them on name, image and likeness issues. The following month, it hosted a more exclusive conversation for Black athletes about mental health and another about financial literacy.
“I really just go back to our mission statement, and that is to create a safe space for Black student-athletes at a predominantly White institution. While we’re doing that, we like to educate, equip and empower our members who come to our monthly meetings,” said Chase Lane, a football player who was the group’s president before he transferred to Georgia Tech.
“We do have division [at Texas A&M], but A&M has done a tremendous job giving us support, just being open and being open-minded to our ideas. Back in August, we wanted to see more initiatives here on campus, especially in the athletic department. [Bjork] and his staff created the Aggie Initiative, and now we have faculty and student-athletes who sit on different boards and meet every month. We’ve hired diversity, equity and inclusion managers and things of that nature. We have Black psychiatrists now in the student-athlete engagement department.”
While groups at some universities are thriving and others are evolving, a handful have not lasted.
College Athlete Unity, the group founded by Reynolds and his Michigan teammates, was meant to continue beyond their college years, but the group became inactive after he and other founding members transferred. Smith, who helped found the UCSB-San José State coalition, said the group later held a voter education campaign and a run to support Black transgender and gender-nonconforming people, but it went defunct in early 2021.
“We just didn’t work as people together. We were passionate all the way through, but I think there was maybe too much passion, if that makes sense,” Smith said, declining to elaborate.
Among the groups that remain, many students cited the Black Student-Athlete Summit as a driving force in the growth or redefinition of their organizations.
University of Texas history professor Leonard Moore started the event in 2015 as a gathering for Black professionals who interact with college athletes, such as university staff and athletic department personnel. After increasing demand, he expanded its programming three years later to accommodate student-athletes.
This year’s event, held this week in Los Angeles, included networking sessions, a talent show and a “corporate pro day” that allowed participants to mingle with former college athletes who work in fields ranging from politics and health care to content creation and community activism. Moore said event participation has steadily grown, with more than 500 college athletes attending last year’s event in Houston and more expected this year.
“We want them to maximize their opportunities on campus,” Moore said of Black college athletes. “To us, that means studying abroad, getting engaged in undergraduate research opportunities, finding a mentor, getting an internship. We tell these young folks, ‘You have an amazing opportunity to — excuse this expression — pimp out that scholarship.’ ”
The summit swayed LSU students in 2022 to breathe new life into a then-fading Black athlete group on campus. A Clemson track athlete attending that year learned about a group at Texas that pushed the school to allocate athletics funding to nonprofits chosen by athletes, motivating her to start building a group on her campus. The summit’s 2020 iteration planted the seed that grew into Vanderbilt’s group, after Floyd died and the university got behind the idea.
Moore is grateful these groups have emerged over the past few years. He partly sees their proliferation — and their general shift toward communal uplift — as a reflection of the disconnect and mistrust that some students have with university leaders.
“Too often, some athletic directors have this old-school mentality that these kids are privileged to be here. But your school recruited them; you asked them to come to the institution,” he said. “I tell athletic directors, ‘You’ve got to have these conversations with these kids, and it has to be an ongoing conversation — it can’t just be reactionary.’ I think the good athletic directors are meeting with their Black athletes once a month. And doesn’t that make sense if they’re the lifeblood of your department?”
That some of these groups have swapped statements about sweeping change for a commitment to self-care and local impact is reasonable and appropriate to Moore.
“Asking 18-, 19-, 20-year-olds to take up that fight is a lot. I think getting them politically active on any level is sort of a step in the right direction,” he said. “We often place way too much burden and responsibility on athletes. They have a very short shelf life as student-athletes, so I don’t think they need to be out leading social justice campaigns.”
At Vanderbilt, members of the Black Student Athlete Group are focused on ensuring future classes have access to what they created. Its founders want incoming athletes to know they have an outlet and a community.
“I don’t want this to be something that starts, then ends a few years later — especially since a lot of these groups and the initiative from the group is rooted in social inequity and the killing of George Floyd,” Shelby said. “I don’t want it to be: ‘This was necessary in that moment, and it’s not necessary now.’ I think it will always be necessary to have the group.”