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“A mountain with no top.” Former student athletes vow to continue pushing UW athletics on equity

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Hanna Barton, Banke Oginni. Photos courtesy UW Athletics.

The two former student-athletes who wrote a letter to University of Wisconsin-Madison athletic director Barry Alvarez are thankful for Alvarez’s response — but feel that it’s a bit lacking.

Hanna Barton, a former discus and hammer thrower who’s now a PhD student in the College of Engineering, said she felt the need to express herself on racial tensions in the wake of the death of George Floyd and the surge of the Black Lives Matter movement.

“It was just on my mind that as I’ve been kind of coming to terms with the privilege I have being white, thinking about who would listen to me and where I could get my voice or raise other people’s voices,” she said in an interview Thursday. “When I was a student athlete, I felt a little bit more restricted in what I could say, publicly. And that now I’m a PhD student and I trust that I’m pretty safe. There aren’t going to be lots of repercussions for me. I’m someone that could speak up right now. And I figured Bonks would be right there beside me to talk. So we ended up penning a letter and then next thing we knew, there were all these people that wanted to sign it with us and send it over to Barry and the athletic board.”

In the letter sent to Alvarez earlier this week, she and former teammate Banke Oginni wrote that they wanted Alvarez and other administrators to educate themselves on race relations and develop a robust diversity and equity plan, among other requests.

Oginni said she was eager to write something to Alvarez and the athletic board because of a pattern in the way the school and the department reacted to racism on campus.
“The biggest thing …was the noose incident which I felt. as a black female student athlete, that they didn’t respond to in a fulsome way,” she said, referring to a 2016 incident in which a fan at a Badger football game wore a mask of President Barack Obama and a noose around his neck. The fan was not asked to leave the game but was later banned from Camp Randall. “All they did, really, was ban the person. And there was maybe one conversation about what was going on,” Oginni said. “It was more reactive than proactive. It was more like, ‘How can we get ahead of this?’ Instead of, ‘how are we going to get ahead of this and then stop future things like that happening.’”

Barton said the noose incident was “more a symptom to some larger culture,” and that “It’s not unique to Wisconsin. It’s a system issue, but we can be leaders to actually say, it’s not going to keep going this way.”

The letter got a great deal of interest from student athletes, gaining more than 450 signatures from former athletes, current athletes and even a few recruits.

Then it went beyond the confines of the department.

“When we were writing the letter and trying to get it through our networks of student athletes, some of the feedback we were getting was from all these other people who wanted to sign it,” Barton said. “So it occurred to us, well, maybe other people do want to sign this and it could be something bigger than just a conversation within the department.”

An online petition version of the letter, now posted at Change.org, has more than 2,000 signatures as of Thursday evening.

In a response issued Wednesday afternoon, Alvarez wrote, “I would like to begin by saying that BLACK LIVES MATTER. To me. To our coaches. To our staff.”

Alvarez cited some actions that have already been taken, including the addition of a director of diversion and inclusion in 2016 — a position currently held by Sheridan Blanford — and the formation of the Equity Diversity Council.
But, Alvarez acknowledged, that’s not enough.

“As we all know, however, we need to turn our strategic plans into strategic actions,” he wrote. “Change will come when each of us looks within ourselves and decides to act. I ask our current and former student-athletes, as well as our coaches, staff and community members, to hold each other – and our department – accountable for creating change.”

Oginni said she appreciated the response — one part of it, at least.

“It was very heartwarming and very awesome to see Barry say, ‘Black Lives Matter’ like that. It was amazing to have him acknowledge that there are councils and groups that are in place and are working with the community and creating new plans to move forward,” she said. “But from my perspective, it kind of ignored what we wanted to be acknowledged in our original letter. It was, ‘Oh, we have this, this, and this and we’ve done this back in 2016. We have the first diversity department. We have these people doing this.’ And it was more like, ‘Okay, so what next?’ Are you going to address what we asked for in the letter? We asked to donate to local organizations like Urban Triage or Freedom, Inc. , to make materials to work as an administration to better this. It kind of ignored the other half of our message, which was what is administration going to do, personally? Not what has administration told the diversity council to do.”

“A big piece of our initial letter was to say this can’t fall on the shoulders of a few black staff or a few black student athletes or other student athletes of color,” Barton said. “This is for all of us to tackle, for all of us to come together around. One team forever forward. This is a mountain with no top that we are going to keep climbing and we have to do this together.”

Oginni and Barton said they intend to write again to Alvarez and continue the dialog.