Black student-athletes form collective voice with UBSAA

USC graduate sprinter and hurdler Anna Cockrell has been at the forefront of efforts to establish UBSAA. (Daily Trojan file photo)

Last Wednesday, graduate track and field hurdler and sprinter Anna Cockrell took to Twitter to announce the formation of the first Black student-athlete association in USC’s history.

“Black athletes will not be silent, and @USC_Athletics needs to change,” Cockrell wrote.

Hours after she announced the organization, athletic director Mike Bohn released a statement outlining the formation of the USC Athletics Black Lives Matter Action Team, a historic step by the USC Athletic Department spurred by the Black athletes who penned the letter.

“The charge of this group will be to lead our program through a process of continued listening, learning, and educating with the ultimate goal of developing a series of meaningful and substantive actions and reforms for implementation,” Bohn’s statement read.

Black athletes first brought the conversation to the Athletic Department on May 31. Five days after Black Lives Matter protests erupted across the country over the killing of George Floyd, Cockrell hosted a Zoom town hall to allow athletes to air out grievances and stand against racial injustice both within the University and in their respective communities.

“I think the key takeaway is that no matter how insulated we think USC might be from these issues, that the reality is racism permeates, honestly, every facet of American life and the Black American experience,” Cockrell said.

Student-athletes shared what they had done at local protests and expressed different methods of activism they could bring to USC. The ultimate consensus was the need for an independent, student-led organization that collectively addressed the University on behalf of Black student-athletes.

Over a period of 17 days, members held multiple private calls to discuss what issues within USC Athletics needed to be addressed. Early department statements regarding the protests did not explicitly use the phrase or hashtag “Black Lives Matter,” which was important for members of the developing organization.

“There was some contentiousness over specific posts that didn’t address anything specifically or anything of concern, like George Floyd’s murder, all the other murders and deaths and police brutality,” women’s volleyball junior opposite hitter Candice Denny said. “It was more so about ‘we fight on together.’ While I understand the sentiment, at the same time, this is something much further than that. And if you want to actually support us, it’s going to take a lot more than that.”

Cockrell and other leading members are keeping the exact number and names of participants confidential to honor the safe space the organization provides for Black student-athletes. However, the core members span multiple sports and classes and include Black University employees such as associate professor of clinical education Alan Green and track and field director Caryl Smith Gilbert.

The final product of the two-week deliberation period was a four-page letter to the USC athletic administration and Bohn. The organization’s name was officially announced as the United Black Student-Athletes Association.

UBSAA listed 12 issues and initiatives that demanded a broad array of action from the Athletic Department, University and fans and alumni.

“The goal is that all are going to be addressed, and I think that’s why they weren’t numbered,” Cockrell said. “They’re of equal importance, honestly.”

Of the 12 initiatives, the “promise of no retaliation for public statements” relating to the protests or racial injustice had one of the most in-depth explanations by the organization.

The NCAA has a long, contentious history with student-athlete contracts, and one of the main controversies has been its control over athletes’ images and social media rights. All USC athletes must sign a social media use contract when they arrive on campus, and its blanket legal language can make the legitimacy of political involvement murky.

The weight of professional athletes’ prior activism and ensuing backlash has also discouraged student-athletes from speaking out. Multiple USC athletes cited Colin Kaepernick’s ousting from the NFL because of his police brutality protest as a precedent for the sports community’s reaction to activism and as a cause for intimidation.

“He stood out in racial injustice four years ago and he was blackballed out of the NFL,” football junior tailback Ben Easington said. “So from an NCAA football player standpoint that does all the right things — He gets good grades, he’s a 3.0-above guy, he goes to all the classes, he’s in the playing field, he’s graded high on [Pro Football Focus] — and say he takes a knee … All of the work he has done up to [that point] is not gonna help him.”

UBSAA also outlined the need for the Athletic Department staff to reflect the athletes they work with by considering Black candidates for open jobs. The Sports Psychology department does not have any Black psychologists on staff, and Athletic Medicine has only one Black staff member, according to UBSAA’s statement.

Discrepancy in an Athletic Department’s diversity compared to the student-athlete makeup of universities is a nationwide phenomenon. According to the NCAA Race and Gender Demographics database, approximately 20% of Division I athletes in the 2019-20 school year were Black, while just 10% of coaches and Athletic Department administrators were Black.

UBSAA’s demands do not solely apply to the improvement of the Black student-athlete experience. The organization also calls for scholarships for Black students who do not participate in athletics or have exhausted their NCAA eligibility. For a college system that sees a glaring gap in the number of Black student-athletes that compete compared to the number who walk across the stage at graduation, this can allow the financial means for many to finish their degree and proceed to higher education, Denny said.

“Our value extends far past our athletic eligibility,” Denny said. “That’s one of my favorite points because once our eligibility is exhausted, we’re out looking for graduate endowments and scholarships to help USC Black athletes and students further education, go to grad school, pursue Ph.D.s and the highest levels of education, and I think we can all benefit from that.”

Beyond the letter to the Athletic Department, UBSAA has also created an Instagram account and is planning to become a recognized student organization this semester. According to football junior offensive lineman Jalen McKenzie, the organization hopes to reach beyond the campus and effect change in the South Central community as well.

“The community that USC is in is a large community of people of color, Black people,” McKenzie said. “USC being a predominantly white institution — it’s like its own little world, little bubble. So I think that speaks to a lot of athletes’ experiences, and that’s kind of the space that our organization is trying to create.”

The public nature of UBSAA’s mission and demands on social media is intended to act as accountability for the Athletic Department’s future action — or inaction. The Athletic Department has not provided any updates beyond Bohn’s announcement of the USC Athletics Black Lives Matter Action Team. However, coaches and administrators have kept in touch with the core members of UBSAA frequently as discussions of returning to campus grow more pressing.

“Once a brand has posted something like that, I want them to know that I will hold them accountable,” Denny said. “I have the screenshots, I have the receipts.”

When discussing the new organization, UBSAA organizers shared a common sentiment: that this is just the beginning.

“Any fear or anxiety that I have is mitigated by the fact that it’s not about me, because it’s not,” Cockrell said. “It’s really about the organization and making things better for all Black student-athletes who come through USC. I’m personally not afraid.”

Wednesday, June 24 at 12:04 p.m.: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Anna Cockrell is a former track and field athlete. She is returning to the team in the spring as a graduate student. The article has been updated online to reflect the accurate information. The Daily Trojan regrets the error.