Women’s basketball leading “hands-on” fight for unity, hard conversations and empathy in the age of social media | #students | #parents

The Kentucky women’s basketball team took a stand on Wednesday, and they aren’t done yet. Their day consisted of a social justice march across campus in the morning, followed by a unity fair and a (virtual) press conference with the media in the afternoon. Sights and sounds from the march included chants, posters, prayers and speeches. The unity fair that followed included booths with information on subjects ranging from mental health to voter registration.

Upon my arrival, I was told the entire day, from start to finish, was planned by the student athletes. They were the ones who had the idea in the first place; they were the ones who did the research for each of the informational poster boards. Sure, they received support along the way from the coaches and administrators, and the official UK Hoops twitter account helped spread the word, but this was a player-led march. That meant something to them.

“Everybody [across the country] was sitting out of practices and games that day, and we decided to do the same. We skipped one practice and came up with what we wanted to do. At first, it was just going to be a march. And then some of our teammates added that we wanted to do more things that would be more hands-on,” said senior KeKe McKinney. “We split everybody up in groups… It was everybody contributing.”

That group contribution culminated in an inclusive event. The UK hoops team may have organized it, but plenty of others participated in it and learned from it. Members of the UK volleyball team, men’s and women’s soccer teams, and track and field teams also attended the march and subsequent fair. Students walking by Memorial Coliseum on their way to or from class stopped by the informational tables; drivers on Rose Street and Avenue of Champions honked their horns or waved out their windows in support. Everyone wore masks.
“We made an environment where people felt comfortable to ask questions, and that’s what is important. We want to spread awareness, but we also want to answer questions,” said redshirt sophomore Olivia Owens. “It was honestly a lot of support; no one was negative. We definitely welcome a difference of opinion, but we don’t like disrespect, and it was a wonderful event.”

It was like a family cookout, even though some of them were strangers,” McKinney added. “The vibes there were all positive, and I loved every second of it.”

Part of that environment can be attributed to the environment the team’s coaches are working to curate among the group with their willingness to have hard conversations.

“Basketball is more than the physical aspects of the game; there’s a mental aspect. With regards to all of the stuff going on in the world and in our lives, that does affect us mentally. To be able to talk to our coaches and have a very open dialogue and open communication with them is very important,” Owens said. “To know we have their support always really does mean a lot. It’s genuine support, it’s not ‘oh, we’ll just post a little flyer.’ They’re out there with us, and they mean it.”

“It makes us feel like we have more power with their help. We’re on big platforms, but they’re on bigger platforms,” McKinney added. “It shows they love us not just as players, but also as people. They care about what’s going on in our world and how we feel about it.”

“They’re going to support whatever we want. If we want to go out and protest, they’re going to make it happen. They’re going to support us; they’re going to make sure we’re heard,” junior Rhyne Howard said. “We’re more than just athletes to them.”

Making sure they’re seen as more than athletes will continue to be a priority for this team — and other teams on campus — moving forward. One member of the volleyball team held a sign that read “Love us on and off the court or don’t support us at all,” and another carried one reading “you don’t deserve Black athletes if you don’t value Black lives.” Those sentiments are felt by the hoops team too, especially after they saw some of the comments from Kentucky fans regarding their “We the people” video earlier this week.

I think it’s important those who do comment on our videos understand we’re talking about Black Lives Matter, the statement,” Owens said. “I feel like we put out a video with regards to how we feel about things, as athletes speaking out on issues in our lives.”

Now is a good time for a reminder that players, recruits and their families can see you. That’s the title of an article KSR’s own Drew Franklin published in response to a few UK football players and one UK football recruit’s mother sharing their disappointment after some members of the fanbase reacted negatively to the team’s walk-out in late August. When the men’s basketball program put out their own Black Lives Matter video, players and their families could also see the hurtful comments that rolled into their mentions.

The same can be said for the women’s basketball team.

After seeing the backlash — especially that our men’s team had to face — it was definitely devastating. It’s easy to say ignore it, but we’re people and we see [those comments],” Owens said. “We’ve got to just keep moving on, keep putting our foot forward. We’re going to continue to talk about the things that affect us, our families, and our teammates. Hopefully we get that support. We have gotten a lot of support, and we’ll continue to focus on those who do support us.”

“If people have a problem with what we’re saying or how we’re expressing ourselves,” Howard interjected, “Then they can just see themselves through the door.”

The support they have felt, however, has motivated them to keep pushing. Even today, Howard — who is normally one of the more-reserved players on the team, despite her All-American status — felt emboldened enough to stand at the front of the crowd and lead the chants using a megaphone.

“I definitely got comfortable seeing that everyone was supporting me. Having Dre [Edwards] up there with me made it even better,” Howard said. “Usually I am kind of shy and I don’t say much, but today was a chance for me to be heard and for me to get everything out there that I need to say.”

Fellow leader Edwards also had the chance to get out the words she isn’t necessarily used to sharing with others. According to her teammates, she’s interested in the theatre, and she’s invited them to several plays. She put that passion to work on Wednesday with a reading of an original poem, something she says she loves doing.

“It actually wasn’t my idea to share my poems, my teammates thought it would be good if I did and I went along with it,” Edwards told KSR. “In the beginning I had jitters. I was a little nervous as everyone was watching me. My first thought was not to mess up, [and] I did a little but thats ok. After I got over my jitters, I was thinking to myself that I have to speak loud so that everyone could not only hear what I was saying, but feel what I was saying. I had a ton of fun doing this.”

“It was powerful,” McKinney said of her teammate’s words. “She did an amazing job, and I felt like it touched and reached a lot of people.”

Not long after Edwards’ speech, the microphone was handed off to the UK Police Department’s Chief, Joe Monroe. He was there for a question-and-answer session with the players and anyone else who was in attendance. He answered questions about his officers’ body cameras and the training they go through in order to work on campus, for example. The way he conversed with the crowd and answered their questions seemed to satisfy those in attendance, and Owens even called him cool.

“I think it was really cool to be able to talk to him. He’s a really cool guy just as a person, and hearing his answers to our questions definitely makes me think he’s also a cool officer as well. It made me feel more comfortable on campus, to be honest with you,” the University of Maryland transfer said. “I’m new to campus; I’m new to Kentucky in general. To hear his thoughts on how there are race initiatives with regards to people and officers, and the steps he’s taken as the chief to create a more-inclusive environment has made me more feel a lot more comfortable on campus.”

“What we want to do is bring together the Black community and police officers to re-establish the relationship and to gain trust,” she continued. “I feel like a lot of times, people think the Black Lives Matter movement is anti-police, and that’s not it at all. We definitely address police brutality, but we don’t think all cops or all police officers are bad. We wanted to make that clear and show that we can work together. That was our goal.”

“I think as a group we got a lot of good insight on what kind of protocols they go through and what precautions he’s taking to make sure his officers continue to do the right thing and not be like what we’re seeing on TV and on the news everyday,” Howard added.

This conversation, and the ones the student athletes have been having with their teammates and coaches for the past several weeks, will not be the last. The team is already brainstorming their next move. They’re hoping to expand on the “hands-on” approach they achieved on Wednesday. Perhaps each future event could go more in-depth on the topics that were covered at today’s tables. Their main goals will remain the same – start conversations and promote unity.

In that regard, they’re taking notes from the pros. Literally. The women leading the charge in the WNBA have served as examples for how to use platforms, create change, and still ball.

“They are definitely setting the example for us,” Owens said. “They’re in a position we’d love to be in one day, so definitely looking at what they are doing as far as using their platforms to speak out about social injustice. That’s something we want to do as well.”

Of course, that’s a tall order for a group of famously-busy student athletes to pull off even under normal circumstances. It will be even more challenging with COVID-19 restrictions. Still, the team is not done talking about social injustice, and social media in 2020 has made it easier than ever for the players to use their voices and their platforms. As Owens put it, they’re “far from done.”

“It may not be next week, it may not be next month, but just know we are coming,” McKinney added. “We are going to use social media. We’re always going to speak out either on our personal [accounts] or our UK account. We’re not going to stop at all.”

Rhyne Howard wrapped things up best.

“There will be no question about how the women’s basketball team is feeling.”




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