Black student athletes talk experiences on Duke sports teams, building better cultures in panel discussion

Duke Athletics hosted a panel discussion Tuesday that explored the Black athlete experience, focusing on “creating inclusive environments in traditionally white sports” and featuring speakers across Duke’s Division I teams. 

Speakers included sophomore women’s soccer player Baleigh Bruster, senior men’s lacrosse player Cameron Henry, sophomore volleyball player Ngozi Iloh, sophomore baseball player Devin Obee, freshman women’s lacrosse player Sydney Smith, and senior cross country runner Naima Turbes.

The program was opened by a pre-recorded welcome message from athletic director Nina King, followed by a video about professional athletes’ experiences on “traditionally white” sports teams, such as hockey, fencing and golf. 

The video featured Olympic medal-winning fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad, Trinity ‘07. 

“I felt like I was jumping through hoops, even through the racist jokes, the insensitive jokes about my faith,” Muhammad reflected. “How do I get past that? I feel like I really moved into just being myself. But also I really just decided not to care. And what kills people is when you are just literally reveling in your own happiness.”

John Blackshear, associate vice president of student affairs and dean of students, moderated the panel discussion following the video.

Blackshear opened by discussing the necessity of listening to each other and acknowledging historical privilege and oppression openly, especially as teammates on a sports team.

“Each one of us has an opportunity all the time to live in a way that makes us fully human: aware, connected in honoring and valuing that we’re just human beings who are just happening to inhabit the bodies that we live in,” Blackshear said.

Obee reflected on the loneliness that comes with playing a predominantly white sport. 

“With problems like racism … there’s not a lot of people you can run to, especially at a place like this where you can’t really rely on your family,” he said. “People want to be around people that are like them, it’s just natural.”

Blackshear noted that ages 18-22 are crucial years for identity formation, as the “time you’re really growing into your adult selves.”

He asked panelists what would help them feel safe in these years, “psychologically, emotionally and intellectually.”

Turbes said that she wishes her coaches would “explicitly address” race in her conversations with them. “A lot of athletes attest to the fact that there's so many things outside of just sports in your everyday life that affect your performance and well being,” she said.

Smith agreed about the importance of this, noting that her coaches’ willingness to have conversations about race and imposter syndrome has been “the most welcoming factor” in her Duke experience. 

Bruster said that having more Black players on the team would make her feel safer. She noted that soccer in the United States is diversifying, despite being a traditionally white sport, so “there really isn't a valid reason for our team to lack diversity in this day and age.”

The discussion then turned to structural factors that have kept predominantly white sports segregated. 

Henry and Obee both raised the issue of affordability for equipment purchases and travel tournaments. Turbes hypothesized that space constraints in urban areas impact the availability of cross country, but argued that culture also plays a role. 

“My friends that could have run in college chose not to because they didn’t want to get themselves in a space where they were going to be the only one,” Turbes said. “So there might be some self-selection.”

As panelists discussed the pressure to perform at a high level in competitive sports, Iloh said that her effort and skills led to a lot of pressure “especially from white teammates” to lead the team and make winning plays.

Bruster raised the issue of stereotypes impacting Black players’ roles.

“There's a cliche that Black people, while they can be physically talented, aren't tactically talented or technically talented,” she said. 

Smith recalled her first Black coach telling her that most Black players are either defenders or forwards, positions in lacrosse that rely on speed and strength, rather than midfielders, who are valued for being well-rounded and technical.

Smith shared another experience of Black lacrosse players predominantly playing defensive positions. 

“In my experience, it's because of the stereotype of Black boys being more aggressive,” she said. “A lot of my teammates have not gotten opportunities on the field to just experience different positions and try them out.”

Blackshear asked the panelists what teammates should understand about their identities to build a better culture, mission and vision on their team.

Henry brought up the phrase “I don’t see color,” saying that it’s more valuable for teammates to take it a step farther and say, “‘Yeah, I can see your color. But I also appreciate your culture, I appreciate who you are, I appreciate you as a person.’” 

Iloh noted the importance of abandoning stereotypes in building relationships. Teammates have to abandon the notion that all players of a certain race are the same, she said. 

“You can’t put us all in the same box,” Iloh said.

In response to a question about imposter syndrome, junior football player Placide Djungu-Sungu, an audience member, brought up the historical roots of this complex. He said that Black children being taught Eurocentric history that minimizes Black people’s achievements, as well as the atrocities that white people have perpetuated under the institution of slavery, can lead to imposter syndrome. 

“You don't feel like you should have [success] because all your life, you’ve learned that your people don't deserve these things,” he said. “From the other side, if the white majority were to learn these things, they would have a less internalized feeling of superiority.”

Blackshear closed the panel by emphasizing trust. 

“If you really are interested in having a genuine connection with people across boundaries … you've got to establish trust. And trust is not to be granted. Trust is to be earned, through a process of coming together,” he said.

Katie Tan contributed reporting.

Anisha Reddy | Senior Editor

Anisha Reddy is a Trinity junior and a senior editor of The Chronicle's 118th volume.


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