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Beyond the Field: Howard Student-Athletes Activism

 The Howard men’s basketball team locks arms with each other before their game against South Carolina State. Photo courtesy of Piercing Images.

Athletes are recognized for their performances on the fields and courts across various sports, giving them platforms to speak about issues that affect them or those around them. Professional players such as LeBron James, Colin Kaepernick and Maya Moore are just a few examples of athletes in activism. The Howard student-athlete body continues this pursuit of social justice, refusing to be subjected as just athletes.

The Howard men’s basketball team made strides this past season making the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1992. However, one of the biggest storylines of the year was their advocacy of Black maternal health. According to a 2022 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Black women are three times more likely to die from pregnancy-related complications than white women. The lack of quality healthcare due to systematic discrimination against non-white women leads to this mortality rate. Graduate Bison captain Jelani Williams said he and the team wanted to raise awareness of this issue.

“We just wanted to honor Black mothers and the community around us,” Williams said. “Being at Howard, 70 percent of the student body is women, mostly Black women. In today’s era in politics, with Roe v. Wade and birthing rights being under fire, we just felt like that was an issue for us as a team to talk about and raise awareness around.”

Williams says, “The platform is everything,” with the team’s rise in attention over the past couple of seasons.

“I’m not the only person that cares about this issue or is affected by it, but part of our responsibility as athletes is we have an opportunity to speak on what’s important to us,” Williams said. “Especially with everything we were able to do this year, it just makes sense for us to try and move the needle with different issues.”

Howard students have always brought awareness to the issues closest to them. As Black students, they are unable to “remain neutral” in their fight against racial discrimination. Several Howard teams partake in kneeling during the National Anthem before their games. This movement originated when former NFL quarterback Kaepernick kneeled to protest police brutality in the United States of America in 2016.

The movement still continues before Bison sporting events, often in contrast to their opponents.

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Another significant emphasis from Howard athletes is prioritizing mental health. Athletes are often viewed as sources of entertainment, often with disregard to their emotions and personal situations. According to the Department of Athletics psychotherapist Lisa Daniels, getting sports viewers to recognize this can be challenging.

“One of the more difficult aspects is the lack of understanding people have about athletes and the misperception that elite athletes are immune from mental illness,” Dr. Daniels said. “The belief that athletes are limitless and powerful is a half-truth. While these traits can be internally motivating and improve performance, they are not constant. This belief denies athletes compassion, self-compassion, recovery and support.”

The nationwide issue of mental illness among college athletes led to the development of an organization called Morgan’s Message. The program emerged after Duke University lacrosse player Morgan Rodgers committed suicide in 2019. The president of Howard’s chapter, sophomore Taylor Matthews, emphasized the importance of fighting the narrative that student-athletes are not more than their title.

“We fight against the narrative by what we do at Morgan’s Message,” Matthews said. “Telling our stories, providing on and off-campus resources, hosting events and discussing these issues in a safe space. This is how we can fight against the narrative. Also, having open communication with the athletic department and coaches at Howard without fear of retaliation is essential for mental health to be taken seriously.”

Matthews quoted her “stressful and anxiety-riddled environment” as her passion for creating a safe space for others.

“Often, people don’t address mental health concerns until something awful happens to a student-athlete,” Matthews said. “My belief was that the Howard women’s lacrosse coaching staff was indifferent to my mental health and, in fact, contributed to my difficulties. Believe the athlete while they are still alive.”

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That is the ultimate message: students are more than just sources of entertainment. Howard athletes’ advocacy echoes values they will continue to fight for until change is implemented.

Copy edited by Jadyn Barnett

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