One year after the Oxy United for Black Liberation occupation, Occidental student-athletes are continuing to protest racial injustice outside the classroom — often on the field or court. Players on the volleyball and women’s soccer teams revealed that though they face criticism, they remain adamant in their convictions and grateful for the support they’ve received from their teammates and the athletic department. Many were inspired by San Francisco 49ers Quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who protested racial oppression by taking a knee during the national anthem, and have followed suit.
Anissa Raja (junior) interns at InnerCity Struggle, a community organization in Boyle Heights, and engages in activism regularly, from canvassing for ballot propositions to protesting peacefully at Los Angeles City Hall.
“As a UEP major, I have learned the skills that have allowed me to organize effectively and to work with my community on issues that are a priority,” Raja said via email.
As a soccer player, she said the expectations are different on the field.
“As an athlete, I feel as though students feel the need to blend with their teammates’ identities and to not have their own distinct voice on issues,” Raja said via email.
Bridging her activism and her athletics, Raja chose to take a knee during the national anthem. Noting how she saw more women athletes kneeling during the anthem than male athletes, Raja commended her fellow female athletes for practicing freedom of expression.
“I think that if athletes do want to make an event political, it is entirely up to the individuals,” Raja said via email. “You could argue that everything we do in society is political, and when a student has influence and a platform to use it, I would argue that it would be a waste to not use your voice.”
Dru Ishibashi (junior), a member of the women’s soccer and basketball teams, joined Raja in taking a knee during the national anthem.
“Obviously, Colin Kaepernick is one of the bigger inspirations for it, just refusing to stand for our nation that doesn’t really protect all of its citizens equally,” Ishibashi said.
During one of their protests, Ishibashi recalled that a parent of a Chapman University player shouted a racist slur at her, telling her to “go back to Asia.”
“I knew going into it that not everyone was going to agree with it,” Ishibashi said. “Just seeing the type of really aggressive responses just proves that it’s a protest that needs to take place.”
Similarly, Alexandra Melikian (junior) and Tiareh Cruz (senior), members of the volleyball team, faced backlash after their anthem protests. Kellee Roesel, the head volleyball coach at California Lutheran University, yelled at Melikian and Cruz upon seeing them take a knee Oct. 22. She then confronted Cruz after the game. In a previous Occidental Weekly article, Roesel explained that she has family members who are in the armed services and has strong emotions around the American flag and anthem.
“I get, in a sense, where people are coming from,” Melikian said. “They see it as showing disrespect to the flag. I don’t necessarily see it like that. I mean no disrespect to any veterans and I am so in awe of what they do, it is amazing. But people need to understand that we are living in a country where not everyone feels safe by the flag and the people who are supposed to be honoring the flag.”
Melikian said that she and Cruz began planning their protest at the beginning of the school year, hoping to emulate Kaepernick’s protest.
“We both felt it was important because we have the small platform that we have,” Melikian said. “Just to show our solidarity.”
Along with Kaepernick’s protest, Cruz cited Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul, Dwayne Wayde and Lebron James’ speech on racial injustice at the 2016 ESPY’s as an example of politics and activism intersecting with athletics on a national stage. At the college level, she highlighted a similar need to bring activism to athletics.
“At Oxy, the intersection of politics could take the form of professors making assumptions about certain racial populations’ participation on athletic teams, or the facilitation of racist mentalities that are prevalent in locker rooms and playing field contexts, or even the recognition that some sports cater to specific races — having much to do with the affordability of playing that particular sport,” Cruz said via email.
Melikian and Cruz were the two consistent anthem protestors on the volleyball team, though they were joined by others at times. Before the season began, Melikian informed the team of their protest and invited, but did not pressure, everyone to join them.
Claire Strohm (junior), one of Melikian’s teammates and a co-founder and treasurer of Oxy Conservatives, has a different perspective on these anthem protests. She has close family members who are veterans, and views the American flag and anthem as symbols of national pride.
According to Strohm, her teammates are aware of her political views and she speaks about her beliefs with her teammates outside of the gym.
“However, I have not brought my political beliefs into the gym, as I feel that when we are in the gym we need to be present, in the moment, and focused on having a successful practice/game,” Strohm said via email.
Despite her differing perspective, Strohm emphasized that she supports everyone on the team. She compared the team to a family, and said unity is more important than conflict.
“Being a captain, I thought it would be more difficult than it was leading teammates who had very different beliefs than me,” Strohm said via email. “However, on the volleyball team we support each other so much that it did not pose many problems and everyone has peacefully protested the flag.”
Cruz recognized that her teammates bring diverse perspectives to the court.
“I felt support from my teammates regarding the protests through and through,” Cruz said via email. “While I’m positive some of my teammates have different political alignments than I, these feelings of difference were never acted on negatively and it definitely did not affect our team dynamic.”
Melikian said she was happy with the support from the Occidental Athletic department. She was particularly appreciative of how quickly they stood up for her and Cruz after Roesel confronted them.
“They are totally in support, we did not get any backlash from anyone [in athletics],” Melikian said. “I think that is a really amazing thing to be able to show your opinions whether or not people in athletics agree or disagree.”
On the women’s soccer team, Kayla Coleman (junior) also participated in anthem protests throughout the season. She said that activism can come with risks, especially at larger universities.
“I do think that activism in student athletes is very important and can be very effective,” Coleman said via email. “Especially at bigger schools where I think the elite athletes have more power and influence. This can also come with a bigger price if their actions are reprimanded by coaches or other superiors (playing time, spot on the team, scholarships, etc).”
Yet, Raja said that the players who wanted to protest had the full support of the Athletics staff. Similarly, Ishibashi said none of their teammates were deeply offended or asked them to stop, as there was no pressure to force everyone to participate.
“Oxy is obviously one of the more politically active campuses, and I feel comfortable voicing my opinion because I know that there are other people here like me who feel the need to express that opinion,” Ishibashi said.
Margaret Su contributed to the reporting of this article.