Out of state student-athletes of color at the University of Utah speak out

Story by BRIANNA PEARSON

A high school student athlete’s ambitious dream is to attend a Pac-12 university, compete at one of the highest levels in the nation, all while accomplishing their academic goals. 

Yet, for student athletes who pack up their life from out of state this can be a challenge. This can especially be challenging for those athletes who are of color at the University of Utah. 

According to a fact sheet released by the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute, African Americans/Blacks only make up 1.2% of Utah’s population. Black student athletes often experience an immense culture shock when their feet step on the grounds of the U for the first time. 

Branden Wilson, from Orange County, California, and a junior on the Utah Lacrosse team, talks about some of his experiences when “fitting in” in Utah. 

Wilson is one of only three players on a roster of 44 who is not white. Wilson said he grew up around a predominantly white neighborhood and went to a primarily white high school. He was not surprised with the Utah demographics being predominantly white.

Fitting in at Utah, however, has been something he has struggled with. “I definitely feel like I didn’t fit in freshman year. I still feel like I don’t fit in,” Wilson said in a FaceTime interview. “I feel like I can’t really relate to people as much here, people don’t really understand me.” He said he tends to go away from the crowd, which is how he has always been since he can remember.

Wilson said his coaches have been very “welcoming,” which has helped his experience tremendously. In a follow up email, Wilson said they would always check up on him when he first arrived at the U. This has made him feel very welcome. 

Wilson said he has a very strong support system from his coaches but not as much from his teammates. He said his support system mainly comes from himself as well as his family members. 

Niyah Becker, a junior on the women’s basketball team, had a different experience. She moved to Salt Lake City from Winnipeg, Canada. Becker said during her freshman year she quickly became friends with players of color on both the women’s and men’s basketball teams. She said she loved her freshman year and how she got brought into the college lifestyle.

But then, everything changed. 

“It was more towards the end of my sophomore year that I had realized everything that was going on, especially since all of my Black friends on the teams had transferred and left the U,” Becker said in a phone interview. “I soon asked myself, what the heck, where did all the Black people go?” 

This year, there are a total of three Black student athletes on the women’s team. “I’m not Black, but I’m not white,” Becker said. She said that being the only biracial player is a little weird, and sometimes she doesn’t know where she fits in. 

When the Black Lives Matter protest occurred in summer 2020 and there was a spotlight on the Black community, the coaches and staff of the women’s basketball team made sure all their athletes were mentally and physically supported. They took their feelings into consideration as team-related decisions were made. At that moment, Becker realized, “Oh wait, I am the only light skin on the entire team.”

Becker said she has felt very welcomed by her teammates and coaches. She said the leadership of one teammate in particular, a senior named Megan Huff, helped lead the way for Becker and made her transition easier. 

She said her team is really well educated and respectful. The team knows what is right versus what is wrong, and would never treat someone differently because of the color of their skin. 

Maya Lebar, a junior track star at the U who came from Spokane, Washington, has a similar “team culture” experience as Becker. 

The track team, unlike the basketball team, had only one Black student athlete in the program prior to Lebar’s class. 

“When my class came in, it was a big shift for our team culturally and socially, and I think we’ve adapted pretty well,” Lebar said in a FaceTime interview. “We have all blended and created a space where everyone can feel welcome and included, and that is so valued.”

On the contrary, Lebar’s transition from high school in Spokane to college in Salt Lake City, was very “unfortunate” as no one specifically helped her acclimate to the state of Utah’s culture. She talks about how being a person of color, there wasn’t anyone who took the time to help her adjust to the culture of Utah. 

“When I came in, there wasn’t really a support system for Black student athletes here,” Lebar said. She said she felt welcome here just as any student athlete would. But, being a Black student athlete, she said, “There was not that focus on being a Black student athlete in a predominantly white state within a predominantly white institution.” She said this was disappointing but the Department of Athletic has begun to change its policies. Lebar is hopeful this will contine to improve.

Lebar later said, “I don’t think it was a bad welcome, I felt like I was made to fit in within athletics.” She said if she had the opportunity to change it for others, she would.  

These student athletes have lives outside of their sport and for all three, their experiences in public are similar.

University of Utah athletes, Maya Lebar, Branden Wilson, and Niyah Becker in action during their competition. Photo illustration by Brianna Pearson.

Lebar said she has seen people stare at her when she is at a mall or eating at a restaurant. “I almost expect for people to look at me when I go out,” she said. “It used to make me feel angry, but I’ve had to adapt to where now, I know they aren’t staring at me in a negative way, it is more just curiosity.” 

Becker said, “I’m surprised when I see someone of color out in public, which is very disappointing, but with Utah being how it is, it’s not shocking.”

And Wilson, the lacrosse player, said, “Going out in public, I definitely get looks, I find myself having eyes on me.”

Being an athlete from out of state as well as being a person of color can be challenging. The experiences these three athletes have been through while being at the U so far has only made them stronger and has given them a voice for future student athletes.

A group called UTAH (United Together Against Hate) has now been formed within Utah athletics, which allows student-athletes to have open discussions and educate others.