University of Utah athletic team use their platforms to promote social justice

Story and photo by BRIANNA PEARSON

“I can’t breathe.” Those were the last words uttered by George Floyd before he was killed on May 25, 2020. “Black Lives Matter,” “No justice, no peace,” were chants millions of protestors shouted throughout many cities in the United States during summer 2020.

The office of Equity, Diversion, and Inclusion at the University of Utah quickly issued a statement: “EDI stands in solidarity with our Black family, friends, neighbors, students, faculty, staff, and colleagues. We mourn with them as we collectively process the more profound meaning and complexities of the wounds that have been inflicted with the injustices and deaths over the past 400 years.”

After multiple deaths occurred throughout the Black community, many sports teams across the world took action in showing support for the BLM movement and social justice. Some of the University of Utah sports teams have been recognizing the university’s call to action throughout their programs.

Nona Richardson, the executive senior associate athletics director, said two social justice groups within the Department of Athletics have been created. “The student-athletes UTAH group, (United Together Against Hate) as well as the staff UTUA, (United Through Understanding and Action) allows us to educate, have open conversations and partake in activities that engage in action (voting, marches, unity walks, etc.),” Richardson said in an email interview.

“The UTUA group was formulated after the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor; the UTAH Group expanded in size and scope and has been a catalyst for change amongst the student-athlete population,” Richardson said. 

Richardson said from the formations of these two groups, she has hope that the work in the social justice realm will continue in all areas of social justice issues.  

Many teams — like Utah football, men’s basketball, women’s basketball, women’s soccer, women’s volleyball, track and field, and gymnastics — all released statements on their social media platforms in 2020 to show their support of their fellow student-athletes.

Utah women’s soccer team members wearing their warm up jersey before a game against Oregon in support of social justice.

The gymnastics team in particular, posted a unique Instagram post. Athletes came together and created a video that had different gymnasts and staff members speaking. This video gave a message to the community about how they “stand together in peaceful solidarity to demand equality and change.”

A video was later created that included different athletes of a few different Utah sports teams standing in solidarity. This post specifically shows videos and pictures of student-athletes demanding to see change. 

Whitney Hessler is a sprinter on the Utah track team. She said she thinks certain teams at the U are doing a better job at recognizing this call to action as opposed to others. In a FaceTime interview she said, “As a whole throughout Utah athletics, I have seen improvement, but we have a long way to go.” 

The track team has had open forums for discussion about social justice, and some of the women of color on the team spoke on things that are important to them. Hessler said, “This has been a great platform within our team for us to learn more and listen.” 

But, this has been the only thing the track team has done.

The Utah football team was the first team to put words such as “Equality,” “Unity,” “Love,” and “Peace” on the back of their jerseys during the 2020 season. 

Players on the women’s basketball team wore all the same shooting shirts with the team’s social justice verse highlighted during their 2021 season.

“I love the idea of having some sort of word on the back of our jerseys. I am surprised we haven’t done that yet, honestly,” Hessler said. 

Taylor Watson, another Utah track member, said in a FaceTime interview she would love to see a moment of silence or some sort of kneeling before each track meet to recognize social equality. 

Watson said she wonders whether the track team will recognize social equality in the future. “Honestly, it’s sad to say, but I feel like we won’t talk about it again unless there is another situation that happens, like another death or another protest,” she said.  

Her teammate, Hessler, said, “I hope we keep moving in the direction we are, especially with actionable items like bringing girls on here who are diverse, and having a community where everyone feels welcome and comfortable.” 

She wishes the track team was more open about what they stand for, and use their platform to bring awareness to social justice issues. She gives an example of this by explaining how she wished her team did something to acknowledge Black History Month.

“The student-leadership in this area has been outstanding and it encompasses both our men’s and women’s teams, and not only student-athletes of color, but allies as well,” Richardson said. The strength of Utah athletics is in the diversity of its population, she said, “but also like mindedness for change.”