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Sunday, June 23, 2024

UC Davis women’s basketball team kneels for the National Anthem, shining light on Black History, Future

Aggies show that sports are about far more than just the game

By EMME DUNNING — features@theaggie.org

The UC Davis women’s basketball team has always strived for greatness. The program has secured six regular season championships since becoming an official member of the Big West Conference in 2007, including five in a row from 2017 to 2022, all under head coach Jennifer Gross. 

This past February the team set out to continue its legacy of excellence both on and off the court. Beginning with a game against UC Santa Barbara on Feb. 1 and continuing throughout the month, all members of the team and coaching staff took a knee together during the playing of the National Anthem at every home game as part of a Black Futures Month pre-game presentation.

Before the National Anthem began, a short speech written in collaboration with the players and coaches was also read aloud by a team member each night:

“We honor and remember the sacrifices, suffering and contributions of Black people to our country. We acknowledge those who have paved the way for us to continue the fight against the racial injustice that is still prevalent today. We challenge you — our family, friends and fans — to think about the ways that our community can fight discrimination and work together to build a more inclusive future through empathy, education and compassion.”

  This presentation was in solidarity with communities across the United States recognizing Black History Month, and with it a celebration of African American culture, achievements and perseverance. Cities across the nation commemorated the historic month through rallies, festivals, demonstrations and more. UC Davis, which has joined a growing movement to rebrand the month as Black Futures Month, showed support with various workshops and performances. 

Among the four UCD players who gave a speech preceding the playing of the National Anthem was fifth-year psychology and history double major, Evanne Turner, who found the presentation particularly impactful. 

“It is a piece of me,” Turner told The Aggie when reflecting on the importance of Black History Month. 

Turner led the Big West Conference in scoring in the 2022-23 season and has been named to the All-Big West First Team for both of the last two seasons. 

Although playing well is a major goal for the shooting guard, Turner wants to ensure that her legacy as a UC Davis athlete includes not only her achievements on the court, but also her commitment to social justice. 

“People should recognize you for more than just your sport,” Turner said. “You’re in the spotlight, so you need to use that platform to the best of your ability.” 

Turner and her team join a rich tradition of athletes using their platform through sports to amplify important issues. Colin Kaepernick, John Carlos, Elizabeth Williams and ​​Muhammad Ali are among these trailblazers. Historically, these athletes have endured intense backlash for their actions not only from fans, but in many cases from their own teammates and coaches. Jennifer Gross, head coach of the UCD women’s basketball team, is working hard to change this narrative. 

“Basketball players, and specifically women’s basketball players, have always been leaders when it comes to social justice issues,” Gross wrote in an email correspondence.

She added that she has “no doubt that [her] players will go on to be leaders in their respective fields where they will have the opportunity to influence systems, policies and institutions in ways that will lead to more equity for everyone.”

Gross also noted that the team’s dedication to supporting Black Futures goes far beyond the decision to kneel for the National Anthem. She highlighted initiatives including building mentoring relationships with a Sacramento elementary school, handing out informative pamphlets at home games and ensuring discussions of Black culture and history are commonplace within the team.

Long-time UC Davis women’s basketball play-by-play radio broadcaster and UC Davis alumni, Greg Wong, has seen the unique culture of the university’s women’s basketball program firsthand. 

“I don’t know if there are many other teams in the country that did something like that,” Wong said while reflecting on the team’s demonstration. 

“I think it speaks to this culture that [Gross] has built over the 13 years as head coach,” Wong continued. “[This culture] does empower their players to make these kinds of statements and have the backing of their coaches and of their community to be able to express themselves this way.”

It’s obvious that players, coaches and fans alike have taken note of the role athletes can play in social justice and movements larger than the game itself. Although Black History Month has come to a close, the UC Davis women’s basketball team’s commitment to Black Futures endures. 

Written by: Emme Dunning — features@theaggie.org

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