BRUNSWICK — For months, Lester Jackson felt like he had a weight on his chest. Walking around the Bowdoin College campus, his home for the past three years, felt different, less enjoyable. The “imaginary bubble around Bowdoin” had popped and the mood among his football teammates had soured, he said, following an incident last fall when an assistant coach, who is white, used a racial slur in the locker room — something Jackson, co-president of the school’s Athletes of Color Coalition, said left him and his teammates “shook to the core.”
While there was no malice behind it (the coach was reportedly asking players to turn off a song he said used the n-word too many times), that he “felt the need to comment on how inappropriate a song was but did not recognize how wrong it was for him to say that word,” was inexcusable, Jackson said in a letter to the editor in the Bowdoin Orient, the student newspaper.
The coach apologized and the team and coaches discussed what happened and why it was wrong, but “nothing could truly make this incident and its impact go away,” he said.
This incident is one of several actions — racial slurs or demeaning terms, athletes of color being mistaken for other teammates or feeling “othered” as the only person of color on the team — that had ripple effects across the athletic community, according to a series of op-eds penned by the Athletes of Color Coalition and published in the Orient early last month.
As social and political attention turned to issues of race and bias this summer following the national outcry and surge of protests after the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and Jacob Blake, the Athletes of Color Coalition seized the opportunity to turn the lens on Bowdoin.
Led by Jackson and co-president Kendall Rogers, the group drafted a list of demands they felt would improve the experience for athletes of color at Bowdoin. There are 45 to 50 members of the group, and roughly 650 student-athletes at Bowdoin.
The demands include a list of expected changes within the department, including annual facilitated discussions around race and training on racial bias prevention and allyship tailored to athletics, more transparency, diversity and access within the athletic hiring and recruiting process, a bias-specific reporting process, and team-wide discussions and action plans followed with an annual report on the changes. An expected timeline was also included.
“We have recognized that racial bias incidents are a consistent occurrence in the Bowdoin Athletic department and they have involved players, coaches and those in our community,” the students wrote. “These incidents often go unreported, because many athletes of color feel uncomfortable speaking up and that no action will be taken as a result of a complaint. … Black athletes have continued to be called the N-word, are being mistaken for each other, and do not truly feel welcome on their respective teams.”
“Though some of the most decorated athletes on campus are athletes of color, we feel as though athletes of color are considered to be inferior to white athletes,” they continued. “Additionally, coaches do not know how to support athletes of color. It is impossible to support an athlete of color if coaches do not learn about, understand, and empathize with the daily issues athletes of color on campus face… We ask for immediate change and support from the athletic department, all coaches, and all teammates. We deserve more.”
Response from the department was swift and encouraging, Jackson said in an interview. Within weeks, the athletic department created an Athletic Department Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee with representation from the Athletes of Color Coalition and Student Athlete-Advisory Committee and began drafting an action plan and implementing some of the requests.
“The administration has really taken it seriously and is making an effort to make Bowdoin a more inclusive place,” Jackson said.
Through the action plan, the department committed to required annual diversity and inclusion training for athletic staff, coaches and athletes, diversified recruitment and hiring strategies, easier access to financial assistance for student-athletes and bias incident reporting and a budget review process to find hidden costs that might be barriers to student-athletes, among others.
“We’ll be able to incorporate in one way or another essentially everything in the document,” Athletic Director Tim Ryan said.
The experiences shared by the Athletes of Color Coalition weren’t a complete surprise to Ryan — “We’ve held forums on campus over the last few years at which the AoCC conveyed their experience within their particular programs and not all of those were entirely positive,” he said— but the scope of the problem outlined in the document was eye-opening.
“The conversations that took place over the summer and the information that was shared in the reform document put a fine point on the experience of athletes of color and cast new and additional light on that experience,” he said. “We recognize there is much more we can and should be doing to support our athletes of color.” The work over the next few weeks, months and years will be ongoing, he said.
Jackson and Rogers hope this continuing education will not only make the experience for athletes of color at Bowdoin better, but will also alleviate the responsibility of educating their white peers.
“Without our voice and without our efforts a lot of people are going to be ignorant,” Rogers said. “We’re trying to get everyone on the teams to be allies so that the burden doesn’t fall on the athletes of color solely to educate and speak up.”
“We’re trying to make the communities and teams know that racism comes in a lot of forms,” Jackson added. “It’s not something that is abstract and far away from every day life. We can see it in all the spaces that we take up.”
The plan in place will be solid, meaningful and lasting, he said.
“We don’t want to have a lot in place and think things are getting better and then 10 years down the road be having the same conversations.”