Women’s College Basketball Is Balancing Talking with Action on Social Justice

“We gotta be the walker, we gotta be the talker, we gotta be the example,” says Georgetown’s James Howard

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UConn junior Christyn Williams, the Big East Preseason Player of the Year, explains why voting is important to her. Screenshot from the Big East’s Virtual Media Day on October 29, 2020.

With the women’s college basketball season finally in sight, coaches and players are hosting virtual press conferences on Zoom to preview what their teams will look like on the court. But, as excited as they are to discuss rosters, pick-and-rolls, and team defense, many of them also want to continue to discuss the social justice issues that have gripped the country in recent months.

As St. John’s head coach Joe Tartamella explained at Big East Media Day on Thursday, “We're in a moment in time where athletes are using … a platform to be able to speak out on the issues of social injustice. And it's nothing different here.”

Just as WNBA players did this summer, some college players will undoubtedly use their voices this winter to push for change. Their methods may be different, with thousands more Division I athletes than WNBA players and college teams scattered across the country rather than playing at a single site, but their messages will likely share similar themes, including the importance of voting.

Penn head coach Mike McLaughlin told Her Hoop Stats that it’s still too early to say how his players will use their voices during the season, but the players have consistently been raising these issues with one another and with others in the community. Social justice “[is] an important topic for them,” he said, “and … we will continue to communicate the importance of this and how we can be part of the solution.”

Here are some of the statements that players and coaches have made about social justice in recent days:

Megan Duffy, Marquette head coach:

“If you take basketball away from us for a little bit, we're going to try and make an impact somewhere else. And we're living that life every day. …

“We want to be the group that brings about change. Whether you're a white person, whether you're a Black person, we want to have our voices and our platform out there through Marquette women's basketball [and] we want to do everything we can to help our communities. We've done some initiatives with really pushing people to get out and vote in our own communities. And then just listen to each other, make sure we're aware of just the feelings that are going around in each individual situation.”

James Howard, Georgetown head coach:

Howard said his team “push[ed] basketball to the side” for 21 days this summer to protect players’ mental health and talk about racial injustice. “That gave us an opportunity to just get to know each other [and] talk about the things that were going on in the world,” he said at Big East Media Day. “And we had some great guest speakers in during that time, and it drew us closer.”

Later in the day, he elaborated on that pause:

“We also talked about being the change that we want to see. And, like Megan [Duffy], I think the biggest piece is, a lot of us, we have conversation, we talk, but what are your actions? And we want to have an action plan. … Every day, because of where we are in this country, we are trying to make the change, and we gotta be the biggest piece. We gotta be the walker, we gotta be the talker, we gotta be the example. And that's what we're preaching to our kids, and that's what our kids are preaching to us.”

Christyn Williams and Paige Bueckers, UConn guards:

Jeff Jacobs, Connecticut Post: Have both of you voted yet, or what are your plans for voting?

CW: Yes, I voted. Definitely. It's very important to me because my grandmother went doorstep to doorstep to try to get people to vote back in the day. So I feel like it's my duty to vote. … This is my first time voting.

JJ: How did you do it?

CW: Absentee ballot.

PB: “I voted by absentee ballot, too. … I just turned 18 last year. So it's my first year I could vote. It was really big for me to use my platform and use the social media image that I have to try to get people to vote, and I can't ask other people to do it if I don't do it myself. … We can talk about change all we want, but until we take steps toward the action, it's not going to mean anything. So it was really big for all of us to use our voice and vote.”

Williams later revealed that the team will have dinner at head coach Geno Auriemma’s house on Election Day, and Auriemma confirmed that the team will not practice.

Geno Auriemma, UConn head coach:

“I still remember Renee Montgomery’s team, Renee and Tina [Charles] and Maya [Moore], that crew, being in my house in 2008—that was pretty amazing—for the election.

“And it's an opportunity … to make them feel part of the process, to sit there and experience what it feels like to have an investment, that they've invested a part of themselves in this election. And to not just wake up the next morning and go, ‘Yeah, I wonder who won.’”

Like UConn, Northwestern will also take Election Day off from team activities.

Jordan Hamilton, Northwestern guard:

“I'm really glad that Northwestern is taking that day to personally just allow student-athletes to participate in those activities. Just not having to focus on … sports for at least a day and just really showing that they really care about our opinion in politics.”

Doug Bruno, DePaul head coach:

“As coaches, we can elicit our players into conversations, but basically the tough conversations really, really have to come from them. … It's not like we should have such a racially screwed up situation in this country to be able to have our players come together. … [But] watching these players come at each other in a constructive, strong, and respectful way, this is team building that you can't get out of any book. And it's just pretty impressive to watch.”

Joe McKeown, Northwestern head coach:

“We talk a lot about women's right to vote. You know, it hasn't always been like that. You have the chance to change some things [that] maybe you don't like, and this is one of the avenues to do that, and maybe one of the most important avenues. … 

“I follow politics closely, [have] been involved with some things in Washington over the years trying to raise money, so I've seen how that system works. Sometimes it's broke, sometimes it works, and I think for our players and obviously for the next generations, we need everybody's voice.”

Yolett McPhee-McCuin, Ole Miss head coach:

“This offseason gave me a chance to really understand how important it is to teach our players to exercise who they are and use their platform. I just remember as a college athlete no one ever talked to us about voting. No one ever talked to us about what was going on. ...

“I think the most powerful, the most memorable thing I've done as a coach was going down to Jackson at the capital ... and being a part of that, changing our flag [to remove the Confederate symbol]. There were so many people that have fought for centuries, for decades, trying to get that change. The fact that we were able to be the icing on the cake, that means the world to me. And the fact that my players had the chance to witness that, I know that that will empower them to use their platform when they get their opportunity."

Anthony Bozzella, Seton Hall head coach:

“Right now, we're getting our kids to understand, to speak up, and to get an understanding of what we're doing and what is going on in today’s society. I’m very proud of our program: we were all registered to vote; we're all going to vote. I think those things are big steps in getting change and getting us to be unified as a country.”

Sydney Wood, Northwestern guard:

“[Senior guard] Lindsey [Pulliam] sent out a text [on Thursday] just to make sure everybody's registered to vote. … We've been talking a lot about it and we all recognize that it's a really important election and that the ability to vote is something that a lot of people before us that look like us haven't been able to do. So I believe we all take it very seriously and we all want to make sure that our voices are heard in the election, not only for the president but also for a lot of the other things that we get to vote for on the ballot.”

Geno Auriemma, UConn head coach:

“Not ever, any time in my life, have I been so disgusted with so much of what I see happening in the country. And the pandemic is one of the least of our problems. There's a cure for the pandemic. It's out there; it's coming. … You can’t make a vaccine for some of the nonsense that's been going on in this country. … The only thing you have for that is your vote.”

Note: The UConn Blog’s Daniel Connolly transcribed Auriemma’s full remarks about social justice and voting, which you can read here.

“Everybody's doing these great things to show their support,” Auriemma added, referencing slogans, lawn signs, and even patches on sports jerseys that publicly display people’s beliefs. “But guess what? Your support comes Tuesday. Tuesday. No slogans, no buttons, no t-shirts, no signs on your lawn—just show up Tuesday and do the right thing.”


Special thanks to Ole Miss Women’s Basketball for publishing a transcript of Coach McPhee-McCuin’s remarks and The Next’s Erica Ayala for asking the questions that led to many of these responses at Big East Media Day.


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