Throughout the fall of 2017, hundreds of players across the National Football League brought a debate over police brutality and systemic inequality to the forefronts of people’s minds all across America by taking a knee during the playing of the national anthem. Their actions led national news, ignited barroom and water cooler conversations and became a talking point for a President keen to wage culture wars. Most importantly, their activism inspired a generation of young people. That influence extended to Macalester College, where many members of the women’s soccer team opted to kneel during the national anthem.
After making that decision, the team published an op-ed in The Mac Weekly. They wrote, “It is impossible to ignore the history of systemic injustice that targets people of color in our country, and it is dangerous to pretend that these issues of institutional racism don’t continue to exist today. By taking a knee during the playing of the national anthem, we acknowledge and protest police brutality and racial injustices that affect ourselves, teammates, classmates, friends and families on a daily basis.”
The team unanimously decided that taking a knee was not enough, and that it could be transformed into broader campus activism. After the initial protest, the team turned to other concrete actions and landed on RISE, the Ross Initiative in Sports for Equality. The Initiative is a nonprofit that seeks to educate and train athletic staff and student athletes to promote and have difficult conversations about understanding, respect and equality.
“The women’s soccer team started talking about kneeling during the anthem during this last season, and one of our concerns with doing so was that it would be an empty gesture,” Mia Stripp ’19, the driving force behind the burgeoning partnership, said. “We really wanted to make sure that, although the visible protest was an important first step, we committed ourselves to becoming involved in more tangible ways on our campus and in our community.”
Stripp continued, saying, “Some of the articles we read about NFL players and other professional athletes’ protests mentioned RISE, so I did some research and saw that they have collegiate programs that work on leadership, education and conversation programs. They have also worked with other MIAC schools like Carleton and St. Olaf, so it seemed like they were well-suited to Macalester as well. After speaking with the collegiate coordinator, we thought that they could have a really positive impact on our campus and it seemed like a program that Mac students would really support and be interested in participating in.”
That process begins by sending out a survey to student-athletes, so that RISE can get a sense of the attitudes among Macalester’s community. Soon after, the group will conduct a one-time discovery session, where they meet with members of the school’s student-athlete community as well as the athletic department, to try and “design content and programming which takes into account the unique context of each campus,” according to RISE literature distributed to students who will take part in the discovery session.
Macalester’s discovery session is set to take place later this semester, with two representatives from each varsity team asked to take part. After the session, the nominated representatives will receive training to take back to their own teams to continue having conversations about equality and respect. The goal is to help foster a strong team culture.
To put the session together, members of the women’s soccer team are liaising with Steve Murray, the assistant athletic director. Keeping the moving parts in order has not been straightforward because Stripp is abroad this semester, but Molly Adams ’20 and Allison Dwinell ’21 have stepped up to help organize the discovery session. Despite the difficulties posed, Adams said the department has been helpful in making sure they meet their goal of having a training session before the end of the year.
“The athletic department has been really supportive throughout this process. Steve Murray, our assistant athletic director, is helping us organize the RISE training session. With Mia’s absence, Allison and I came in a little unsure about the progress that had been made so far. Steve caught us up to speed and has been consistently following up with us, the RISE team, and the rest of the athletic staff about the RISE sessions,” Adams said.
The department has worked to be as supportive of the students as possible. At the same time, they’ve also worked to find a balancing act between providing institutional and infrastructural help while maintaining the student-led element.
“Especially with the RISE program, one of the thoughts is that we really want it to be student-athlete driven,” Murray said. “And, we want to be there to support them and help them, be able to continue through and be able to accomplish what they want. But it is really having them take the lead because we feel like it’ll have the biggest impact and effect if it’s coming from them and it’s what they’re wanting to do compared to us leading it.”
Over the next several weeks as the program continues to take shape, the student-driven aspect will remain crucial. Stripp highlighted the ability that players have to come together as one team, something applicable to all sports, not simply soccer. The student organizers are hoping the unique community fostered by sports will help them succeed.
“When the women’s soccer team decided to kneel, for example, some players decided to do it without hesitation and other players decided to remain standing. Even within these differences, because we were able to have a conversation about our reasoning and decision making, there was a level of understanding and support that would have been difficult to establish without the bond that being teammates creates. By starting with individual athletes, and moving to larger groups, I think that the conversation aspect of the RISE program has the potential to be really successful,” Stripp said.