When Ezra Baeli-Wang sat down Tuesday and wrote an open letter to UNC officials that he would later circulate to the UNC athletics community, he had no idea how it would be received by his peers.
A few days later, the petition written by the former North Carolina fencer and 2017 UNC and ACC Student-Athlete Advisory Committee Co-President and President, respectively, has been signed by more than 270 current and former UNC athletes who also oppose any plan that would keep Silent Sam on campus.
“As current and former Tar Heels, we love our University and its people,” the letter said. “We love our classmates and teammates, our coaches and our fans. All of them. A monument to those who fought and killed to keep Black people enslaved has no place on our campus. White supremacy has no place on our campus.”
While groups on and off campus have weighed into the controversy surrounding UNC’s fallen Confederate monument this semester, UNC athletes have largely remained silent about the issue until joining the conversation this week.
Notable names, including NBA players, Olympic gold medalists and countless professional athletes, have joined the movement. But a majority of the signees, more than 150, are current athletes on campus. All the signees opposed the $5.3 million proposal submitted to the UNC-system Board of Governors that was rejected by the BOG Friday.
"I think it's really well written,” said Casey Jacobs, a senior volleyball player who was among the first to sign despite not knowing who wrote it. “I believe every word of it."
Had the UNC's proposal been approved by the BOG at Friday’s meeting, the monument would have been moved from where it was pulled down on McCorkle Place into a newly-constructed building on the Odum Village site located on South Campus.
Such a move would have situated the statue near the Smith Center, Kenan Memorial Stadium and the Loudermilk Center for Excellence, a building that provides resources to student-athletes, many of whom are Black. The athletes in the open letter stand against bringing the statue closer to the realm of athletics or keeping it on campus at all.
"Whether or not you agree with that perspective, the fact is that the University cannot move forward or thrive and prosper as a diverse institution of higher learning unless it is welcoming to all people,” Baeli-Wang said. “And the presence of Silent Sam on campus makes that impossible.”
‘They don’t have the same love and pride for you’
Moving text by text and Facebook message by message, the petition struck a chord with current athletes more than anyone else.
One of these signees, Katlin Sherman, is a senior sprinter on the track and field team. After hearing about the petition on Wednesday, she knew she wanted to sign it. While Sherman has seen success on and off the track during her time in Chapel Hill, she has also been deeply disturbed by the treatment of Black students at UNC.
“It has honestly been extremely frustrating because we're conflicted since we run and represent the University,” Sherman said. “Just athletes in general, all sports teams, you're put in a place where you really have love and pride for your University, but it seems like they don't have the same love and pride for you. So it just puts us (between) a rock and a hard place.”
As a Black woman, Sherman sees Silent Sam and other markers on campus as symbols that glorify racism and slavery at a place she loves. For Sherman, who is also a member of UNC Black Congress, learning the history behind the University has been painful.
“It's literally like, no matter where you walk on campus, you're always facing some type of slap in the face of that part of history, and it's honestly just disrespectful,” she said. “It just makes you feel like the University just doesn't care about you.”
Ever since she found out Kenan Memorial Stadium was named after the leader of a white supremacist unit in 1898 that killed at least 25 people, Sherman has struggled passing by the facility. It isn't congruent with what she'd like to see her University represent.
Sherman would like to see the reminders of the lasting legacy of slavery and racism removed from campus permanently.
"I think it's even more disrespectful to be a Black student-athlete on this campus and represent this University knowing they're not standing by their morals and values that they have set up for the student athletes," Sherman said. "It has been frustrating, to be honest with you, especially when it's getting time closer to competition season, and you have to represent the University and have that emblem when we stand for racist stuff."
By signing this petition, athletes have furthered debate and discussion within their locker rooms.
Sherman has had difficult conversations with teammates about the statue. Some of them feel the same way as she does. Others disagree. As a goal of the petition, Baeli-Wang aimed for teams to discuss racial issues as an athletics community more often.
When Colin Kaepernick started kneeling during the National Anthem, Jacobs said she and her volleyball teammates had a three-hour conversation about it as a team. They talked about disagreements over the kneeling and what it symbolized to Black athletes on the team, as well as protests within athletics.
These conversations can lead to greater understanding of perspectives about race and the statue, Baeli-Wang said. He also had two people who reached out to him and wanted to discuss why they felt differently than he did about the statue. They gave him a call to talk about it, and both sides walked away having learned something from the other.
“I had really good, interesting phone calls with two people about the reasons why they were not comfortable signing the letter…” Baeli-Wang said. "I think that I very much appreciate they reached out and had those conversations as opposed to, ‘No, I don't want to sign your letter. Don't talk to me again.’”
Even though almost 20 percent of current athletes have actively opposed the statue, there is plenty of disagreement. Members from seven programs have not yet signed the document.
On the track and field team, more than half of the current squad stands alongside Sherman. The program makes up a bigger chunk of support for the petition than any other single team. But not every athlete signed knowing there would be plenty of teammates behind them.
Brittany West is an outfielder on the softball team and one of a few Black players currently in the program. She was excited to sign the petition, even knowing some of her teammates might never consider it because they don’t see it as an issue that impacts them. She sees it as progress toward teams addressing the race issue more often.
"I do think the athletic community is going to have to make strides, and I think a lot of teams are going to have to have tough conversations when they find out about this petition and they see their athletes on it,” West said. “Now, actually you have to have a conversation about race because that's what a lot of teams around here are lacking. No one wants to talk about the R word, and that's a problem.”
‘Not just an athlete’
College athletes live busy lives.
By the demands of their schedule, they inherently derive part of their identity from the sports they play. In some ways, their busy lives leave them separated from the rest of the student body because their routine is so much different than the average student.
But that doesn't mean they let their sport define who they are.
“At the end of the day, I'm not just an athlete,” Sherman said. “I'm also a Black woman who is a student on this campus, so I experience these things a lot differently than someone else would. You can't ask me to sacrifice a piece of who I am just all in the name of one title in being an athlete. At the end of the day, I have nothing to lose but my chains."
In recent years, athletes across the country have felt backlash for speaking out on controversial issues that matter to them.
Opponents to Kaepernick's protest have noted he shouldn't do that on company time or use his platform as an athlete for such a divisive issue at all. Fox News anchor Laura Ingraham told LeBron James last year to "shut up and dribble." Signees of the petition are familiar with the arguments against them, as well as the scrutiny they subject themselves to by publicly standing against Silent Sam.
Though pushback won't be coming from the UNC department of athletics, which released a statement Wednesday to support athletes using their voices to address any issues without refrain.
“One of this country’s foundational principles is that of free speech, and our student-athletes are welcome to exercise their free speech rights just like every other student at Carolina,” the statement said. “Our student-athletes understand they have the right to freely express themselves, which is why more than 100 of them have signed the petition.”
Men's basketball head coach Roy Williams also weighed in, expressing support for his players and others to sign if they felt strongly about it.
"My own personal opinion is I wish we didn’t have a situation where we’re putting it back on campus," Williams said. "I don’t know what everybody’s motivation was in the early 19-teens, 1913? But right now, it’s a very divisive issue. I wish it would go away."
And yet, student-athletes understand being Division-1 competitors comes with a certain level of notoriety and fame, especially in revenue-driving sports. It also comes with criticism, but as Sherman wrote in a text message after a Wednesday interview, they're willing to speak their minds anyway.
“By not allowing the voices of athletes to be heard, it’s communicating to the world that it’s not OK to suppress a group of individuals voices," she wrote. "Athletes today have a responsibility to set a standard with the platform of sports to show all youth, and especially minority youth, you have to stand for what is right."
She continued: "If athletes today do not stand for something, athletes in the future may fall for anything. We must stand united on the issues surrounding Silent Sam for our community to progress.”
Athletes have joined the conversation over Silent Sam, but they're OK with that, even if it means they can never be silent again.
"What makes you a person is your beliefs and if you can't stand strongly in your beliefs then you really have no purpose in life,” West said. “I feel like for me, my beliefs make me who I am, and I really don't have a problem talking about them."
“I'm not just important because I dribble a ball, or throw a football or I toss a softball around. That's not the only thing that defines me, so I like this new realm.”
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