Our Students

Race, Sport, and Activism Panel

Written by: Dr. Joseph Cooper

On September 1, 2016, before the NFL regular season game between the San Francisco 49ers and San Diego Chargers, Colin Kaepernick captured the nation’s attention by kneeling during the playing the of the national anthem as an act of protest against police brutality and social injustices in the United States (U.S.). Although, Kaepernick had chosen not to stand during the NFL pre-season games of the 2016-2017 season, the visibility of the nationally televised Thursday night game generated a broader national conversation on activism and sport. Since Kaepernick’s initial kneel, there ongoing debates and discussions about protests, patriotism, police brutality, politics, and power relations in the U.S. society. These conversations have occurred everywhere from mainstream news shows, internet blogs, coffee shops, late night comedy shows, sports shows, schools, barbershops and beauty salons, political speeches, town halls, and community spaces.

On October 18, 2017, the UConn campus community extended this dialogue by engaging in a formal conversation on the topic of “Race, Sport, and Activism.” This event was co-sponsored by the Collective Uplift student organization, UConn Athletics Department, and UConn Sport Management Program. The aim of the event was to facilitate a healthy discussion on how race, sport, and activism have been historically and contemporarily intertwined and contributed to positive social progress. Dr. Joseph Cooper, Assistant Professor in Sport Management, was the lead organizer and moderator for the event. According to Cooper, the event provided

“A much needed concerted space for the campus to focus on the ways in which sport and athletes use their respective platforms to communicate messages about broader social issues and ignite positive change in society.”

The panel began with an evocative video of a spoken word artist named Tariq Touré who delivered a powerful poem titled “For the Love the Game.” The poem provided illustrative descriptions of contested sporting spaces that reinforce damaging power relationships between White male economic elites (i.e., NFL owners) and Black male laborers (i.e., a majority of NFL players) , reflect persisting racial inequalities, and fosters an apolitical culture that suppresses Blacks’ engagement in political and social justice engagement. Following the video, Cooper highlighted the historical legacy of activism efforts through sport for race-related social justice causes. Within this description, different types of activism were presented including symbolic, scholarly/educational, grassroots, sport-based, economic, political, legal, media, and music and art. Each of the aforementioned types of activism have been utilized by Black athletes and institutions redress injustices in society. In addition, the historical overview connected sport activism dating back to the late 1800s to the most recent acts of activism in the 21st century.

Following the historical overview, three videos of Colin Kaepernick’s initial post-game explanation of why he chose to take a knee, President Trump’s recent comments about how he feels NFL owners should respond to players who choose not to stand for the anthem, and President Obama’s response to a military service member who inquired about his feelings about the NFL anthem protests were presented. After the videos, the six panelists were introduced. The six panelists included

  • Deshon Foxx – current graduate student in the UConn Sport Management program, UConn alumnus (’14 in Sociology), former UConn football player (2010-2014)), and former NFL player (2014-2017)
  • Angelo Pruitt – current Financial Advisor for Merrill Edge, UConn alumnus (’15 in Economics), and former UConn football player (2010-2015)
  • Tyrae Sims – current undergraduate student in the UConn Sport Management program and former UConn football player (2013-2016)
  • Kelli Thomas – current undergraduate student in Human Development and Family Studies and current track and field athlete (2013-present)
  • Folorunso Fatukasi – UConn alumnus (’17 in Sociology) and current UConn football player (2013-present)
  • Aaron Garland – current undergraduate student in Political Science and current UConn football player (2015-2017)

The panelists were asked questions regarding their perspectives on the videos of Kaepernick, President Trump, and President Obama as well as their thoughts on athletes engaging in activism and specific recommendations that felt would contribute to positive change in society.

Pruitt emphasized how his heightened social consciousness during the latter stages of and following his athletic career influenced his perceptions of activism through sport. He said

“Your sport is what you play. It is not who you are.”

In his opinion, although he did not engage in activism during his playing career, if he could go back knowing what he knows now he would encourage more activism among current athletes. Foxx reflected on his NFL career when he was a member of the Seattle Seahawks immediately following Kaepernick’s activism. He described how he and his teammates agreed locking arms as a team would send a powerful message about unity while expressing support for Kaepernick. He also highlighted the real fear that comes with a lack of job security as a professional athlete when considering to engage in activism. However, he explained how his increased social consciousness throughout his playing career has motivated him to encourage athletes using their platform to foster positive change in society.

Sims expressed the need for athletes challenge power systems that suppress their authentic identities. He explained how athletes are not disconnected from social injustices occurring in the broader society and being educated on these issues is an important first step. Specifically, he referenced how in his hometown community, police brutality and other offenses were not uncommon and thus athletes like himself who are closely connected to these issues feel more compelled to speak out and do anything they can to address these issues. Thomas provided an important lens as a Black woman athlete and described how often times she feels she does not have the same influence as her same race male counterparts in more high profile sports (football and basketball). She explained the importance of athletes using a range of platforms to challenge social injustice outside of sport.

Fatukasi offered an insightful perspective on being a current college athlete and the legitimate fears associated with engaging in activism. Similar to Foxx, Fatukasi has NFL aspirations and said engaging in activism as a current player could hinder his chances of achieving his professional goals. He also emphasized the importance of athletes’ developing themselves holistically and accessing support systems to assist them with balancing difficult decisions about how to promote social change while minimizing the adverse impact on their sport aspirations. Garland expressed the power of collective efforts when seeking to address social injustices. He described how pursuing these efforts alone can be challenging and gaining the support and involvement of an entire team or a group of people is a way to achieve more impactful change. The panel concluded with Q&A from the audience.

The event was well-attended with over 60 attendees and media coverage from CTN and university based media outlets. Cooper said he hopes this is event serves as

“One more step forward within a larger legacy of social justice efforts to create more reflection, education, empowerment, and action that leads to positive changes in our society.”

For those who attended this event and heard from the panelists, it is clear this message resonated loud and clear.

UCAPP’s Summer PLUS Students

Dr. Sarah Woulfin with members from the UCAPP PLUS cohort, summer 2017

This past summer Dr. Sarah Woulfin taught the Educational Policy course to the PLUS Hartford cohort.  Students analyzed multiple current policy issues, including educator evaluation, state assessment policies, school discipline, and the CCJEF decision.  Dr. Carbone, a Hartford Public Schools superintendent and Neag Ed.D. graduate, was a guest speaker on principals’ roles in enacting district initiatives.

What Being a High School Dropout Taught Me About Teaching

Editor’s Note: The following piece — written by Neag School doctoral student Kristi Kaeppel — originally appeared on the UConn Graduate Certificate in College Instruction blog

Kristi Kaeppel
Kristi Kaeppel is a doctoral student in the Neag School’s Learning, Leadership, and Educational Policy program with a concentration in Adult Learning.

I recently began working on a project that looks at how teachers form their beliefs and conceptions of teaching. Like so much of learning, it seems teachers’ beliefs develop incidentally through experience and observation. Perhaps we model our beloved high school science teacher or we imagine ourselves rousing students from boredom a la Robin Williams in “Dead Poets Society.”

When I got reflecting on my own conceptions of teaching, it struck me that so much of how I conduct myself as a teacher comes from having been a failing, disengaged student in high school. When I stepped into my first teaching role in Adult Basic Education, my main objective was to avoid creating the kind of educational environment I so loathed as a teenager.

“I spent a long time hiding the fact that I dropped out of high school. … I think I have finally overcome the stigma and can instead turn my early experiences failing in school into a strength.”
— Kristi Kaeppel, Doctoral Student

Two anecdotes illustrate my loss of faith in schooling that led, along with a slew of other factors, to my eventual dropping out of high school. Looking back on them now, they also make good case studies of what NOT to do as an instructor (especially the first):

  • It was sophomore year, and I was just starting to check out of school, but finally, we were reading a book that captivated me: Great Expectations by Charles Dickens. I hadn’t done many of the assignments all year, but I applied myself to an essay assigned on the book with rare enthusiasm and concentration. I was proud of my work and eager for feedback. When I got my paper back, I had failed with a note saying that it was “very, very, well-written” and that I must’ve plagiarized. And like that, I checked back out beyond return.
  • It was senior year. By this time I was merely a seat warmer in school on the rare occasion that I showed up. Again, there was a glimmer of hope in my high school English class as the teacher held up two books — Go Ask Alice, a (in my opinion) poorly written piece of anti-drug propaganda and The Bell Jar, by Sylvia Plath, a masterpiece and (sadly for me since it features a depressed teenager) one of the books I most identified with. The teacher asked the class which one we should read. I think I was the only one who voted for The Bell Jar. This confirmed that I did indeed have nothing in common with my classmates and that I would be better off staying home and reading.
Empty Classroom
“I had curiosity and a love of learning. I just didn’t find a home for it in school,” says Kaeppel. (Thinkstock Photo)

Adolescent angst and arrogance aside, these two stories illustrate some teaching approaches I was determined not to replicate:

First, I would trust my students and give them the benefit of the doubt. I would not make accusations; I would listen and approach them with compassion. Even if someone does cheat, why are they cheating? What is going on with them that cheating is a viable option and how can I make authentic learning more attractive to them?

While the teacher in the second story did at least try to have a democratic classroom and allow student choice, I think one could go a step further by allowing even more autonomy and choice in assignments. If some people were drawn to one book and others to another, why not have book groups?

The larger point I took away from both of these stories was to always look for those signs of student interest and curiosity and try to kindle, not extinguish, them.

This is easier said than done. It was much easier to be the failing student with my head down in class who muttered insults about the class under my breath than to become a teacher and have one of the most important responsibilities in society.

“My goal as a teacher is to try and create those conditions where … natural-born, inherent curiosity can thrive.”

I spent a long time hiding the fact that I dropped out of high school. Now that I am in a Ph.D. program, I think I have finally overcome the stigma and can instead turn my early experiences failing in school into a strength.

Perhaps one difficulty for many instructors is that they were model students, and so it’s hard to conceive of the mindset of those students who appear lazy, disengaged, and unmotivated.

I was that person. But I had curiosity and a love of learning. I just didn’t find a home for it in school. My goal as a teacher is to try and create those conditions where that natural-born, inherent curiosity can thrive. If hadn’t been for my own experiences failing out of school, I may not have appreciated just how much potential and dormant academic interest can be concealed under the guise of an apathetic student.

Kristi Kaeppel is a doctoral student in the Neag School’s Learning, Leadership, and Educational Policy program with a concentration in Adult Learning. She works as a graduate assistant for the UConn Graduate Certificate in College Instruction (GCCI) program. GCCI is a nine-credit program for individuals interested in expanding their preparation in and understanding of college teaching.