Posted April 20, 2018
When senior basketball player Devin Buckley began school at UW-River Falls as a freshman, he said everybody mainly just went with the flow and there weren’t many conversations about diversity in the predominately Caucasian Athletics Department.
Now, the Athletics Department is driven to increase diversity efforts on campus, and staff aren’t afraid to talk about challenging topics, Buckley said.
“They’re trying to give a platform for people of a different ethnicity and race to come together and to speak about their challenges or what they like about the university,” Buckley said. “They really try to implement change and allow people to see all sorts of different perspectives … and do a good job of making everyone see that people see things in different ways.”
This includes educating people that phrases or sayings might be OK in one culture but not necessarily for everyone. Buckley said that the world isn’t always simple and nice and that there are things that are said that shouldn’t be. However, he said sport gives a chance for people to interact with people that might normally be out of their group of peers. This allows athletes to interact differently compared to when they’re on the field or court.
“We have some guys that are more country and some from the city,” Buckley said. “There’s a lot of different types of people, and we get to just hang and learn from each other.”
Buckley mentioned how last season they would be driving through the country and teammate Garret Pearson would point out things Buckley never have even considered, since he grew up in the city. Sport has helped start new conversations about diversity beyond just ethnicity, Buckley said.
However, Buckley still says that some people might make assumptions that seem normal to them but not to others. Buckley is biracial; his mom is white and his dad is black.
“The question I get a lot is, ‘What are you?'” Buckley said. “My answer is usually that I’m a person, just like you. Even though someone may look different than you, they may have a lot of the same things that go on in their lives.”
While Buckley said he hasn’t specifically felt uncomfortable being a minority in a mainly white athletic department, there are a few people from his own team who haven’t always felt like they fit in right away. Buckley said he’s pretty good at adapting and being outgoing in the situation he’s in, so he gives advice to those who are having trouble.
“I tell them to be OK with being different and to try to be adaptable and flexible with other people,” Buckley said. “Understand that they don’t come from the same place that you come from and try to make the best of it. … Become friends with as many people as you can, and learn from other people.”
Buckley said that Athletic Director Crystal Lanning has been especially influential in the changing culture, along with the additions of Assistant Athletic Director Kellen-Wells Mangold and Chantel Flegler, the coordinator for the Office of Diversity, Inclusivity and Student Athlete Success in the Athletics Department.
UWRF has about 88 percent of its students who identify as white, according to the fall 2016 Campus Data Report. Among campus athletes, 96 percent of the women are white, along with 89 percent of the men, according to 2016-2017 ethnicity reports compiled by the Athletics Department.
Problems can arise with teammates when someone has perceptions or stereotypes because they’ve never had a chance to interact with someone of a social class or culture group, Flegler said.
“It depends where someone’s from, if they’re city versus farm; and the perception of ‘others’ can get in the way, and there is ignorance,” Flegler said. “That is one of the biggest challenges, because we don’t have a lot of cultural differences on this campus.”
Flegler is in her first year at UW-River Falls after coming from Michigan State University. The issue of increasing diversity and talks beyond race to gender and sexual identity are questions that are a “fairly new subject in this athletic department,” she said.
“It’s going to take time, and this year is the first time we’re making a big push,” Flegler said. “It’s a slow start getting athletes to participate, and one day those conversations won’t feel as uncomfortable or forced.”
With so few student-athletes of varying cultures at the university, a lot of effort has come from the administration side in working with the coaches and teams to get them exposed to other ways of thinking. Flegler said this could include gender, culture and religion lines, because even along gender lines there are different ways that people think.
Coaches are a major part of implementing this culture, according to Ali Krohn, a junior softball player. She said that her coaches are very open and that directly leads to a supportive team.
“Our coaches are good at making sure we’re doing OK psychologically and not just an athlete,” Krohn said. “I don’t think anyone is close-minded on our team.”
Krohn said that this atmosphere leads to having conversations about race and sexuality that may be hard to have with people that aren’t considered “family.” She said it’s easier to foster those conversations when you’re comfortable with the people you’re around.
The department’s current goal is to begin providing programs to get a conversation started. As new freshmen classes come in, it will be easier to teach the culture that they’re trying to create, Flegler said.
Falcons United, which is a diversity council for student athletes that meets each month, has worked with topics like LGBTQ+ allied training, using sports as a vehicle for social change and class and gender privilege. The department also has plans to do more theme nights next season like the two “you can play nights” they participated in this season. These games raise awareness about LGBTQ+ players in hopes of making a safer environment. The department also plans to roll out a transgender student athlete policy in the fall.
If an athlete isn’t identifying within his or her own team well, Flegler said there are many avenues on campus to find talks about diversity and inclusion. Athletics is working closely with the Center of Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging to get athletes more engaged and not just be in a bubble but instead interact with others.
“If you’re having a difficult time, the diversity office has access,” Flegler said. “Advisers for all of our affinity groups (different cultural groups on campus) can connect people. There’s talking circles to get together and talk about issues on campus, and I think that’s a great outlet for people that may be having difficulties with their teammates.”
These more well-established resources aim to combine people with groups in order to connect with people beyond race. Flegler stressed that piggybacking off of what they already have will better serve the students here while the Athletics Department is still trying to create that inclusive culture.