A group of football players, predominately composed of Black men, march on the Clemson University campus. One holds a sign that reads "matter is the minimum." Two other men hold signs that read "I can't breathe."
Members of the Clemson University football team lead a “March for Change” protest in June 2020. (photo by John Bazemore, AP)

A TIME magazine article recently discussed college athletes realizing their power to create meaningful change. While college athletes as a collective have great power, it is Black athletes in particular who are leading this charge by placing emphasis on their racial identity. Recent atrocities, such as the unjust shooting of Jacob Blake, as well as the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd, have placed increased attention on racism. Injustice has caused college athletes to speak out, when in the past, they have remained mostly silent.

Black college athletes are expressing frustration with conditions in society and on their campuses as they grapple with racism, stereotypes, and exploitation. While Black female college athletes are also using their voices and advocating for social change, this article focuses primarily on Black male college athletes in football and basketball, as they are in particularly influential positions to affect change due to the attention these sports receive. Coinciding with this attention, Black collegiate football players help produce revenue streams that can supplement much of the athletic department budget, which is why many departments are pushing so hard to play football amidst a global pandemic.

Within research on Black male athletes, the focus has often been primarily on their athletic identity. This focus on athletic identity comes from athletes being socialized to direct most of their attention and effort to sport while neglecting other social roles. However, recent events that perpetuate the unjust and systemic mistreatment of Black people have appeared to spark change. This was evident with Florida State defensive tackle Marvin Wilson taking a stand. Wilson stated, “Yesterday, I took a stand that was not only for me or FSU football. Not even for athletes in general. It was for big George Floyd, Black people in general, for our oppression that we’ve been going through for over 400 years.”

While privileged members of society may implore athletes to “stick to sports,” Black college athletes recognize that they must deal with the social implications associated with racism in the United States. Sociology of sport research on Black college athletes and activism has found that athletes who are in positions of influence often feel a responsibility to speak up about social issues. We are seeing that play out in college athletics today, and there is a particular focus on activism through the experiences and meanings ascribed to being Black. For example, University of Texas football player Jordan Whittington tweeted, “Texas football player for a couple years, but Black forever.” Not only are many Black college athletes becoming more outspoken, but their actions have also followed suit, as seen in the example of Ohio State basketball player Seth Towns who was detained after engaging in a peaceful protest following the George Floyd killing.

Black athletes are tired of being reminded of the historical subjugation of Black people through indignities, exemplified by Mississippi State running back Kylin Hill’s statement about not playing unless the state of Mississippi removed confederate symbols from its flag. Black college athletes are tired of their coaches lacking cultural awareness and supporting entities that degrade and devalue movements aimed at providing social reform. Such was the case as Oklahoma State’s star running back Chuba Hubbard called out head coach Mike Gundy for wearing a One America News shirt and vowed not to play “until things changed.” Black athletes at the University of Texas, meanwhile, threatened to abstain from participating in recruiting efforts or donor events unless their demands were met, as they were tired of having classes in buildings named after men who would not value their lives because of their racial identity and being forced to sing songs with racist undertones.

When athletes’ Black identity supersedes their athletic identity, college athletic departments and institutions of higher education will be forced to not only listen to their concerns and demands but also implement meaningful change. Black athletes, as a collective, are becoming less tolerant of their institutions turning a blind eye to coaches perpetuating racism and stereotypes, demonstrated by the firing of strength coach Chris Doyle at Iowa after numerous players spoke of bias and abusive behavior in the football program. In the process of addressing athletes’ concerns, athletic departments will be forced to weigh the value they place on their Black athletes’ perspectives versus the value they place in a gift from a donor who may disagree with their position. As ESPN writer David Hale noted, “too often, athletic departments chose to appease offended donors and fans rather than support the athletes who spoke out.” However, the new wave of athlete activism is forcing athletic administrators and institutions to take the demands of their Black students seriously.

Athletic departments and institutions are not the only stakeholders impacted by the current wave of activism among Black athletes. Fans and alumni will also be forced to make critical decisions. For example, they will have to decide whether a school’s “history and traditions” are more significant than creating a socially just and hospitable environment for Black athletes. Are they going to support Black male college athletes embracing their racial identities and fighting for social justice, or will they deem them unembraceable?

A continued focus on racial identity can lead to critical change within college athletics and society. Black athletes have the leverage to ignite some of this change, which has been evident in previous events, such as with Missouri in 2015, where the football team threatened to abstain from football-related activities until the university president resigned. Current evidence regarding the power of Black college athletes can be seen with the sweeping changes at the University of Texas in a move toward racial equity, as well as pushing athletic administrators to lobby for the removal of the confederate flag in Mississippi. These athletes increasingly realize the power they have, while also understanding that sport is not always the most important aspect of their lives. When Black college athletes place their identity of being Black at the forefront, change will happen.

Jonathan Howe is a doctoral candidate at The Ohio State University. His research focuses on Black male student-athlete identity and racial diversity in college athletics. You can follow Jonathan on Twitter: @mr_howe25