By Gavin Axelrod & Jack MacCool
Deep inside the Mattamy Athletic Centre, on the wall of the Toronto Metropolitan University (TMU) women’s basketball team’s locker room, read the words: At the same time you are moving forward, you are also returning.
These words symbolize contribution to the team and program during the time athletes are at the university—but they also mean leaving it in a better place than they found it. And despite their season ending on Feb. 25, the team is still making an impact off the court.
The 2022 national champions released a call to action on March 16 in response to a lack of “branded initiatives” by TMU’s department of Athletics and Recreation during Black History Month. It’s not the first time the squad has been at the forefront of social change at the university either, as they were the first team to drop the “Ryerson” name from their branding and only use the title “Rams” last year.
“I’m proud of us for having the power and the strength to speak up,” said fifth-year senior Eve Uwayesu. “But it also is sometimes unfortunate that we have to be the first people to do that, so that we can kind of lead the way for everybody else.”
“I’m proud of us for having the power and the strength to speak up”
The statement comes nearly one month after the team knelt during the national anthem before their senior night game on Feb. 18—a night in which the team thought their message could reach the most people.
The team wore all-black t-shirts rather than their typical TMU-branded warmup apparel and linked arms during the singing of “O Canada.”
“Having seen no visible or outward facing promotion by the department was disappointing,” said Uwayesu. “And I think that disappointment kind of seeped in even earlier in the month after the second or third of February [went] by.”
Conversation about what the team could do to make their concerns heard began the week leading up to the Feb. 18 game. Uwayesu said members of the team noticed the lack of Black History Month initiatives in the early portion of February and discussed amongst each other and the coaching staff what could be done to make a change.
From there, players met with leaders within the department to hear what their plans were for celebrating Black history going forward. Between the team and the athletics department, they came up with a number of steps in order to best support Black student-athletes.
The department said it will establish a Black, Indigenous and people of colour (BIPOC) Working Committee to oversee various initiatives and ensure recognition and celebration through TMU Bold media channels and at game day events.
The committee will work with TMU’s athletics department to ensure a communication plan is developed and delivered annually through the creation of a devoted webpage on the TMU athletics website.
All of these steps are to be completed under recommendation timelines included in the statement. The committee members must be established by March 20, hold its first meeting during March and submit recommendations to the athletics department by April 30.
“It feels good to know that I’m leaving the school having impacted it in some way and that it’s going to help future generations,” said Uwayesu. “Personally, that is my approach in terms of every space that I go into. But that’s also stemming from [how] most of the spaces I enter aren’t always welcoming or inclusive to my identity.”
“Having seen no visible or outward facing promotion by the department was disappointing”
TMU’s Athletics Department sent an additional statement to The Eyeopener and said it stands in support of the school’s student-athletes. The statement added that the department takes a systemic approach to equity and inclusion, with an aim to prioritize the integration of an anti-racist, anti-oppressive lens.
“We listened to our student-athletes and agree that not hosting an outward-facing Black History Month celebration in athletics & recreation is a missed opportunity to make our important commitments visible, and call others to action while the attention of our community is cued around Black history and issues of race and racism,” the statement read.
The women’s team has received the support of their coaching staff, the athletics department and other members of the student-athlete community at the school after their call to action was posted to social media. Athletes across the varsity sports teams reposted the call to their social media sharing the same views on the lack of Black History Month initiatives.
“When we decided to go as Rams, that was a player-led initiative,” said the team’s head coach Carly Clarke. “Here, the players are standing up and using their voice and I just continue to be immensely proud of the leadership that our team, our program and our players take in these moments.”
Uwayesu knows that social change isn’t always a quick or simple process. She understands that even though the team has released their call to action, to see substantial change quickly is difficult. She said it doesn’t just take one statement or call to action to change the structure of the culture at TMU.
“So I can’t say in a month it’s gonna be better, I can’t say in the year it’s gonna be better,” she said. “But I know that the steps are moving that progression forward.”