It’s a crowded stadium, and the home team is attempting to complete its first undefeated season in 30 years. The only obstacle is its opponent, the previous league champion. The energy is high, and cheers can be heard as the Color Guard walks to its position and the band readies to play the National Anthem.
Across the nation, it is common to see the above narrative, but what happens next is not as predictable – people may stand at attention, players may hold hands showing team unity or students may even exercise their First Amendment right to protest. It is during these powerfully emotional times that we see our society successes and challenges mirrored and, in some cases, magnified.
Each of these behaviors, although controversial to some, is protected by our Constitution, and school leaders need to understand the role athletic programs play in such situations as they can be positive platforms for social justice.
Social Justice and Athletics – Athletes Want a Better World
Athletic events bring people together; they allow participants to learn about themselves and start bonds with teammates from all backgrounds, and spectators want to support students to be their best. Not surprisingly, passionate students want to express themselves and lead others, especially when they feel their leadership may help their teammates, community or people they care for.
When students choose to participate in social justice activities, they envision and want to bring into existence a better world where everyone is welcome and can succeed. This should not be a surprise considering what students learn from their school experience. Most coaches encourage their athletes to take initiative, act with confidence and be decisive.
Academically, schools focus on developing confident students who are critical thinkers and can lead by example. When students understand and combine these two sets of values, they can engage in behaviors and actions that promote equity for all – social justice movements.
The social justice goal of creating equitable environments is also a focus of athletics when coaches teach students that the individual is much better as part of a team working toward a common goal. Consequently, when student-athletes see inequities in society, is it surprising that they want to make a difference given that they recognize the common goals between athletics and social justice movements?
Students want to make themselves, their teams, their schools and even their communities better; and with their unique understanding of athletics, they may be the most equipped to find their voice and engage in activism to help others.
Supporting Students Who Engage in Social Justice Demonstrations
Social justice as both a topic or demonstration can be uncomfortable for some as they push, and sometimes smash, the current boundaries of what an established society or community finds acceptable. From Tommie Smith and John Carlos raising their fists at the 1968 Olympics to bring attention to African American struggles, to Colin Kaepernick kneeling during the National Anthem in 2016 to protest police brutality, public controversy erupted. Students may experience both positive and negative reactions if they visibly support or draw attention to a cause outside what people expect, but the role of school leaders is to focus and support the student participants.
Regardless of school leaders’ personal feelings of societal challenges, students need to feel supported. Nationwide, schools are re-examining foundational documents such as mission and vision statements, student curriculum materials, and teacher training programs to better address the needs of a diverse and more educated student population.
School leaders also have the obligation to prepare coaches and athletic administrators on how to best support students when they engage in activism. If leaders fail to prepare coaches to discuss societal challenges in meaningful ways, they could be setting students up for unintended negative outcomes. Planning, questioning and conversations are a few ways leaders can prepare for improved student outcomes when students choose to engage in social justice demonstrations. For instance, in the original narrative of the football game, a few questions could be explored:
There are myriad of other possible questions that could arise, but these types of questions are impactful if they generate conversations to truly empower students to be leaders.
Training for coaches alone will not be as successful as school administrative teams should also find ways to support both coaches and students. At various parent nights, public-address announcements and posted materials in both print and digital format, school leaders can and should share their values on how they support equity and social justice. This may make some parents and spectators uncomfortable; they have a right to express their pride or disappointment, but when they know the school expectation before a social justice demonstration occurs, they will have a clearer understanding of how school personnel act, behave and focus on supporting all students. Regardless of parent approval or disapproval, the more information schools share regarding institutional values and how to appropriately respond to support student learning, it will allow for a better understanding by the community and make students feel more respected.
Challenge Coaches with Challenging Literature
The work of being a social justice school leader calls for lifelong learners. Good coaches frequently read a variety of literature on motivating students and cutting-edge techniques. School leaders can also help shape department professional development opportunities by sharing professional reading libraries or encouraging department book reads.
For instance, reading Ibram X. Kendi’s How to Be An Antiracist, Robin D’ Angelo’s White Fragility, Ta-Nehesi Coates’ Between the World and Me, Monique Morris’ Pushout, or Angie Thomas’ The Hate U Give may not be immediate choices of most coaches, but they can be powerful texts when leaders read them with a guiding question such as, “How does this material affect my teaching/ coaching and what is at least one new thing I have learned from it that will help me be a better leader?” In addition, when coaches can share their ideas with others, it allows them to better reflect and clarify their own understandings and how they can better support students.
School leaders can also encourage coaches to access professional organizations such as NOMAD (National Organization of Minority Athletic Directors), Global Community of Women in High School Sports and WeCoach. These organizations continue to work to better prepare coaches so that they can empower our athletes to make their teams, schools and communities better.
Question Students to Understand What They See – Gather Quantitative and Qualitative Data
Social justice issues do not only arise on a state or national level; individual programs may face local challenges as well. It is important that athletic administrators collect and analyze meaningful data to determine team, department and school issues to see what students are feeling.
For example, what happens when a player or group of graduated players make public comments at a school board meeting claiming preferential or racist treatment by a coach? To discern the truth, athletic administrators need to have access to quantitative (hard number data) and qualitative (student testimonial) data. Just as a school’s Title IX Coordinator reviews quantitative data regarding coaching assignments, levels of play offered, and even numbers of rostered players, athletic administrators can compare demographic data of teams and compare them to school data. Such data may prove useful in helping understand community trends and addressing any inequities that may be revealed.
Athletic administrators also need to examine qualitative data they can generate from periodic meetings with representative groups of students to find out what the athletic experience is really like from the student perspective. It is important that these groups be purposefully formed to hear what under-represented student populations experience; if leaders do not gather information from various populations, how do they truly know what students are experiencing?
More often than not, students are open and honest and when school leaders examine both qualitative and quantitative data, they are able to get a clearer picture of how students see and respond to what is going on around them.
Vision of a Better World
Like it or not, high school athletics are a platform for social justice and school leaders have an obligation to explore how to navigate the arenas of educational athletics and societal change so all students can be supported. When school leaders help our students understand the social justice goals of focusing on truth, equity and benefiting all of humanity and how they intersect with athletic goals of empowerment, teamwork and sportsmanship, students then have the potential to become transformative leaders who can help make the world better for everyone.
Dr. Steve Amaro, CMAA, is an assistant principal at Freedom High School in Oakley, California. He previously was an English content coach, athletic director and tennis coach for the school. He is a member of the High School Today Publications Committee.