When Tayla Stuttley takes a knee before the national anthem, she thinks about the struggles of her ancestors and the current state of social and racial issues, and sometimes, it’s a bit overwhelming.
“It’s emotional, actually,” she said. “I just think about my family, my dad and brother, and how awful it would be if they weren’t here. I’ve been lucky that I haven’t been severely affected by racism, but it’s emotional when you think about what these other families have had to go through.”
Stuttley is one of several athletes from many teams on Minnesota State’s Student Athlete Advisory Committee, which released a video last week, promising to treat all people equally and with respect and using their platform to speak about social and racial injustice on the campus, community and country.
“That’s the way I was raised, to treat everyone with respect,” Minnesota State sophomore Quincy Anderson said. “Everyone deserves that. No one should have to walk around afraid for their safety.”
The Student Athlete Advisory Committee, which includes at least two members of each of Minnesota State’s sports teams, was formed to give athletes a voice in the college experience. Rachel Shumski, a senior on the women’s basketball team, was nominated to the committee as a freshman by her coach and is now the president.
“It’s been a big part of making me who I am, on and off the court,” Shumski said. “It’s been a great experience, and I’ve grown as a person.”
Over the last few years, the SAAC has brought awareness to many social issues, such as domestic abuse and drunk driving. This year, the focus was on voter registration and social justice.
Shumski, who is white, grew up in the south-central Minnesota town of Granada, where she met and learned about other students through sports co-ops with other nearby small towns. When she got to Minnesota State, she was exposed to more cultural diversity and the issues faced by minorities. She also began to realize that as a student-athlete, she had the opportunity and platform to bring awareness to injustice.
“I’ve always been a relationship person,” Shumski said. “This has helped me become a more well-rounded person. I’m hoping we can make an impact that will be felt for years to come. We need to help make a change.”
Stuttley, a senior, is one of several Minnesota State men’s and women’s basketball players who have chosen to kneel as the national anthem is played before games. In those moments, she reflects on all the minorities that have died needlessly in the last few years in police incidents and other civil unrest.
Minnesota State athletic director Kevin Buisman said there is no policy regarding athletes kneeling for the anthem. He said it’s up to each individual and team.
Stuttley grew up in a mixed-race family — her dad is Black and mother is white — in Onalaska, Wisconsin, being one of the few minorities in her school and town. The racism there wasn’t overt, but she heard the jokes and noticed people watching her at the store.
“You know it’s not right, but when you’re in junior high or high school, you don’t say anything,” she said. “It’s had an impact on my life.”
Now, she and others feel like they have a platform to share their stories and keep talking about the issues. The women’s basketball team formed a diversity council that includes Stuttley, Rachel Shumski, Ali Hunstad and the coaches to discuss issues and plan for how they can take the lead on reform.
Both men’s and women’s basketball teams wear shooting shirts with EQUALITY printed across the chest in big, block letters, something more meaningful than a school name or logo.
“We can’t let this get swept under the rug,” said Stuttley, the only Black player on the women’s team. “This is the world we live in, and now we have a platform to speak. This is a movement, not a moment, and we need to keep pushing every day.”
Last summer, during the racial unrest in Minneapolis and elsewhere following the death of George Floyd, Anderson spoke about racial issues and joined protests in his hometown of Oshkosh, Wisconsin. He also had friends on the 35W bridge the day a truck nearly drove through a crowd of protestors.
A couple of years ago in Milwaukee, Anderson and his older brother were pulled over by police, who had guns drawn as they yelled for the Andersons to get out of the car. Turns out that the police were looking for a similar car but the encounter shook Anderson.
A couple of weeks ago, at a basketball game at Upper Iowa, Anderson said he heard a racial slur uttered at him behind his back. He told Upper Iowa officials about the incident, but he said he wasn’t that surprised because it was something he’d heard before and will likely hear again.
“I’ve seen a little backlash, but it’s important that I use my platform to help,” Anderson said. “It’s not just Black people that are suffering. Many people are suffering. Right now, that’s the world we’re in, and it’s important to me that I use my voice.”
Anderson said he’s been active on social media, trying to continue the discussion. He feels like he’s making an impact.
“If I can convince or educate one person, I feel like I’m doing my job,” Anderson said. “I want to do things the right way and spread the word. I feel like it’s my responsibility to the community.”
Follow Chad Courrier on Twitter @ChadCourrier.