USC athletes find power in their voice

This Election Day, USC athletes are making their voice heard through their vote.

In August, the Pac-12 announced that all fall sports — besides football — would be postponed until January 2021. Most athletes would miss out on Division I competition in 2020.

There’d be no wins, just a lost season.

That’s what Pac-12 athletes and coaches thought at first, anyway.

With a postponed season came a newfound sense of time. Time to train. To learn. To fight and speak up. USC athletes from across the athletic scheme did just that.

They made their voice heard through their vote.

Amid a tumultuous summer, a group of Trojans joined forces to create the United Black Student Athlete Association (UBSAA) to fight racial injustices and improve circumstances for the Black community at USC. On June 17 — about three weeks after the killing of George Floyd — the university-recognized organization posted its initial statement and a list of demands for USC’s athletic department to meet.

The first was to have no athletic practice or competition on Election Day. USC athletic director Mike Bohn acted swiftly, canceling all athletic activity on Nov. 3.

“I think as student-athletes, we are citizens first,” women’s lacrosse junior midfielder Erin Bakes said. “We’re humans first. We’re leaders. We shouldn’t be hindered from civic engagement because of our packed schedules. I think this is a huge move because it’s kind of indicative of the student voice growing louder and more effective.”

The women’s basketball team found a powerful way to speak up and stand out when all 13 Trojans registered to vote in August, starting a movement that would ricochet throughout the athletic department.

“It is important because we know that all of our voices can make a difference, it’s just about putting ourselves in a position to be heard,” junior basketball captain Desiree Caldwell told USC Athletics. “Now we can all do our part in influencing change in this country.”

The women’s basketball roster reached 100 percent voter registration and challenged the men’s team to do the same. They did, and then nominated women’s golf.

And that’s how it went: Women’s golf nominated men’s golf, who nominated women’s beach volleyball, who nominated women’s lacrosse, who challenged men’s and women’s swimming, who elected women’s tennis, and then demanded the same from men’s volleyball.

Voter registration overtook the entire athletic department.

“In a time where voter suppression has been such a salient issue and basically the overall silencing of voices, for that matter, it’s been amazing that there’ve been so many voter registration and education initiatives that have been circulating in athletic programs throughout the entire country,” Bakes said.

In September, USC Athletics announced that the Galen Center, home to the Trojan men’s and women’s basketball and volleyball teams, will serve as a voting site from Oct. 30 through Election Day. Students and student-athletes would not have to venture far to cast their ballot on Nov. 3.

“The Galen Center itself, just being this symbol of USC Athletics, too, it’s a cool metaphor,” women’s soccer redshirt senior goalie Kaylie Collins said.

Collins was instrumental in her team’s registration initiative. Collins' teammate Maddy Vergura said Collins was the team’s lifeline in the process.

“If you’re already registered to vote, tell Kaylie,” Vergura said. “If you’re not, tell Kaylie. If you haven’t registered and you know how, please do that and tell Kaylie. If you don’t know how, Kaylie does.”

As a roster of predominantly underclassmen, a majority of the women’s soccer team wasn’t registered to vote because it is many players' first year eligible to do so. It was important for Collins to get involved with the initiative because she doesn’t think an athlete’s confidence always translates to other aspects of life.

“I think athletes have it in our minds that we’re only allowed to really perform in one world,” Collins said. “Participating in something like this and being so engaged in it is an opportunity for athletes to realize they have to gain confidence in other areas of the world.”

USC women’s soccer coach Keidane McAlpine didn’t interfere with Collins' system. McAlpine said he couldn’t say how Collins and the team went about the process because he let them handle it all on their own.

McAlpine said the way his team, or “family”, looks out for each other on the field is no different from off the field.

It made him proud back in 2016, when a group of his players fell to their knees as the Star Spangled Banner swept over the field before the first whistle. Admittedly, McAlpine was nervous. The kneeling movement, started by then NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, was a misunderstood gesture in its early stages and McAlpine was fearful of the backlash they’d receive.

He was also appreciative.

“I’m honored because these women took the time and they were courageous enough to even want to do it,” McAlpine said. “I’m also thankful. As a Black male in particular, that meant enough for someone to speak up for me.”

While McAlpine supports his players kneeling, women’s lacrosse coach Lindsay Munday supports her players standing up for social change. For Munday, it doesn’t matter if she agrees or disagrees with her players' viewpoints; it’s her job as a coach to support their voices and provide them with a space to speak their mind.

Whether you’re for or against the Black Lives Matter movement, McAlpine thinks it’s important to be understood and educated on why people are upset about racial injustices.

And to vote.

Along with having Election Day off, the UBSAA’s list of demands also included stating, “Black lives matter,” implementing mandatory, in-person implicit bias training, promising no retaliation for public statements or protesting and committing to consider Black candidates for open positions within the athletic department, among others.

Days later, the USC Athletics Black Lives Matter Action Team was formed and former WNBA Los Angeles Sparks' head coach Julie Rousseau was chosen as chief.

“The pain that motivates me and continues to motivate me [comes] from our student-athletes from UBSAA,” Rousseau said. “Being bold enough to put out these recommendations is not easy.”

Rousseau has put together voting literacy events for athletes to get educated on registration and candidate policies.

After the killing of George Floyd by a police officer in May, the UBSAA, Trojan Athletic Senate and Black Lives Matter Action Team worked in tandem throughout the summer to educate one another on racial injustices and to register the Galen Center as a polling site.

This ‘offseason,’ athletes and activism have become one in the same.

The women’s soccer team, among others, is planning to volunteer at Galen Center on Election Day as poll workers.

McAlpine said, to him, Black Lives Matter means questions.

Of asking people for help.

Asking people to pay attention.

To recognize the country’s pitfalls.

Address the ills.

And for the rest of the athletic department, it means: To vote.