MSAC rally

Michael Knowles speaks during the Nebraska Minority Student-Athlete Collective rally outside Memorial Stadium on Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2020, in Lincoln, Nebraska.

On the morning of Aug. 6, Nebraska’s Minority Student Athlete Collective made its move. 

Over 25 Husker athletes tweeted out a letter to Nebraska’s Athletic Department with the hashtag #LegacyOverImage. The letter laid out a series of requests, including a push for more minority representation in the Athletic Department staff, among other things.

While that may have been MSAC’s first public announcement, there had been months of work leading up to that point. 

In early June, America began a summer of civil unrest, spurred by the death of George Floyd in May at the hands of police. Diversity and inclusion director for the Athletic Department DaWon Baker moved to set up a town hall over Zoom for Nebraska athletes and coaches to talk about racism and discrimination. 

"A lot of that was just so that our student-athletes and staff could get out any lingering comments, any feelings, anything that was really helpful to help them process,” he said. “But also to show the rest of our student-athletes and staff how this was affecting some of our student-athletes and staff.” 

Baker said that the town hall was powerful. However, one of the most productive things to come from it happened after the conversation wrapped up. 

According to Baker, a student-athlete reached out to him following the event and was interested in starting a Black student-athlete group. He gave them some information on how to get something like that started, and brought up the idea of considering more than just Black student-athletes. From there, MSAC was formed. 

Senior cross country and track runner Michael Knowles was one of the students involved with the creation of the group. After the town hall, Knowles said that he and a group of athletes, including track and field junior Sadio Fenner, women’s golf senior Noor Ahmed and others got together and decided it was time to take action in pursuit of equality.

“We all came together and were like, ‘Hey, we’re kind of tired of not doing anything, and we want to take this chance,’” Knowles said. 

According to Knowles, MSAC doesn’t have designated leadership. Although there is a “structure,” he said that the group is set up so everybody can have an equal voice and say what they want to say. The group currently has over 30 members involved, with around 12-15 attending each meeting. 

On June 12, student-athletes at the University of Texas released a list of demands that received national attention. Knowles said MSAC was inspired to write its own letter after this, as Ahmed pitched the idea to the group. 

“It all started from that conversation, like ‘Hey, did you see Texas do that?’” Knowles said. “How can we do that for ourselves and our student-athletes and try and hold [the Athletic Department] accountable. Not copy and paste it, but take what Texas did and push the envelope forward.”

When creating the requests outlined in the letter, they first took inspiration from Texas’s letter. Just like the Longhorns, MSAC asked for 0.5% of annual Athletic Department proceeds to be donated to Black-owned businesses in the Lincoln community. On top of that, both groups asked for modules discussing the history of racism on campus for incoming freshmen at UNL. 

The letter from Texas student-athletes asked for more diverse statues on campus, along with the renaming of the stadium after Julius Whittier, the first Black football player at UT. MSAC made a similar request in its letter centered on George Flippin, Nebraska’s first Black football player. 

“We wanted to educate people on the past history of racism that was on campus and even shed light on people like George Flippin,” Knowles said. “Who had passed and was denied a captain position, and give him the opportunity to get his flowers.”

In 1893, Flippin was denied captainship by then-head coach Frank Crawford. MSAC’s requests related to Flippin are for the Athletic Department to dedicate a memorial to the trailblazer, an acknowledgment of the racism he faced and to recognize him as a Nebraska football captain. 

MSAC also went further than Texas in some ways, asking for more minority representation in the athletic staff. Specifically, the group requested that the gap between minority athletic staff members and minority student-athletes be closed. Nebraska does not publish these numbers,  another request made by MSAC. Senior track and field athlete Taylor Johnson, who is also part of the group, emphasized the importance of representation. 

“I think a head coach, that's Black or Hispanic or Polynesian, or whatever, is very important, because it gives their athletes somebody to actually open up to,” Johnson said. “There's certain things that [a white coach is] not going to understand. And it's not because they don't want to, but they never experienced some things.”

Johnson said that when hiring opportunities do arise, universities should be strongly considering coaches from a variety of backgrounds.

“Sure, we're going to pick the person who's better for the job,” she said. “But the culture at Nebraska needs to be able to fit a coach of color. And I don't think that [the culture] would entirely fit a coach of color right now.”

When the letter was released, it was accompanied by the hashtag #LegacyOverImage. According to Knowles, the phrase was inspired by a conversation between him and Ahmed. The overarching point of the conversation was that college athletes at times are focused on protecting their personal image, especially if they have the potential to have a career in athletics after college. However, this distracts from thinking about the long-term impacts one could leave. 

“Too many times, we get caught in that position where we're stuck thinking about our image. Nobody thinks about their legacy. That's what makes you, that's what defines you. That's when the pillars in your life really come to fruition, and that's what pushes everything forward for yourself. Nobody's going to remember you for the things you do now,” Knowles said. “It was just a big thing to say that we care about our legacy a lot more than the things that are very, very, minute right now.”

Knowles and MSAC have already begun to work toward making their requests a reality and have had numerous meetings with the Athletic Department. Baker and Knowles said that before the letter was written, the two groups held a meeting in which MSAC introduced itself and went over some of the things that were going to be in the letter. Before the letter was public, they met with the administration again to go through the letter point by point. 

The conversations have been productive, according to Knowles, and the Athletic Department is mostly “on board” with the requests. One place where progress has already been made is that a few sports psychologists of color have been hired in the time since the letter came out. However, the biggest obstacle right now from the Athletic Department’s side is timing, according to Baker. 

With the pandemic, the Athletic Department has had to deal with furloughs and other budget cuts. On top of that, it has had to manage the football season going back-and-forth between being played or postponed.

“One thing I try to tell the student-athletes over and over is like, ‘Hey, look, this is important. And I'm going to keep telling you it's important because it is but these are not normal circumstances. This is not how it would go on a typical time, school year,’” Baker said. “Everybody's trying to figure this thing out. And I genuinely believe that our administration and our athletic staff want to make a change. There's just a lot that goes into it and we don't fully understand how to do it right now.”

Knowles said he and MSAC have been understanding of this stark reality. However, MSAC believes that these changes are urgent and they’d like to see steps taken toward fulfilling these goals. Baker shared a similar sentiment, saying that he’s making sure that the Athletic Department is still focusing on working toward change. 

“I’m telling our administration, I understand that we're facing this deficit, and we need money, and I get all of that, especially as a staff member who relies on that money to be paid,” he said. “But if you don't talk to these student-athletes more frequently, or if you don't have a nice pulse on the situation, this thing's going to blow up. And nobody wants that.”

In these discussions, Baker is a mediator of sorts. On one hand, he’s part of the athletic department that has been requested to make these changes. On the other, he assisted in the formation of MSAC and has done everything he can to support the athletes. He said he serves as a “connector” between both sides. While MSAC is fully run by the athletes, Baker said he still has some influence on the group and tries to give feedback or help where he can. 

However, Baker has been more visible at times. On Sept. 15, MSAC held a rally outside of Memorial Stadium against police brutality and racial injustice. Baker opened and helped close the rally, along with leading a demonstration in between speakers. While he played a significant role, he’s done his best to keep the focus on the student-athletes through this process. 

“They have the influence, and they have the power. They can really change a lot of things within our world, not just within our Athletic Department,” he said. “And I think our job is to empower them to do that. And it's really hard to empower somebody if you want to stick them in the shadows.”

In the rally, the student-athletes were front and center. Fenner, Knowles, Johnson, senior football defensive end Ben Stille, women’s basketball head coach Amy Williams, sophomore men's gymnast Sam Phillips and senior rifle athlete Emily Cheramie all spoke to a crowd of over 100 people, many of them fellow student-athletes. 

At the rally, Johnson read a poem about being a Black woman in America. She said she was inspired to write the poem because she believes a Black woman is the “most disrespected person in America,” and that Black women are constantly overlooked. Johnson also said she was frustrated with the lack of representation of Black women and Black women’s achievements in Nebraska. 

“I felt like I have a platform, I'm going to speak, I'm not going to sugarcoat anything,” she said. “That was really important for me and to actually communicate that we're here. But we're not trying to be silent and we're not weak. I feel like a lot of times people just take advantage of us because they think that we're weak or worthless. And that's just not the case. We've just been through a lot.”

Knowles was the last student-athlete to speak at the rally, and he closed by referencing Malcolm X, an Omaha native. 

“We need more light about each other,” Knowles said at the rally, quoting the civil rights leader. “Light creates understanding, understanding creates love, love creates patience and patience creates unity.”

Knowles is also an Omaha native, and said that Malcolm X was important to him growing up, and that he is one of the most “misunderstood” minority leaders. 

“I wanted to shed a light on someone that I thought was very huge and pivotal when I grew up,” he said. “I even look to some of his old interviews and his book for guidance at times.”

Now that the rally has passed, MSAC is looking forward to what’s next. Baker said that the extensive planning that was done for the rally actually ended up delaying some of the conversations around the letter. However, that doesn’t mean the rally wasn’t an important moment. 

Baker said that the rally was primarily a sign that MSAC was willing to do the work to create change. 

“Even though it was just a call to action, and more awareness, more than anything, it shows not only our staff and our coaches, but the general public that this group is not going to wait,” he said. “They're not going to just sit on the sidelines, let stuff happen, they're going to try their best to go make things happen and make the changes that they want to see.”

As expected, not everyone is going to be receptive to their efforts. In 2016, when Nebraska football players Mohamed Barry, DaiShon Neal and Michael Rose-Ivey kneeled for the anthem, they were met with racist backlash from fans and calls to be kicked off the team from university regents. While the university response this time around has been positive, the athletes have still continued to receive hateful comments on social media. 

Baker, who wasn’t with the university at that time, said that backlash can’t stop the movement. Although not everyone will listen, he said that the way to make progress is to have open and honest conversations. 

“As a country, as a people, we don't even talk to opposing opinions enough to really understand why they feel that way, or why they're so compelled to say XYZ,” Baker said. “I would say that for a lot of our fans, or a lot of people who just either disagree or just don't understand, like, reach out and ask us, talk to us, talk to people who actually have lived the different experiences and are speaking out on these things, why they feel so greatly about it.”

For now, MSAC is focused on continuing to meet with the Athletic Department on the changes that were discussed in the letter. The group may also be looking to push some voter registration initiatives, according to Johnson. 

“I feel like a lot of Black students, a lot of young Black people don't register because they feel like they don't have a voice, so they don't think they can't change anything,” she said. “But at the same time, it's the one right that we have, and that literally, they've tried to take away from us, like you have to [vote].”

Other than that, Knowles said the group is going to keep pushing for change, a daunting task in tandem with their responsibilities as students and as athletes.

“For me, it’s been gratifying for sure, it’s allowed me to understand what it takes, and how dedicated you are,” he said. “I still got my foot on the pedal, and I'm literally flying. Still got my hands on the wheel and I'm trying to push it to the max, and I'm doing everything I can.”