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'Bigger Than Blue': Duke and North Carolina volleyball unite against systemic racism

Junior outside hitter Ade Owokoniran was instrumental in helping lead the team through important conversations surrounding racism in America.
Junior outside hitter Ade Owokoniran was instrumental in helping lead the team through important conversations surrounding racism in America.

When Duke and North Carolina stepped off the floor for the last time in 2019, the focus was still on volleyball—the Tar Heels had completed the regular-season sweep of the Blue Devils and Duke was heading home with its sights set on revenge in 2020.

With the rivalry as tense as ever, it came as a surprise when a video uniting both teams started circling on social media Aug. 31.

The video, entitled ‘Bigger Than Blue,’ features all players on both teams as well as coaches and athletic directors. Before the start of volleyball season, the programs decided to set aside their athletic rivalry to focus on a greater issue facing the country: systemic racism.


What is ‘Bigger Than Blue?’

‘Bigger Than Blue’ is both a collaborative social message and a promise for future action against racial injustice. 

While the reveal was limited to a video, the Durham-Chapel Hill union won’t stop there. The two programs believe actions speak louder than words, so they plan to take action in their communities, both individually and collectively.

“I just think that we have this incredible platform that Duke Athletics and being female Division I athletes provides us, so to not use it would be a disservice to our teammates and to our friends,” Blue Devil captain Mackenzie Cole said. “I think that we owe it to our teammates, our friends and the community to use our platform and keep pushing this movement forward as best we can.”

Of course, Duke could do all these things without the help of its Tobacco Road rivals. Where the partnership proves valuable, however, is in the greater scheme of college athletics. The first thing the two programs plan on accomplishing is including N.C. Central in their message. Then they want to spread this collaborative style of protest across the nation to other volleyball rivalries—the two teams have already challenged Florida/Florida State, USC/Stanford, Louisville/Kentucky and Texas/Texas A&M to follow suit.

“This movement has been so closely tied with politics that I think people get really hesitant to speak out about it,” fellow Duke captain Kincey Smith said. “So it was really nice that everyone was just on board and bought into the idea that this is bigger than volleyball and bigger than our rivalry.”

How the captains kept the ship afloat

At this point, it may be gratuitous to mention how hard this year has been on athletics, but it cannot be understated. The unprecedented separation and isolation has not only posed a threat to skill and conditioning, but to the community that exists within the team. 

Smith and Cole were quick to adapt, however, springing into action to keep the team culture intact. This meant weekly Zoom hangouts and sending training videos back and forth to stay in touch when they couldn’t bond over volleyball. The efforts put forth by the captains during quarantine had dramatic effects on team chemistry, which will carry on long past the end of this season.

Of course, the discussion of these hangouts quickly changed from home life and quarantine hobbies to much heavier topics after the death of George Floyd. 

With the help of outside hitter Ade Owokoniran, team Zoom meetings became places of free-flowing thought and education. Owokoniran described her discussion style as “broad, yet narrow.” In other words, she started by contextualizing the extensive history behind racism in America, but also emphasized her own personal struggles with racism, both in childhood and now.

“It is very real, and it's right in front of them,” Owokoniran said. “And it's also in every facet of the Duke community, of the larger community of the South and in America as a whole.”

While some may shy away from the challenge of a conversation surrounding racism, Duke volleyball took to the task with dignity and little to no hesitation. They were able to address flaws in team culture, which they in turn began to remedy.

“The improvement to culture is tremendous,” Owokoniran said. “I think after the George Floyd incident, people are really starting to educate themselves. One thing that I dealt with in the past that I'm so glad that we’ve now fixed is that they're not scared to come up to me and ask me real hard-hitting questions, and actually listen.”

Lasting impact

After the Black Lives Matter movement reached fever pitch in June, many were critiqued for “hopping on the trend” and then proceeding to forget about the movement when it lost the spotlight. Duke aims to avoid this error by structuring a continuous course of action and thus creating lasting change.

The team is currently planning a peaceful protest, much like the one hosted by the men’s basketball team in K-Ville. They have also promised to support Durham’s Black-owned businesses through catered pregame meals and weeks dedicated to specific businesses. Their protest will not stop when they step onto the court, either.

“I think the majority of us are kneeling [during the anthem] for that first game especially,” Owokoniran said. “So the season starts out strong and everyone knows where we stand on that.”

Duke recognizes that it has a voice on a national level, but the fact remains that there is change necessary right in its backyard. This responsibility weighs especially heavy on the team's two North Carolina natives: Smith and Owokoniran.

“I think about when I was younger, how much I looked up to girls that played on the local teams,” Smith said. “If they were saying, like, ‘This is important, we need to really change our mindset about this,’ I would do it. I would definitely follow.”

Owokoniran expressed a similar sentiment.

“I definitely feel an obligation to the Triangle in general,” Owokoniran said. “Just to make them proud but also to set a good example for other people who come from the Triangle and want to go to schools locally. So the little Black girls who think they can't do it, showing them that they can.”

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