Four UNC students relaxed in chairs around one of Sutton's Drug Store's diner tables, sandwiched between the lunch counter stools on the left and the booths on the right.
They were quiet — chatting at a volume that would have been inaudible from a table away in the normal din of one of the most iconic establishments in Chapel Hill.
This wasn’t the normal din, and this wasn’t a normal conversation. In front of the table were three cameras on tripods, two more in the hands of roving videographers, two lighting kits, microphones and a small assembly of the UNCUT team.
UNCUT is an organization started by UNC students who wanted to provide a platform for student-athletes at UNC to talk about anything.
“We want to provide a platform, get the cameras, get the team, get the publicity,” co-founder Luke Buxton said. “But this is athlete-driven; this is not a platform for me to push issues on what I want to speak about. This is giving athletes a platform to speak out on what they want and to share their stories.”
That platform took shape at a polished wooden table with four styrofoam cups of water on it as four athletes had a free-ranging conversation of what it was like being a black student-athlete at UNC.
Garrison Brooks of the men’s basketball team, Michael Carter and Jake Lawler of the football team and Brianna Pinto of the women’s soccer team delved into personal stories and talked about the broad issues facing Black college athletes and Black students at UNC.
According to Lawler, who served as the mediator of the conversation, the content of the discussion wasn’t novel. But the platform that UNCUT provided them certainly is.
“I've had lots of conversations like this with other Black athletes but never in a sense that we can project it to where other people can see it,” Lawler said.
The importance of these conversations being seen and heard drove the athletes to speak up. They recognize that in their role as student-athletes, their experience will not be the same as their peers. Their voices, however, carry great weight.
“You’ve got to always understand that, yeah, you do have an influence, and you do have power,” Carter said. “What you do means more to some people than other people. It’s my responsibility to take advantage and use my life positively.”
The show, which was inspired in part by LeBron James’ UNINTERRUPTED, will cover a range of topics. Sophomore Jill Shippee, a member of the track and field team and part of the UNCUT team, envisioned episodes with international students, medically retired athletes, graduate student-athletes and more.
Part of the vision is to help show the world another side of the life of student-athletes and the issues they face. But Shippee said that UNCUT also aims to break down the barrier that prevents athletes and other students from having these conversations in real life. All of the athletes involved with the project were nationally renowned as early as high school, so they have grown up with an experience different from other students. This has sometimes created a wall between them.
“We want the students to feel closer to the athletes,” Shippee said. “And we want the athletes to feel closer to the students and feel comfortable talking about these things. Not just watching our videos, but they want to start these conversations in person.”
The concept for the show stemmed from an October conversation between Buxton, a sophomore, and Alex Mazer, a first-year. While neither are student-athletes, they saw a group of influential peers whose voices needed to be heard. Sophomore Justin Hadad then joined, and Lawler and Shippee rounded out the team and provided an athlete’s perspective. Planning took them to an April start date for filming. The show will be released this fall.
On that Sunday afternoon, the student-athletes sat in Sutton’s, surrounded by the autographed UNC sports memorabilia and pictures of regular customers — many of them notable UNC athletes — that fill the walls of the distinguished diner.
“Whenever you guys are ready, Jake, take it away,” Buxton directed.
“Are we good?” Lawler asked.
The cameras started rolling, and the four started a conversation that touched on a wide range of issues. While the setup was unique, the setting has played host to countless watering-hole conversations for decades. The UNCUT team only hopes that the show can get more people in on them.
“This is just a snapshot of everything that’s going on,” Lawler said. “To have a conversation put out there that’s representative of conversations that go on each and every day here.”
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