Breonna Taylor, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice, Michael Brown and George Floyd: These are just some of the names student-athletes will carry on their backs for the 2020-21 school year. The names of 22 Black people in total killed by either police brutality or racial discrimination are etched onto the newest student-athlete backpack designed in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement.
On Aug. 16, the USC Athletic Department released the backpack’s look on their social media platforms. The design, normally helmed by the Trojan Athletic Senate, was drawn up in collaboration with the United Black Student-Athletes Association.
TAS employed executive member and senior baseball player John Thomas to draft up a concept because of his clothing design experience. Soon after, Thomas approached UBSAA officers graduate track and field athlete Anna Cockrell and senior volleyball player Candice Denny with the opportunity to put the new design on the backpacks.
“I’m a captain of my team, Anna is the captain to her team, Candice is as well,” Thomas said. “So, as leaders of USC Athletics, we all thought it would be a really great opportunity to unapologetically state the direction we want the program to go.”
The more than 600 USC student-athletes are usually spotted on campus by the cardinal and gold backpacks distributed to them at the beginning of each school year. Normally, the bags are a symbol to everyone on campus that a student competes for the University outside of the classroom. But this year, the designers saw an opportunity to make a new kind of statement showing where the Athletic Department stands in the wake of nationwide protests surrounding racial injustice in the United States.
The names selected are those whose killings propelled the Black Lives Matter movement to the forefront of U.S. discourse. But the designers also wanted to spotlight Black women and transgender women killed within the last decade and honor Emmett Till, whose lynching in 1955 in Money, Miss. catalyzed the Civil Rights Movement.
“It [was] just hard to read through obituaries and choose those names,” Denny said. “But at the end of the day, those are people that we want to carry on our backs with pride, and we hope that every athlete is proud to have the backpack.”
An ‘SC logo filled by the trans-inclusive pride flag overlays the rows of names on the design. After the design’s publication on social media, some criticized that the LGBTQ+ symbolism overshadowed the message of the Black Lives Matter movement. Denny defended the decision, citing intersectionality as an important aspect of the project to ensure all Black lives are represented.
“You can’t say Black Lives Matter if you don’t recognize all the Black queer lives that also matter and are always in danger,” Denny said.
The backpack’s Instagram post has more than 1,000 comments, some of which accuse the Athletic Department of virtue signaling and ignoring the supposed “other side” of police brutality. In an email to the Daily Trojan, USC Senior Associate Athletic Director Denise Kwok reiterated the importance of the department supporting student-athletes in raising awareness of racial injustice.
“We encourage our student-athletes to use their platforms to amplify their voices regarding issues that are important to them, including in regards to social issues,” Kwok wrote. “This was an entirely student-athlete driven effort, and we were proud to support them.”
The UBSAA hopes that the backpacks will serve as a conversation starter among the USC sports community. After their distribution, Denny explained potential plans to auction off a few to those interested within the USC community and donate the funds to charity.
Even without an on-campus appearance this semester, the backpacks serve to initiate a dialogue, one that both Thomas and Denny believe will set the standard for how USC will act in the future and what fans should expect out of the student-athletes they cheer for.
“We are so much outside of just being athletes,” Denny said. “So this backpack shows that we can have a voice, we can speak up about whatever we believe in, we can have political opinions.”