In his first two years of college, Jake Lawler struggled with balance. More accurately, a lack thereof.
The linebacker’s schedule at North Carolina, he said, went something like this: football, football, football, school, football, football, football, school. Mixed somewhere in there, sleep. Then do it all over again.
"I knew that I was more," he said.
With UNCUT, the video platform Lawler and four other UNC students launched this week, he hopes the next generation won’t have to “fight and claw” like he did to balance sports with other interests and prove they’re more than just a jersey number.
“As great as it is now, what I’m doing, it should never be that hard,” Lawler said. “It should never be that difficult. And with UNCUT, it won’t be anymore.”
Ahead of its content launch Thursday afternoon, the student-led, athlete-driven nonprofit hosted an exclusive premiere Wednesday night at the Varsity Theatre on Franklin Street. Over the course of an hour, the UNCUT team introduced itself to donors and supporters, screened three of its new video stories and hosted a round-table discussion with Lawler as moderator.
The event was 11 months in the making, headed by UNCUT’s five-person team of Lawler, track and field athlete Jill Shippee and UNC students Alex Mazer, Luke Buxton and Justin Hadad. All five spoke to begin the night, expanding on the ideas they’ve pushed since the start: authenticity, accessibility and storytelling.
“As a thrower, the distance I record is the only thing people see,” said Shippee, a junior who heads the website’s written content. “But nobody in humanity has numerical value. We, at UNCUT, hope nobody sees athletes as statistics.”
From there, the night alternated between keynote speeches and screening of the videos UNCUT will roll out gradually next week. Those highlighted: Jared Martin, who went from a swimming team cast-off to an All-ACC javelin thrower while also excelling academically, and Taylor Moreno, the starting goalie for the women’s lacrosse team who’s also a talented artist.
In a scheduling conflict reflective of the athletes UNCUT wants to highlight, Martin, a 2019 graduate, missed the event because he was mid-shift at a nearby urgent care facility.
Women’s soccer head coach Anson Dorrance spoke on stage, praising U.S. Women's National Team star Megan Rapinoe for using her World Cup platform to champion social justice and UNCUT for highlighting the diversity of thought among athletes that’s added “a richness” to his experience as a coach.
“We consider character development to be the most important thing in the evolution of a student-athlete on the women’s soccer team here,” Dorrance said. “We consider their academic achievements as a second priority. And finally, we address the business of going around trying to beat every other team to death. That’s the order.”
Later, in his keynote, Lawler candidly detailed the depression and suicidal thoughts he has dealt with for eight years. The linebacker shared his story with the world this summer with a lengthy post on his blog titled “A New Life.” A platform like UNCUT, he said, offers a safe space for mental health conversations.
Lawler’s speech preceded the main video: the first episode of UNCUT’s Tar Heel Talk. In the 12-minute clip, filmed in April in Sutton’s Drug Store, Lawler moderates a discussion with Garrison Brooks, Michael Carter and Brianna Pinto on being black. The set-up is similar to that of “The Shop,” LeBron James’ HBO talk show.
Sitting relaxed around a wooden table, each athlete spoke honestly of their struggles. Carter recalled attending a football booster event where he was the only Black person, and Pinto spoke of a white parent yelling “Don’t let that Black girl beat you!” in one of her youth soccer games.
Brooks, Pinto and Carter all attended Wednesday’s premiere, and they took the stage afterward to reflect on the experience. Brooks, a junior forward, credited the former NFL quarterback and racial justice advocate Colin Kaepernick for inspiring him to “speak out and not be afraid.”
“I think having this platform to inspire others and help them along in their process is so important,” Pinto said. “Everybody has a voice, but not everybody has an opportunity to use it.”