Toward the end of Anna Cockrell’s speech at the 2019 USC student-athlete graduation, she thanked the athletes in attendance for giving her strength. Cockrell had spent the last few minutes opening up about her battle with depression and how her coaches, teammates and the Trojan family helped her through it.
“Watching my fellow student-athletes just reminds me of how resilient we are, of how powerful the Trojan Family is and how strong we can be when we come together,” Cockrell said.
Cockrell said those sentiments fuel her excitement about the United Black Student-Athletes Association, which announced its formation Wednesday with a statement calling for action and changes on the part of USC’s athletic department. Cockrell is just one of many Trojan athletes in the organization, which includes members from each team at the university and has stated its goal to “empower and protect Black student-athletes at USC.”
The organization’s statement, which was addressed to USC’s athletic administration and athletic director Mike Bohn, urged the athletic department to take several concrete actions. These included unequivocally stating that Black lives matter, promising no retaliation for athletes’ public statements and implementing mandatory implicit bias training. The statement also asked for the allocation of resources into both engaging Black students in civic involvement on and around USC’s campus and seeking more Black coaches and other team staff.
Multiple athletes who helped form the organization said the UBSAA has three main purposes: one, be a space for Black athletes to speak freely and be heard; two, create change on USC’s campus; and three, use its platform to advocate for change outside USC.
“We’re not just student-athletes that happen to be Black, we’re Black students at the university who happen to be athletes,” said Jalen McKenzie, a redshirt junior guard on the football team. “We have a direct obligation to serve our Black community in USC and the Black community surrounding USC as athletes, as students and as Black student-athletes as well.”
The organization’s core value is representing the community. Since the UBSAA’s first meeting on May 31, athletes from across the department have been sharing their ideas and working as a group to make sure that not only is everyone heard, but that they come up with a plan to address their concerns.
“Everybody’s opinions are being shared and not pushed to the side,” said Olufolasade Adamolekun, a rising sophomore on the women’s soccer team. “Somebody may say something and we’ll ask questions like, ‘Oh, why do you think this? Why do we think that? What can we do to help bring this organization to the light? What can we do to help people?’”
The group’s emphasis on collaboration is unsurprising considering the story behind its inception. In the aftermath of the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, among several other cases of racially-motivated police brutality in the U.S., Black USC athletes met to share what they were thinking and going through, and the idea for a group came independently from multiple people in the conversation.
They set about forming an official organization and considered everyone’s opinions about what the group should be. Cockrell’s teammate Bailey Lear, a rising junior sprinter, emphasized that the organization was created not just to empower Black athletes, but to educate allies.
“I think that’s what a lot of people need to do, especially with [the] times that we’re going through right now, is just really educate ourselves on these topics,” Lear said. “So we know what to do and how to be better, because I think our generation is the one to change most of the injustices that go on today, and I just think we’re the ones to do it.”
The demands in the statement came from those discussions about how the organization should proceed. While every action on the list is important, Adamolekun singled out the request for no retaliation as a crucial standard to uphold moving forward.
“I feel like we shouldn’t be held back from voicing our opinions,” she said. “I feel like especially what’s going on, holding stuff like that in can create anger inside that you don’t just want to keep in … You want your athletes to feel like they have a voice.”
Student-athletes are focused on using their platforms to effect social change. Whether it’s through social media, peaceful protests or community service and education, they want the freedom to advocate for social justice without the threat of backlash from the athletic department.
“My athletes, they’re more visible so they have a bigger voice,” said Caryl Smith Gilbert, head coach of the track and field team. “People will listen. So if we have the platform and people are going to listen, we have to use our platform in a positive way to create change.”
McKenzie said Bohn — who tweeted a supportive response to the UBSAA’s statement — and other administrators have been in conversation with the group. Adamolekum added that Bohn was at the organization’s first meeting and was supportive from the beginning.
The members’ previous experiences were crucial in determining the association’s direction: Adamolekun drew on her time as a member of Jack and Jill of America, which gave her experience in philanthropic, civic, social and leadership activities, while Lear brought ideas from a class project she worked on creating a plan for athletes who are women of color.
“It was just this nonstop effort for the last 17 days to really form our identity, make it known, write that statement and articulate not only what we want from USC Athletics, but what are we going to do?” Cockrell said. “Because the action piece of our organization is really, really important, and was what most people were really stressing when they came in.”
So far, that action has included voter registration and information drives, a podcast series and identifying community service events the athletes can host upon their return to campus. The organization plans on doing a lot more in the future and is in the process of becoming a recognized student organization. That way, the UBSAA can become ingrained in the university and will help maintain the current level of action into the future.
Some of that longevity is already built in by the association’s membership. It spans from upcoming graduate students like Cockrell to incoming freshmen, and the group has received messages from alumni asking to get involved. The UBSAA is also working hand-in-hand with the already existing USC Black Student Assembly, coming together to represent and serve Black student body.
“For me, this organization is something that’s long overdue,” McKenzie said. “It’s something that I think can bridge the gap between Black student-athletes on campus and the Black community on campus and around campus.”
The emphasis on community in the organization has carried the added benefit of bringing athletes across different USC teams closer together. Although she always expressed her admiration for her fellow Trojans, Cockrell did say she thought USC student-athletes weren’t as cohesive as a department as they could have been. In working to form this association, though, she discovered the skills the people around her have outside the lines, and it’s been a powerful experience for her.
“It makes me emotional,” she said. “And I hope that me being sappy is something that other people feel too, but I really do feel like there’s something very special happening amongst the people in this organization of just understanding each other and collaborating and developing closer bonds.”
It’s been just over a year since Cockrell told a room full of student-athletes how strong they are when working together. Now, with the UBSAA, she’s part of a group that proves just how much impact Black student-athletes can have.
Faith Bonds contributed to this report.