Current and former student-athletes at the University of Wisconsin wrote letters to UW Athletics asking to make the institution a more diverse and inclusive environment for staff and students.
Hanna Barton and Banke Oginni, former track and field throwers who graduated in 2019, co-authored a statement to the athletics department administration and coaching staff. They posted it to social media June 8, asking fellow student-athletes to sign the letter on Change.org.
The original statement asked the athletic department to donate to local organizations to support the Black Lives Matter movement and Black communities, evaluate the relationship between UW Athletics and UWPD and to educate themselves on “America’s history of injustice towards Black people.”
“As long as white people and organizations continue to benefit from, and turn a blind eye to, our current unjust systems, institutions like UW Athletics will be complicit in the issues troubling our local communities,” the letter said.
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Oginni and Barton said in order to dismantle systemic racism both in UW Athletics and the community as a whole, members of the athletic department need to make changes within themselves. They said UW Athletics also needs to continually listen to the Black community to address specific concerns as they arise.
While Barton and Oginni are no longer student-athletes, both are still close to the campus community, and Barton is currently a PhD student at UW. Barton said if she was still an active athlete, she would have had reservations about speaking up to the athletics administration.
Oginni said other students and student-athletes responded positively to the letter.
“The response was generally super positive, and when we posted that we were in the works of something on social media [we] got a bunch of DMs … saying that [other athletes] were more than happy to share information and send it to their other teammates,” Oginni said. “They were happy that Hanna and I started this … so to me, I’m interpreting it as they wanted to do something like this, but maybe they didn’t feel comfortable enough.”
The petition online, entitled #ForeverForward, has nearly 3,000 signatures as of July 2. UW Athletics Director Barry Alvarez responded to the letter June 10 in a statement reiterating his support for the Black Lives Matter movement. Alvarez said the Athletic Department is committed to making changes moving forward.
Alvarez said the UW Athletics Department was one of the first in the country to add a Director of Diversity and Inclusion — currently, Sheridan Blanford holds the position. Alvarez also wrote about the addition of former student-athlete Michael Jackson to the senior administrative team.
Oginni said while they appreciated Alvarez’ response to their letter, she, Barton and other student-athletes felt it was the “bare minimum.”
“In our first letter we talked about the responsibility not being on the Black staff or the student-athletes in these organizations to lead the charge — we wanted to see what the administration was going to do,” Oginni said. “But Barry’s letter was more like … ‘Oh look we hired Michael Jackson’ who’s the first Black senior administer, to my knowledge, and then it’s like ‘hey look, we have Sheridan Blanford’ who’s one of the only prominent Black women [in the department].”
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Oginni said they had hoped for clear and concrete actions from UW Athletics on how they were going to make changes within the organization. Barton said it is important that conversations on race and inclusion don’t become a one-time occurrence, and continue long term.
While Barton said she was proud Alvarez shared his support for the Black community early following the death of George Floyd, UW Athletics needs to do more.
Oginni and Barton, with the help of rising senior and rower Rebecca Kite, wrote a follow-up letter to Alvarez and the Athletics Department, which Kite said would help hold the administrators responsible for making long term changes.
“The point of the first letter and the follow-up letter is to say we need to make a sustained effort on this and it’s not about looking good and covering your bases,” Barton said.
In the second letter, Barton, Oginni and Kite asked the administration to have a continued presence at meetings of the Minority Student Athlete Union, Student Athletes Equally Supporting Each Other and the Student Athlete Advisory Committee.
These organizations connect student-athletes with each other, and SAAC serves a legislative branch for student-athlete life, Oginni said.
The follow-up letter said administrators need to be present at meetings when discussing racial inequality in order to understand and be aware of the challenges athletes are facing.
“You never really see administration show up to those kinds of meetings,” Kite said. “In terms of how they are representing themselves to their athletes, off-paper is just as important as on-paper.”
Senior Associate Athletic Director Justin Doherty said in an email to The Badger Herald that administrators have had a presence at meetings for MSAU, SAESO and SAAC in the past. Administrators also consulted these organizations for input on the department’s response to George Floyd’s death.
Additionally, Doherty said students can give feedback to the administrator assigned to their sport and during annual student-athlete experience surveys. Doherty said student-athlete input is welcomed and encouraged.
“UW Athletics has been placing an emphasis on including diverse voices and supporting student-athletes of color, but more work is to be done,” Doherty said. “It will be important for the department to listen and intentionally create an environment where student-athletes of color feel safe and welcome.”
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In the second letter, Oginni, Barton and Kite wrote addressing racism within an institution is an ongoing challenge, one they said they hope UW keeps moving “forever forward” on. They asked the athletic administrators to be public about their actions on this issue and to continue to keep an open dialogue.
Doherty said communicating this issue publicly is a goal for the department and that UW Athletics aspires to be a leader in supporting student-athletes of color.
“I’m ready to fight,” Oginni said. “I’m ready to keep chuggin’ along and hopefully get more athletes on board. I’m ready for however long it takes … to just make Wisconsin a place that people are proud of, especially people of color.”