Black athletes make vital contributions to Duke’s athletic programs and are frequently in the spotlight, but they feel there is a lot of progress to be made in how they’re treated within the Duke Athletics program and the University as a whole.
Six members of Duke United Black Athletes participated in a March 15 panel led by Alexis Joseph, a senior on the women’s lacrosse team and recipient of the 2022 Samuel Dubois Cook Undergraduate Award, to discuss inclusive environments, support for minority athletes and policy changes to improve athletes’ experiences at Duke. The panelists were Ade Owokoniran, a volleyball senior; Dieynaba Ndaw, a women’s soccer sophomore; DeWayne Carter, a football junior; and Elasia Campbell, Kinsie Huggins and Brianna Smith of the track and field team.
For the first half of the discussion, panelists focused on how they navigate their day-to-day lives as athletes and the unexpected challenges they face.
Many of the athletes on the panel reported negative experiences, such as feeling isolated as Black athletes at a predominately white institution, tokenization, microaggressions and difficult team dynamics. A major problem athletes discussed was cultural misunderstandings, emphasizing the importance of athletes and coaches making efforts to be more understanding of each other’s cultures.
“Say your coach or your teammate says something to you that's a microaggression and you know, they didn’t mean it to come off that way, but it does come off that way. But then, maybe you don't want to say anything because you don't want to take that extra step of ‘How am I perceived once I say that?’” Smith said. “Sometimes, I know from my past experience when I respond to certain things, it seems like I'm just being the angry Black woman or I'm overreacting, but these things are hurtful, and they do affect the way we go from day to day.”
They continued by emphasizing the importance of relationships with coaches, describing how navigating these interactions can present challenges, but when athletes and coaches have positive relationships, athletes can be at their most motivated and engaged, leading to better performances.
“When you go to class, you have a professor that could either make you hate the class if you love the subject or the other way around,” Huggins said. “But with your coaches, you're seeing these people every single day, you're constantly put in this environment with them.… If you have a good relationship, you enjoy coming to practice, and it reminds you why you love the sport, but if it's a bad relationship, you kind of have to carry that with you every single day. It's kind of like there's really no escape.”
Carter also talked about the importance of being able to trust your coach and having a good relationship with them. He spoke highly of the coaches on his team and their relationships with players, including new head football coach Mike Elko.
The panelists also discussed difficult interactions with teammates, as they experience microaggressions but face difficulty addressing them in what could create tense situations.
“Instead of ‘Let's talk about this, let's do this together, let’s figure it out,’ they'd rather just avoid the issues,” Smith said. “So I think it's just made it like it doesn't really always feel like a team; like yes, it's a team and like they're going to be nice to my face, but at the end of the day, I know that it could never go deeper than that because of impressions and how it looks.”
Smith also discussed how it can be difficult to be seen as more than an athlete. Members of the panel discussed how their interactions with the team can briefly be very positive when they win events and contribute to team success, but it dissipates afterwards.
Outside of sports, athletics follows athletes into the classroom, shaping peers’ and professors’ perceptions of them amidst the challenging task of balancing intense training and competing at an elite level with rigorous coursework.
“You go to your classrooms where if you're in, like STEM classes that are predominately white classes, you're going to be challenged on ‘Are you smart enough to be here?’” Campbell said. “It’s detrimental because it's like, I'm getting attacked on this end and I'm getting attacked on this and these people don't think my perspective matters.”
Athlete well-being and mental health
Amidst the struggle of being minorities in almost every environment they’re in at Duke, Black athletes also face unique mental health challenges. Campbell and others discussed how it can be hard to open up because they think people will think they’re causing drama or negatively affecting team culture. They all have found having other Black athletes around them helps them have someone to talk to, which helps them endure challenges together.
Smith and Joseph also pointed out that they and other Black athletes face intense scrutiny, and the amount of pressure on them can also have negative consequences for their mental health.
Joseph talked about challenges she faces as a lacrosse player in a sport where Black athletes are very underrepresented, saying, “My mom told me, you could work 10 times harder to be considered in the same position as anybody else.”
This puts her and athletes in similar positions under immense pressure that spectators often don’t fully understand as she has to secure her place in a difficult environment.
After discussing challenges they face as Black athletes at Duke, Joseph shifted the discussion to three actionable policy changes they would like to see progress toward over the next year: an athlete townhall to serve as a safe place for athletes to express their concerns once a month and access staff members, such as sports psychologists; diversity and inclusion consistently emphasized by coaches to create a more supportive team culture; and commitment to community to have teams connect with Durham beyond annual service activities.
Joseph discussed her efforts to set up access to a free health clinic for Durham residents, and Carter and other panelists talked about visiting schools being rewardingly impactful to students and expressed wanting to do it more frequently.
With a large Black community in Durham, Joseph and others are excited about the opportunity to connect with them while doing meaningful work but want to be careful in how they approach their work.
“I've talked to a lot of people in the Durham school communities, and they said that they didn't necessarily like it when new students come to school because they either act like they know it all or come in with the white savior complex,” Joseph said. “And it's been somewhat negative, where it can be really positive.”
Smith echoed Joseph’s sentiments, wishing Duke teams and athletes had a stronger relationship with the community and interacted with them more frequently, similarly to other schools she’s noticed.
Diversity and inclusion is a key aspect the panelists focused on as an important area to improve for all athletes. Smith discussed how their team can be a particularly difficult setting as they have to work with teammates who are “horrible” to them.
With the diversity and inclusion portion of the agenda, panelists hope misunderstandings and problems that occur between teammates of different backgrounds can become rare.
“I think it can be really beneficial for coaches to learn about someone's culture. We can ask ourselves the question, ‘Is this athlete being rude? Or is this just how their culture is? Or is this athlete being inappropriate? Or is this just how they talk where they're from?’” Campbell said, explaining how relieving Black athletes of the pressure to code switch translates to better practice conditions. Without this pressure, Campbell says Black athletes can “just move about your business, do what you need to do at practice, focus on what you need to focus on,” instead of worrying about how they are perceived by teammates and coaches.
She and other panelists appreciated teammates’ efforts to educate themselves and teammates, helping to take the burden off of Black athletes. Particularly, an older teammate’s initiative to research issues affecting the Black community as the Black Lives Matter movement gained momentum while being responsive to feedback from Black teammates stood out to Campbell.
Owokoniran echoed this sentiment, saying, “Google is free,” appreciating teammates taking time to work toward being more aware and understanding. Owokoniran also said, “I’m an open book,” expressing her willingness to discuss issues and answer teammates’ questions. “But I don’t know unless someone comes up to me.”
Beyond making teams better environments for Black athletes, Joseph and other members of United Black Athletes seek to make Duke athletics a more inclusive and supportive environment for athletes of all backgrounds. Explaining the diversity and inclusion section of the platform, Joseph said, “It’s really figuring out ways to make sure every athlete feels comfortable and heard. And this isn't just a call out to make sure your Black athletes feel good every day—this is for all athletes.”
Joseph envisions the townhall component of the agenda to be open to any athlete and a safe space to feel their opinions and experiences are valued.
“Considering that right now, there are only a couple of voices being heard on campus, we really need to open that up because we’re not helping as many people as possible,” Joseph said.
Some panelists voiced frustrations about working through administrative processes to have concerns addressed and are excited about the potential of the townhall, either virtual or in-person, around once a month, to provide an opportunity for athletes to have more agency in discussing how to improve the Duke athlete experience.
The panelists are excited to make their goals happen and are optimistic about creating a better community among teams for all athletes. Beyond improving Duke athletics short-term, they find their work particularly meaningful because they know they have worked to make Duke Athletics better for people of color, which in turn makes it easier for them to recommend Duke to other Black athletes.
Get The Chronicle straight to your inbox
Signup for our weekly newsletter. Cancel at any time.