Pitt Athletics alums share concerns over Black History Month efforts

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The Pitt Athletics primary Twitter account had 17 tweets in February surrounding Black History Month, with a greater volume of content coming toward the end of the month.

Pitt’s official athletics Twitter account tweeted a message to its more than 38,000 followers on Feb. 1, the first day of Black History Month.

The tweet, accompanied by an Atlantic Coast Conference-created six-second video, revealed that the athletics department would share stories from Pitt athletes throughout February to commemorate Black History Month.

The announcement didn’t receive much attention, accumulating only a handful of retweets, but it came as a surprise to many familiar with Pitt Athletics’ social media presence. The primary athletics account did not post anything related to Black History Month on the first day of February last year, for example. Nor the year before, or the year before that.

This appears to be the first time in the account’s existence that it mentioned Black History Month at the start of February. The account typically encourages football fans this time of year to renew their season tickets for the fall.

Former Pitt track and field athlete Laila Ismail said the inactivity of the account, which did not have a single tweet related to Black History Month the two previous years, corresponds with a lack of attention the annual celebration received during her time in Oakland. Ismail, who graduated in 2018, said she never heard the topic brought up during her entire college career.

“I honestly don’t even remember it being mentioned in Pitt Athletics, in my classes,” Ismail said. “February was all about the season starting. I have no recollection of ‘Black History Month’ being uttered out of anyone’s mouth.”

Pitt Athletics gave Black History Month more attention this year than in the past. The primary Twitter account had 17 tweets in February surrounding the subject, with a greater volume of content coming towards the end of the month.

This increase in attention comes during a year that Pitt Athletics has given conversations regarding race more of a platform on social media than it ever has. But former Pitt track and field athlete Jordan Fields, who won Pitt’s Senior of the Year award last year, said the sudden shift in rhetoric reeks of performative activism.

“A year ago, they were doing absolutely nothing,” Fields said. “The fact that they went from absolutely nothing to the bare minimum deepens the sense that a lot of what they’re doing is performative because we’re going from zero to 100.”

Pitt Athletics spokesperson E.J. Borghetti did not directly answer questions about the lack of Black History Month content on its social media accounts in past years.

Borghetti listed in a prepared statement some of the primary ways that the department has shown its dedication to “combatting racism and discrimination in all its forms.” The statement primarily focused on the results of Panthers United, a committee created last summer with athletes, coaches and staff that strives to “promote an environment of inclusion” through “education, dialogue and through the celebration of our differences.”

Borghetti pointed out some of the results of collaborations with Panthers United — the creation of affinity groups, Until We Unite branding and enhanced education and training resources for the public. It also promoted the Voting Matters campaign, a program created to increase voter turnout from Pitt athletes.

The Pitt football account also promoted a 31-minute video on Pitt legend Bobby Grier towards the end of the month.

Most of the Black History Month-related tweets from the Pitt Athletics account featured current Black athletes explaining what the month means to them. The first of those short clips included first-year defender Zaria Stevenson from the women’s soccer team.

“Black History Month is a reminder of what my ancestors endured and overcame to get to the point where we are today,” Stevenson said in the 18-second video. “One thing it has helped out in today’s generation is diversity — specifically representation in authoritative roles, which is very important to connect with every ethnicity, race and gender.”

But some former Pitt athletes question the authenticity that the athletic department allows when giving Black athletes this voice on a public platform. Former Pitt diver Lisa Coe, who graduated last year, said she wondered how much Pitt “censored” the messages its athletes wanted to share, and the University’s motivations behind the influx in “performative” efforts.

Coe compared the social media campaign to her own participation in past diversity initiatives as a member of the LGBTQ community, sharing a story about her contribution to the 2019 #NCAAInclusion campaign. She said Pitt asked her to submit a photo to post on the Twitter account for Life Skills, a program dedicated to preparing athletes for life after college, so she sent in a picture from a Boston Pride festival, which Pitt administrators questioned, asking if she was sure she wanted to post the picture instead of one from her sport. After Coe confirmed her intention, they posted the picture she chose.

“I was like ‘yeah, the whole point is this is a diversity campaign,’” Coe said. “Everyone already knows we’re athletes, it’s on the Pitt Athletics page.”

Borghetti did not address Coe’s story in his prepared statement, but Markeisha Everett, the assistant athletic director for marketing, said from what she knew of the social media campaign this year, the athletics department did not set any specific restrictions of what athletes could or could not say in the Black History Month videos.

Coe’s story raised a concern that many of the alums who spoke with The Pitt News shared from the start of their college careers — a perception that Pitt views them simply as athletes, with no more complexities in their lives or abilities to bring to the table. Ismail said celebration of Black athletes off the field, like Pitt’s recent spotlight on redshirt senior women’s soccer forward Taylor Pryce’s summer internship, is the type of content she would like to see more of.

“I feel like I was always only recognized as an athlete,” Ismail said. “There were other things I did on campus, but I feel like no one ever cared. Even if it was just highlighting Black students that are also athletes, I feel like that’s such an important piece that was always missing.”

One problem that these alums seemed to unanimously agree upon is Pitt Athletics’ reliance on Black athletes to lead the dialogue surrounding Black History Month. The Pitt Athletics Twitter account posted a video of head men’s basketball coach Jeff Capel speaking on leading young Black men to an ACC Network interviewer, but has otherwise lacked any sort of messages from Pitt coaches this February.

Besides the short Twitter videos featuring athletes, Pitt Athletics released a 41-minute Black History Month athlete roundtable on YouTube titled “Panther’s Tribune,” where current athletes Chinaza Ndee (volleyball), Monica McNeil and Ade Jones-Roundtree (track and field) had an in-depth conversation. The roundtable did not include any coaches.

Coe said non-Black coaches could provide support as allies, and Fields delved into the bigger-picture problems that come with what she feels is a lack of leadership from coaches and staff.

“The issue with relying on students again for labor is Black people are doing all the work,” Fields said. “The kids end up doing a bulk of the work when it should be the adults and administrators who are being paid to get this stuff done, because, again, these people are not being compensated for their labor.”

Gabby Yearwood, the anthropology department’s director of undergraduate studies, has done extensive research throughout his career on structural racism within collegiate athletics. Although Yearwood hasn’t followed Pitt Athletics’ Black History Month actions specifically, he pointed out Black students have been historically tasked with educating others about racism, particularly in the college environment.

He said because of the stresses student athletes face, particularly Black student athletes, administrators at universities should help take the lead on educational projects, allowing the students to make a difference without forcing them to bear too much additional pressure.

“While I think we should never get in the way of students leading, and I’m completely 100% in students leading in so many areas, we have to make sure they’re not taking on a burden of responsibility,” Yearwood said. “Part of that, even in leading, is reaching out and connecting with resources at the University that can move the needle for everybody.”

Everett said she placed a priority on amplifying Black athletes’ voices during her work for Black History Month. She said multiple coaches, including Capel and gymnastics head coach Samantha Snider, “raised their hands” and offered to contribute, but the primary focus remained on the athletes.

“The thing that we kept in mind is that our student-athletes expressed that their voices weren’t being heard,” Everett said. “My personal main focus was really on the student-athlete, going off of some comments made as we were leading up into that point just about them wanting their voices heard and wanting people to kind of see them beyond the jersey.”

The alums praised players and staff of the Pitt gymnastics team, in particular, for taking greater initiative during Black History Month. While they enjoyed the Black Lives Matter leotards the team unveiled for its Unite We Meet, the alums appreciated the action-driven decisions more than acts of symbolism. For example, the team has posted links on its Twitter account for organizations that support the Black community. While the primary Pitt Athletics page promoted the uniforms, it didn’t share the organization thread.

Borghetti did not address in the prepared statement why the main Pitt Athletics account spotlighted the uniforms without spreading the organization thread.

The alums said the more effort and commitment that the University puts into supporting its Black athletes, the more the school will be rewarded with recruits who want to come to a place of inclusivity. Coe pointed out students’ mental health problems can become a huge obstacle in their performances on the field as well, so expending extra effort to provide a comfortable environment for athletes of color can give those athletes extra confidence and consistency in their respective sports. First-year gymnast Nay’yarrah Winder expressed in February what the gymnastics teams’ bold actions meant to her.

“Being on this team, doing something like this and being able to know that your team supports you no matter what is amazing,” Winder said.

Although Everett clarified that she does not oversee social media, she gave some insight on how Pitt runs the different accounts. While recently hired Director of Social Media Katie Meyers, who Everett said has “done a really good job,” primarily regulates the main Pitt Athletics account, a group effort from her and the athletic department’s communication team runs the specific sports accounts.

Everett hopes that other teams will follow the gymnastics program’s lead in the future, praising how the team — from coaches to players — bought fully into the plan they came up with alongside the athletic department.

“I can’t say if other folks will do it, but from my standpoint, the collaboration that we had with gymnastics, I’m hoping that that set the standard,” Everett said. “It was very intentional that the way that that information was rolled out and presented because we were trying to create a template that other sports teams could use across our athletic programs.”

The former Panthers agreed that Pitt could look far beyond the approach it has used thus far. Although educational videos and messages can have positive benefits, they said these posts represent the bare minimum that the athletic department can embrace for such an important month. Fields said that, for starters, Pitt could promote reading lists and podcast recommendations on all of its platforms and host more educational panels.

She also suggested that Pitt’s 2011 “Athletics at Pitt: The Forefront of a Century of Change” event, featuring legendary sportscaster Bob Costas as host, should become an annual tradition. The program served as a centennial celebration of Pitt’s first varsity Black athletes, gathering together Pitt legends that included Grier, NBA player Curtis Aiken and gold medalists Herb Douglas Jr. and Roger Kingdom.

Fields and former Pitt football kicker Ian Troost, who made headlines in 2017 when he kneeled during the national anthem to protest systemic oppression, penned an open letter to Pitt Athletics over the summer in an attempt to spearhead change and hold their alma mater accountable. The letter urged the athletic department to make several structural changes immediately, like hiring a Black mental health counselor and adding a person or committee tasked with receiving whistleblower complaints related to bias.

Troost said the University has not met the demands from the letter. With the extra spotlight that social justice issues have right now, Troost expressed disappointment in Pitt Athletics’ handling of Black History Month this year, feeling it missed a chance to show Pitt’s commitment to racial equity beyond symbolic gestures.

“This was such an opportunity for the department to show what it had planned, to show what they’re doing, to show what they’ve done since the summer when Jordan and I wrote the op-ed calling them out and listing things they can do that they still haven’t done, the progress of the affinity groups,” Troost said. “There’s nothing to supplement it.”

Fields said with the athletic department’s size and influence, Pitt has no excuse not to enter Black History Month with a prepared plan that shows they take racial justice seriously and show the message extends beyond a hashtag. Her biggest advice for Pitt Athletics — ask for help.

“They have kids that graduated in the last five years who could change the entire department,” Fields said. “What you’re doing right now isn’t working. It’s not and that’s the reality of the situation. If something is not working and it’s inherently harming people, you need to stop, reevaluate what you have going on, and ask someone for help that knows what to do.”

Troost said he thinks Pitt Athletics should ask for help from Black Action Society specifically, saying the organization always displayed exemplary preparation and organization for Black History Month during his time as part of the club. He said the group had many events planned throughout the month and roles for everyone involved, while Troost said he feels the paid employees for Pitt Athletics haven’t taken the month nearly as seriously.

The alums emphasized Pitt should also spend as much effort on education within the department as it does outside of it, recalling countless instances of microaggressions they or their teammates experienced in the athletic environment.

“I can think about countless conversations that I witnessed or experienced that to this day are triggering,” Fields said. “I can think of them today and almost tear up because I should not have had to hear those things just trying to run track and get a damn degree.”

Ismail felt an internal focus from the program could help create a change in culture, reflecting on conversations she had at practice she called “offensive,” “discriminatory” and “derogatory.”

“If there was a culture change where people were recognizing the struggles of Black people and the suffrage of Black people and the progress of Black people then I feel like those conversations wouldn’t have a space,” she said. “It changes how people view themselves, view the people around them.

Borghetti said that the current athletic administration as well as track and field coaching staff are unaware of these conversations, but the behavior Ismail described “is certainly not condoned by Pitt Athletics or the overall university.” He added that athletes and staff members subjected to such actions “are strongly encouraged to report it to department leaders and utilize the many resources available [to] them.”

Although the former athletes see the attention Pitt Athletics has started to give Black History Month as a small step in the right direction, they worry that this may be the peak of Pitt’s efforts. With the athletes arguing it took what’s been called “the largest movement in U.S. history” this summer for Pitt Athletics to begin shifting its attention to topics of race and social justice, the former athletes fear a decreased effort from the school next year, instead of building on its progress and considering alumni criticism.

Ismail said she predicts to see the “same thing if not less,” but she would love for Pitt to prove her wrong.

“I hope that they do more of everything,” Ismail said. “I hope they bring other resources, I hope they consult their athletes, I hope they have more diverse staff. I hope for the better of Black student experience in general for Pitt, but I would put special awareness on student athletes because it’s one of the most difficult things I’ll probably ever go through. I just want better for the incoming classes and generations.

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