A group of Nebraska athletes, coaches and other members of the athletic department gathered outside Gate 20 of Memorial Stadium in perfect, relaxed weather, hours before 6 p.m. on Sept. 15.
They sat in chairs spread atop the steps, and rehearsed their speeches at a podium. Everyone wore black. Some wore shirts representing Nebraska’s Minority Student-Athlete Collective, which was created this summer amidst nationwide protest in the United States. Some wore shirts with “Black Lives Matter” on them.
Diversity and inclusion director for the athletic department DaWon Baker wore a shirt with the phrase “Hate Will Never Win,” a movement led by Nebraska basketball players in Spring 2018 in response to remarks made by UNL student and white nationalist Daniel Kleve. In February of that year, more than 1,500 students and athletes gathered for a rally.
The rally last Tuesday, which was hosted by MSAC and intended to be a stand against police brutality and racial injustice, had been moved twice. Once due to inclement weather, and again to acknowledge the death of Mario Herrera, an investigator in the Lincoln Police Department.
On this day, the skies were clear, just as the message was. The air was calm but bracing for the powerful shaking that was bound to come.
Although preparing to give speeches about police brutality, racial injustice and the pain of Black people across the United States, there was strength, beauty and joy in this. Between and after the rehearsal of speeches, individuals shared laughter and took pictures as mementos of a night of power.
Nebraska junior track and cross country runner Sadio Fenner approached me as I sat on a bench, carrying a bag of wristbands. He handed me one and thanked me for attending. On one side of the wristband, it reads “N-SPIRE CHANGE,” while the other features a script Huskers logo. Although a simple accessory, it’s one that serves as yet another reminder that we cannot separate what these athletes accomplish on the field and what they fight for off of it.
As the rally neared, the space filled with many other student-athletes, each of them donning Black Lives Matter shirts. Players from most, if not all Nebraska teams were represented among the crowd, including men’s basketball players, who had previously done their own demonstrations.
Baker opened up the rally with an introduction, before handing it off to athletes who would be speaking. Fenner and fellow senior track athlete Taylor Johnson both read powerful poems about their experiences being Black, with Johnson speaking specifically on being a Black woman.
“Being a Black woman in America means that I might always be considered an angry Black woman. I might be hostile, I have the right to be,” she said. “After being mistreated time and time again, am I supposed to not be angry?”
Johnson made clear that Black women deserve “roses” and celebration for their strength, which has continually gone without credit.
Emily Cheramie, a senior on the rifle team, was next to speak, and was vocal about the athletic department’s failures in responding to their athletes about social justice.
In early August, the MSAC sent a list of requests to Nebraska’s athletic department calling for more representation and to honor the impact Black athletes have made over the years. Multiple Husker athletes posted the letter on social media, along with the hashtag #LegacyOverImage.
Among the specific requests made in that letter were for more Black head coaches, psychologists, Black people in positions with hiring power and for the gap between minority student-athletes and minority athletic staff to be closed within five years. Nebraska has never had a Black head coach in any sport. They also asked that information regarding Nebraska Athletics’s racial, ethnic and gender diversity be made public.
On top of that, MSAC called for the university to create a statue for George Flippin, Nebraska’s first Black football player, along with a public acknowledgement of the racism he faced.
The last request in the letter was for Nebraska to release a public statement with the phrase, “Black Lives Matter.”
Cheramie talked about how these requests were “the bare minimum,” but not even the request for a statement has been met. She criticized the university’s statements in the wake of George Floyd’s death as hollow, and she said the athletic department needs to do better to support all of its athletes.
“I understand we’re in the middle of a pandemic,” she said. “But there is another pandemic that we’ve been ignoring for years. That is systemic racism. We should not be silent any longer. Our athletic department needs to take a hard stance against the violence that is happening to the Black community.”
Cheramie continued to emphasize that this event was put on independent of the athletic department.
“What we are seeing here tonight is not a product of what our coaches have done and not of what our athletic department has done,” she said. “What you are seeing here tonight is a product of Nebraska student-athletes being sick and tired of not getting answers, of being ignored.”
Her words were felt deeply by the crowd and illustrated the need for their requests to be met. Since the MSAC’s letter, the university has not made any public announcement to meet any of the requests. Cheramie’s speech unveiled a massive divide in the lack of urgency in listening to student-athletes, one as stark as the divide between the amount of minority student-athletes and athletic staff.
Women’s basketball head coach Amy Williams’ speech was also a perfect representation of what the state of Nebraska is missing right now. She talked about wanting to “get back to business,” when the team returned to campus in early July. Williams said she realized that wasn’t what the team needed at that time.
After weeks of fighting hard for a fall football season, it seems Husker parents, fans and some in the athletic department are just ready to get back to football. However, should we be so eager about the return of sports, when so many of the wounds minority athletes are facing remain open?
Will the celebration of the football season starting on Oct. 24 remain if a football player makes the decision to protest on the field against police brutality, just as Michael Rose-Ivey, DaiShon Neal and Mohamed Barry did in 2016?
That isn’t what happened four years ago. Instead, the players were met with racial slurs from fans and calls to be kicked off the team from university regents. We should continue to listen and applaud their courage in taking a stand.
When Black athletes have to carry the pain of watching those who look like them be unjustly killed, it does not matter if watching sports is your personal escape from the world. Black people aren’t always afforded that same privilege.
Outside of Gate 20 and around the stadium, there are multiple statues to honor those who won football national championships, or otherwise left their mark on the program.
One of the most notable, and perhaps the most visible statue, is the Husker Legacy Statue, which was created to commemorate Nebraska’s first four national championship teams. These statues also represent the impact made by these coaches on the Nebraska community off the field.
These coaches and players are revered in the Nebraska community, which is why they’ve been immortalized in front of stadium staircases.
That, of course, begs the question: How will Nebraska remember the athletes that have fought for change all summer and into the fall? As of now, the voices of these athletes have been treated as a side story. The requests for necessary, long-lasting changes will continue until they are met.
Let’s not forget about these athletes who have contributed to the fight.