The Change We Seek

How NU Athletes and Coaches have reacted to the social justice movement and how it compares to other NCAA institutions

By Adam Doucette and Michael Ruberto

All statistics taken from the NCAA Demographics Database, accessible here

Northeastern is home to students from over 140 countries around the world, creating a campus where they can meet and learn from people with many different backgrounds and experiences. 

With the Black Lives Matter movement taking the spotlight this past year and political polarization at an all-time high, it’s becoming increasingly important to be able to learn from and empathize with people from all walks of life. Although there is still room to improve, many athletes, coaches, and administrators are at the forefront of pushing Northeastern forward. 

Mide Oriyomi, women’s basketball sophomore forward, currently serves as the president of the NU Black Athlete Caucus (NUBAC). As she describes it, “Our goal is just to bring exposure to the Black athletic community at Northeastern. We want to educate. We want to have community building and outreach opportunities and advocate for Black athletes and also create a space for Black athletes to come express their issues.”

Despite being a new group, NUBAC has already brought about change. The first large initiative the group pushed for was for Northeastern Athletics to suspend all activities on election day in order to make it easier for those involved to vote, as well as to raise awareness for the importance of voting.

“That’s what we decided is the most impactful thing to do right now, to make sure everyone’s voting. Not just Black athletes, but all students, all student athletes,” Oriyomi explained. “That’s what we control, but we want all students overall voting because I think right now, that’s the next big step that we need as a nation.” 

Outside of NUBAC, many athletes at Northeastern are trying to continue the momentum that the Black Lives Matter movement brought about in the spring. One of those athletes is Jordan Harris, men’s hockey junior defenseman and Vice President of Workshop for the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee (SAAC). 

“It’s a time where I feel like people have to educate themselves about the different matters at hand,” Harris said. “It’s definitely important for everyone to kind of know this situation, here’s why African American people are so upset, and why Black Lives Matter is such a big deal.”

Women’s basketball forward Kendall Currence (middle) at a Black Lives Matter protest

Both Harris and his sophomore teammate, Jayden Struble, are biracial in a sport that is predominantly white. According to a 2018 USA Today report, the NHL is an overwhelming 97% white. 

“I just think, diversity wise, just having more African American players interacting with a mostly white community, that’d be great for the sport,” Harris said. 

Both players know there is more work to do, but are grateful for the support they have been shown. 

“I think we’re pretty lucky in the fact that most of our lives revolve around hockey and being here at the rink. And I know us as a team, we’re all really close,” Harris said. “And the coaches have been super supportive of us and anything we want to do.”

Despite the support that they have been shown, both Harris and Struble are concerned that the momentum gained will soon fade away. Struble says that he still gets called the N-word, and still hears comments like “stick to basketball.” 

“I don’t think it’s going anywhere,” Struble said of the conversations regarding race, “but I think we could work harder at keeping it going.”

Harris agrees, explaining how they haven’t talked about it as a team lately. 

“I definitely think it would be great if we could do community service in predominantly Black neighborhoods or talk to some kids, a minority, about hockey and stuff like that. I think that’d be something we could do as a team and something I’d like to get going for our team.”

Another predominantly white team at Northeastern is baseball. Redshirt sophomore pitcher Nick Davis is one of the only minority players on the roster, and sometimes feels like an outlier. 

“I’ve never felt, personally on the team, that I’ve had a great support system being a Black athlete and person,” Davis said. “As humans, we’re tribal. We like to see people like ourselves, and not having someone that looks like me hasn’t always been easy for me, especially here.”

Davis is grateful for his coaches and teammates, and makes it clear that he’s not trying to place blame on anyone. But he knows there are things that could be done better.

“I think it’s great that the coaches and overall staff are willing to discuss it. But I don’t think that people are comfortable enough with it yet, because I still sense within my team that people are uncomfortable with the issue and don’t really want to necessarily discuss it,” Davis said.

On the other end of the spectrum is the men’s basketball team. With athletes from across the United States, as well as parts of Canada, Africa, and Europe, diversity is much more than skin deep for this pack of Huskies. 

Redshirt junior forward Jason Strong discussed how this affects the group. 

“Ultimately, [diversity] just makes the team better because everyone has a different perspective on things … At first, it could be kind of like a wall when you try to get to know people, but once you’re able to really get to know your diverse team, you’re able to come together much, much stronger because you guys all have different experiences and different ways of saying things. So I think it can be very, very helpful as a team.”

– Jason Strong, Men’s Basketball Forward

Having a diverse team can help athletes who might otherwise feel like an outsider. Adama Kaba, men’s soccer senior defender, recently converted from Catholicism to Islam, and connecting with other players on the team who were also Muslim helped bring them closer together. 

“Specifically on Northeastern, there are people from a bunch of areas around the world who practice different religions,” said Kaba, “but I think the most important thing is that we gather as a collective group and share one common goal of winning.” 

The importance of diversity on athletic teams is clear, but equally important is diversity among coaches and other leaders.

Take, for instance, men’s basketball assistant coach Manny Adako, who returned to his alma mater to coach his former team after a seven-year professional career.

“I think being a coach is just another word for ‘teacher.’ Especially at our level,” Adako said. “I think [coaching] is just a perfect mix of helping them achieve their goals and also teaching them life lessons to support them.”

That sentiment seems to be shared by many of Adako’s fellow Northeastern coaches. It isn’t lost on any of them how important their roles as developers are, both for aspiring athletes and for impressionable young adults.

And yet, for as important as that job is, it is not entrusted equally. Across all of NCAA Division I athletics, a staggering 80% of head coaches are white, and 76% are males. Though there’s no question that most, if not all, of the coaches in these positions are very well qualified for their jobs, it seems apparent that with so much homogeneity at the highest level of coaching, some aspects of that mentorship get lost.

As Adako put it, “At our level, you get kids coming from all over the world, all over the country, from different backgrounds. Being young adults coming into unfamiliar territory … they’re still finding themselves. They continue to need mentors, and I think being able to be mentored by someone that looks like you, and you can relate to, and can speak your language, and may have walked the same shoes you walked in, I think that’s important.”

Aside from being one of only 11 Black head coaches in Division I men’s soccer, Chris Gbandi also brings the international perspective to the men’s soccer team. Gbandi was born in Liberia and moved to Houston, Texas, at age 10. He played college soccer at UConn before being drafted first overall into Major League Soccer in 2002. With multiple international students currently on the Northeastern roster, as well as many Black students, Gbandi’s ability to relate is important. 

Gbandi makes a point to mention that the reason he is here is because of his mentor, Tony Johnson. Johnson set the goal scoring record at the University of North Carolina and gave Gbandi an African American mentor to look up to.

“Just having him coach me as a youth and see him being in that position, just looking at somebody that looks like me … I think it made me understand and see myself in that position as well,” Gbandi said. “And I think that helped me, so if we can have more minority coaches, that would just open doors for players to then take that next step to try to be a head coach.”

The idea of having a role model who looks like you is something many athletes have discussed, and it goes to show the positive effect that can come from putting players and coaches from diverse backgrounds in the spotlight.

“I remember watching a recent World Cup and seeing Crystal Dunn play, and I just thought, ‘Wow, this is a very successful Black woman playing soccer, playing the sport I play. If she can do it, I can do it,’” Chelsea Domond, women’s soccer senior forward, said. “She definitely inspired me in that way.”

While only 24% of head coaches across all of NCAA Division I athletics are female, the gender gap narrows for women’s volleyball. Still, for a sport where all of the student-athletes are female, only 47% of their coaches are women. For volleyball head coach Lenika Vazquez the lack of women in her position is something that drives her to inspire her athletes, both in the world of sports and beyond.

“As a coach, if I do have players that want to coach, I will always try to help position them and make sure they have the network that they need to continue. But I have to admit that that’s something I want to do even outside of sports,” Vazquez said.

“It’s not just about placing women back in athletics; it’s about empowering these young women to do whatever they want to do next. I do think there needs to be a bit more representation on the female side, but that just tells me that I need to mentor.”

– Lenika Vazquez, Volleyball Head Coach

D’Nay Daniels, an assistant coach for women’s basketball who had a very successful playing career of her own at the University of Central Florida, echoes these sentiments.

“I think for young Black women, they don’t see a lot of us. So just to be able to be in a position where they can see like ‘I can do this.’ … They see themselves in me, so I want them to always understand they always have somebody they can come to. I can get them because I’ve been in their shoes before.”

From players to coaches, the Huskies have made it clear that diversity must be a priority for Northeastern Athletics. How has the administration responded? Athletic director Jeff Konya discussed some of the conversations he’s had with his student-athletes over the past few months.

“We had a town hall … and we really listened to our student athletes,” Konya said. “They wanted to have change for the betterment of not only our community, but the broader society.”

As Konya sees it, the steps that the athletic department has taken this summer are a strong start to an ongoing solution.

“We created the Black Athlete Caucus to have more direct conversations with our leadership in athletics that were committed to the local communities in which we serve. … We’ve allowed our athletes to express themselves on their uniforms. … It’s a constant conversation. And it’s something that we need to put right front and center of everything that we do.”

Konya further elaborated on the role he hopes NUBAC and SAAC continue to take in shaping the culture of the athletics department, as well as the campus as a whole. 

“I think of [NUBAC] as the board that the athletic operation needs to report to and obviously hear the perspective that they have. Their leadership has been front and center,” Konya said.

Men’s Track and Field’s Mayowa Osunsami at a Black Lives Matter protest in London

And while recent moves like the voting initiative and the athletics department allowing athletes to put messaging on their uniforms to draw attention to social causes may be great steps in the right direction, it is abundantly clear that there is still more work to be done. As long as there is this lack of representation, and these instances of discrimination, complacency should not and cannot be an option.

Northeastern University has always been an institution with experiential learning at its core, and it is clear that the most important experiences we have to learn from are those of our fellow Huskies – our mentors, our teammates, our friends. Diversity, be it race, gender, country of origin, religion, or anything else that makes us unique, is at the core of any successful community. Northeastern Athletics is no different.