Somehow, Ben Stille found himself on a stage in front of Memorial Stadium’s east entrance with women’s basketball coach Amy Williams, track junior Sadio Fenner and several other Husker student-athletes.
A friend involved in Nebraska’s recently created Minority Student-Athlete Collective had asked him to come speak. The group, MSAC, was holding a rally to bring awareness to police brutality and racial injustices. Stille, a nearby Ashland native, told a crowd full of athletes from just about every team Nebraska has to offer that he didn’t understand what white privilege was until getting to Lincoln.
“I don’t necessarily love public speaking, but when it’s something that’s important to me, I felt like it was something I should do,” Stille said. “I was just always raised to stand up for what I think is right, even if it doesn’t directly affect me.”
Lots of that went on this summer.
DaWon Baker, the Diversity and Inclusion Director at Nebraska, opened the proceedings. Fenner spoke. Williams did, too, about what her and her family have faced because her skin is white and her husband’s is black. Her point guard, Sammi Haiby, asked her to be part of the rally. “It was an incredible honor,” Williams said.
On that stage were some of Nebraska’s loudest voices this summer for social justice reform. With the help of Baker’s department, Nebraska has been working behind the scenes and in Zoom lobbies to make sure its athletes feel heard.
Williams volunteered for the Big Ten’s Anti-Hate and Anti-Racism Coalition, formed earlier this summer. Men’s basketball head coach Fred Hoiberg did as well. The conference only asked that at least two student-athletes from each of the league’s 14 universities serve as representatives.
Since its formation in June, anywhere from 70 to 100 people have regularly logged in for the monthly Zoom calls to discuss ways to enact change throughout the conference.
“I think what’s been very good to see is just the sheer number of individuals who are No. 1 interested in this work, and No. 2 committed to coming to the meetings,” Baker said.
Representatives from Nebraska include Williams, Hoiberg, Baker, Fenner, Chancellor Ronnie Green, Deputy Athletic Directors John Johnson and Pat Logsdon, volleyball junior Kayla Caffey, softball junior Courtney Wallace, wrestling head coach Mark Manning, and former baseball player Shawn Buchanan.
That group will talk amongst each other occasionally, but rarely in any kind of formal setting. The bulk of the work being done in the Big Ten’s coalition is in the various subcommittees that have formed.
There are five, and coalition members are split up between them.
- Inclusion: actionable strategies to drive inclusivity on different campuses.
- PR: messaging and communication.
- Education: looking specifically at not just educating student-athletes on college campuses, but finding ways to help before college.
- Institutional partnership: Looking at how the Big Ten conference can partner with different organizations that are driving these efforts and bring some of those efforts to the conference.
- Community engagement: Programing for communities compared to institutional partners.
Baker is on the inclusion subcommittee. Fenner is on the education one. There’s lots of coordination still needed, Baker says.
“It’s going to take a little bit longer than I anticipated, but I think anything that’s worth doing is worth doing the right way, and if it takes longer then so be it,” he said. “I’m hopeful we’ll be able to get some conference-wide initiatives pushed out in the near future.”
One thing that’s been encouraging is the shift in dynamic between student-athlete and coach.
“I would definitely say I was a little intimidated at first,” Fenner says. “Obviously there’s that power dynamic between coaches and the athletes, just because you’re supposed to look up to your coaches and they’re supposed to, more or less, have all the answers for you.
“But, I think what I’ve liked since being on this commission, everybody has a different perspective and everybody has something to bring to the table. … The thing I’ve been told is that they’re here for us.”
Baker specifically remembers Williams coming to him to ask about turning the Devaney Center into a polling place, an idea suggested by a student-athlete. The dynamic, at least within the coalition, is completely different. The athletes have just as much of a voice at the table as the adult.
What’s been most encouraging so far from Nebraska’s perspective is the adults’ response.
“I think it’s nice for any of our coaches, but especially (Hoiberg and Williams) just because I know what comes with being not just a head coach but a head coach for men’s basketball, women’s basketball, volleyball, football, etc. because the time demands and the schedule demands are usually very, very strenuous,” Baker said. “It has been extremely positive for me to see that our coaches are paying attention to this thing and that this wasn’t something that as a conference we were told to do, this is all voluntary from our perspective.”
Added Fenner: “It’s really empowering when you have one of these bigger figures stepping up and saying something. At the Division I level, and especially here at Nebraska, you have a platform to speak on and some people choose not to use it out of fear of what people are going to think.”
Hoiberg was the first at Nebraska to make a public statement after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis this summer. Hoiberg had spent parts of his basketball career both as a player and as an executive in Minnesota with the Timberwolves; this felt more personal than expected.
“As the head coach of incredible young black men, I know I have a job to do to help them grow on and off the court," Hoiberg wrote back in May. “I have told them that we are all back together in the coming days, I will have a team meeting that will allow us to come together to find ways to make positive change. We all have a role in this and for me, I plan on doing whatever I possibly can to protect and support my players through these tragic times.”
Williams issued her statement a day later.
“I have felt sadness, anger, disbelief, frustration, and fear,” she wrote. “I have cried a lot of tears, prayed a lot, but mostly I have been listening. Listening to my husband describe how he feels when he is the subject of unjust suspicion. Listening to some of my best friends describe the fear they have raising their beautiful black sons in today’s world. Listening to the players I have been blessed to coach discuss their experiences as black women living among today’s injustices. Listening to my daughters ask questions about what the color of their skin could cause them to face in their futures.
“I will continue to have difficult conversations about the social injustices that exist in our world. I will do all I can to lead for change. I will continue to pray for those I love and for all people to feel safe and valued.”
They were, collectively, as powerful as anyone could have imagined. But they weren’t just words. Both coaches wasted no time in turning thoughts into actions.
Baker arrived at Nebraska in September of 2018. His office still relatively new, this summer he was in the process of building relationships with Nebraska’s coaches and teams. He hadn’t been called on like this yet.
He’d worked on an individual basis with a few groups of Huskers—he described the situation like “kind of a one-off—but when protests started happening all across the country, including in Lincoln and Omaha, his department has a meeting with all of Nebraska’s head coaches and the Sports Psychology department.
“Myself and sports psych essentially did a presentation for them telling them, ‘Here’s what’s going on, if you’re not paying attention. Here’s why you need to have these conversations,’” Baker said.
“We just had an open discussion about how it is our coaches can be having these conversations with their staff and their student-athletes. Within that meeting we said we’re more than willing to help facilitate through education or shared resources, but the thing that’s going to make this more impactful is if you all as coaches or you all as individual teams have these conversations with yourself because then it’s going to be a lot more authentic and quite frankly it’s going to mean something a lot different coming from a head coach or an assistant coach or a director of ops or whoever it is than it will coming from the D&I director.”
He felt a number of them took that message to heart.
Hoiberg, though, didn’t need any kind of push.
He made it a point to talk with his players about how he felt and what he wanted to focus on over the summer. He asked them what they wanted to say, and had someone loop in Baker. If Baker wanted to offer help, he could, but Hoiberg was already thinking about ways he and his team could voice their thoughts and concerns.
“I think he’s done a really good job of empowering his student-athletes,” Baker said. He was told to just be on stand-by.
In August, the entire team held a demonstration in front of their practice facility. The players came up with the idea, Hoiberg was involved, but he ceded the floor to his student-athletes.
In September, Hoiberg joined the McLendon Foundation’s Minority Leadership Initiative as an ambassador. “This program will create opportunities (for) minorities to begin their careers in college athletics not only at Nebraska, but across the country and is an important first step in finding solutions to increasing diversity in athletic administration,” he said in a release.
Then earlier this month, during a virtual keynote address delivered by the city of Lincoln on the topic of improving race relations, Hoiberg and one of his players, Kobe Webster, spoke briefly.
“There’s so much division right now in our country, and hopefully in sport we can be an example of what it looks like to come together as a group,” he said. “I’m so proud of the fact (his players) are using their voice, that they are using their platform to try and create change, to try and create positive change.”
When Williams’ team returned to campus in June, there was a part of her that just craved normalcy. Williams is a person that lives on a schedule and relishes structure, two things that can’t coexist well with quarantine.
On top of that, the 2019 postseason had been ripped away from the Huskers by the coronavirus pandemic, and the team had been scattered for months following. To come back and just want basketball would only be human.
Their return to campus, though, “collided” with Floyd’s killing and the unrest that followed.
“We were able to see that, ‘Hey, right now, business as usual, getting back to basketball is really not a priority for a lot of our student-athletes,’” Williams said. “We really needed to pump the brakes and take the time to have some of those important discussions.”
Ever since, her team has had conversations about what they stand for, how they want to use their platform and what they want to say.
In an age where athletes have been told to shut up and dribble, neither Williams nor Hoiberg has paid attention to any kind of proverbial line a public figure would have previously been expected to toe.
“The thing I think of the most is love and unity and togetherness and anything I can do to promote that,” she said. “When I look at the young women that I’m blessed to be able to coach, how incredibly talented and beautiful and intelligent that they are as people, and not just as athletes and basketball players, I just feel like encouraging them to share that with the world and use their voices about who they are as people and what they stand for is something that I’d be doing our world a disservice if I didn’t try to embrace that and encourage that.”
You might be able to draw a direct line from Williams’ support to Haiby’s involvement in MSAC.
On Aug. 6, Haiby and other student-athletes shared a letter that had been sent to the athletic department with the tagline “Legacy Over Image.” MSAC called on Nebraska to, among other things, look to create more diversity in coaching and leadership positions within the athletic department, make public data showing the department’s racial, ethnic, and gender diversity, and construct a memorial to George Flippin, the first Black football player to compete for the Huskers.
“We are proud of her being part of a group that understands the right way to go about things, just being able to address face-to-face in conversations some concerns that we have and to be able to collectively work together to find solutions to problems,” Williams said. “I think Sammi’s shown an ability to do that and for that I’m really proud of her.”
That’s where Williams feels like athletes can make change.
That she and Hoiberg are unafraid to talk about these things is important.
“I think that it can be really convenient to side-step a lot of these issues,” Baker says. “It’s not necessarily in your job description to pay attention to things like this, right?”
Not specifically, no. But, in sports more so now than maybe ever before, the intersection between athlete and activist is blurred. For student-athletes of color, these issues aren’t a matter of politics, but of right and wrong.
“If you have a figure such as Hoiberg or Amy Williams who will openly speak out about it regardless of what repercussions come afterward, for somebody like that, it really shows you actually care about your athletes,” Fenner said. “Most coaches aren’t willing to put their neck out on the line for their athletes. When your athletes are putting their neck on the line during games or practices or whatnot, it says something when you’re able to reciprocate that same thing when it comes to their lives.”
Sometimes it’s as simple as showing up because someone asked, sitting on a stage, and listening.
Derek is a newbie on the Hail Varsity staff covering Husker athletics. In college, he was best known as ‘that guy from Twitter.’ He has covered a Sugar Bowl, a tennis national championship and almost everything in between (except an NCAA men’s basketball tournament game… *tears*). In his spare time, he can be found arguing with literally anyone about sports.