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DaWon Baker, the Huskers' diversity and inclusion director, sees signs of progress at Nebraska
ATHLETICS

DaWon Baker, the Huskers' diversity and inclusion director, sees signs of progress at Nebraska

A Black Lives Matter rally and march at Memorial Park in Omaha on Friday, June 05, 2020.

DaWon Baker’s phone doesn’t stop ringing anymore.

It has been two years since he was hired as Nebraska’s first diversity and inclusion director. And he has always had people in his office to talk.

But George Floyd’s death on May 25 and the ensuing protests that spread across the country changed everything, particularly in college athletics.

Now there are student-athletes who call to talk about how to best explain their experiences with racism to white teammates or coaches. There are the coaches — most of whom are white — who call to ask how to facilitate conversation with athletes of color about injustice. There are the administrators who want to know what Nebraska can to do make the athletic department more welcoming and safer.

Those questions have always come across Baker’s desk. But not at this intensity.

“It was kind of like a bubble that popped and it’s been the busiest I’ve been,” Baker said. “There’s been an increase in the amount of questions and amount of focus on what this looks like in the long term.”

The college sports world has mobilized as a voice against racial injustice. The Big Ten launched an Anti-Hate, Anti-Racism coalition, the first of its kind. Student-athletes have begun posting online about their experience with racism on and off campus. Some programs, like Alabama’s football team or Nebraska men’s basketball team, have produced videos supporting the Black Lives Matter movement.

This comes four years after the lines between sports and politics were drawn when Colin Kaepernick knelt during the national anthem.

Those lines are now blurred as students and coaches alike — like many Americans — are fed up with the status quo. Student-athletes are embracing their platform, and athletic departments — that have long counseled athletes to refrain from political speech — are starting to support student-athletes speaking out.

Baker lives in a world between protests and administrative boardrooms, making sure the dialogue between the two is ongoing and effective.

“It’s unfortunate that it took something like (Floyd’s death) for all this conversation to start,” Baker said. “But it’s necessary.”

During the first weekend of protests in June, Baker sent an email to top administrators at Nebraska calling for a meeting the next Monday. The protests reminded him of Ferguson in 2014, after the shooting of Michael Brown. That’s where this began for Baker, a Missouri graduate and former track and field athlete.

It was right before his senior year, and he watched it unfold on TV. As a St. Louis native, he saw himself during the protests.

“I remember thinking, I know that QuikTrip,” Baker said. “I have family that lives in those apartments.”

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A year later, the unrest moved 100 miles west to the university. A series of racial incidents — including a swastika painted on a bathroom wall and a racist Facebook post written by the student body president — sparked protests on campus. It made national news.

The football team threatened to boycott the season. A student activist threatened a hunger strike until University President Timothy Wolfe resigned after a video spread of him nudging his car at a group of protesters.

The response from university officials was widely criticized. Baker took note.

“It seemed like in that time, a lot of the conversations I had were that people weren’t paying attention to how big of a deal (racial injustice) was, and how personally impactful it was,” Baker said. “By the time students voiced concerns, the administration was like, ‘Whoa, we’ve never heard this,’ or, ‘This is new to us,’ and students were like, ‘We’ve been telling you about this for so long.’ ”

Baker started to think of the way he would have responded. And five years later, he’s in a position to do that.

After that year of unrest at Mizzou, Baker enrolled in graduate school at Central Florida and did graduate research for The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport. While in grad school, Kaepernick knelt during the national anthem. Alton Sterling was killed in Louisiana, Philando Castille was killed in Minnesota. The 2016 ESPYs began with LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade and Chris Paul dressed in black, speaking about Black Lives Matter.

Those incidents were daily discussions in class, Baker said, and how student-athletes would react to them. His research and background led to his hire at NU.

Over the past two years, Baker has helped run the diversity and inclusion summit, a yearly event required for all staff that usually includes speakers from different backgrounds. In August 2019, Baker helped start N-Vest, a leadership group specifically for minority, international and female students. In March, Nebraska launched the Huskers Inclusion Council, which will advocate for diversity in the athletic department.

Now, these issues are in the forefront. In the past two years, Baker said, he usually met with top administrators like Bill Moos, John Johnson and Pat Logsdon once a month.

It’s now multiple times a week.

“A lot of the conversation is about, OK, what do we need to do, what conversations do we need to have with coaches or athletes and how do we game plan?” Baker said.

All this dialogue is good, Baker said, but it’s also delicate. Most administrators and coaches around college sports are white. Many student-athletes are black.

Part of Baker’s job is to bridge the gap.

Players want to be heard and understood, but that’s difficult. Coaches and administrators want to understand, but that’s not simple either, Baker said.

A study released in March by the NCAA showed black student-athletes make up about 21% of all college athletes, but 13% of head coaches are black. In major revenue-generating sports, the gap is wider.

About 90% of all head football coaches are white while 55% of the players are black. In men’s basketball, 82% of all head coaches are white while 54% of the players are black. Only 26% of all basketball coaches, including assistants, are coaches of color.

Nebraska is one of two schools, along with Utah, that has never hired a black head coach — in any sport. Lincoln is a predominantly white town, and with all that mixed together, the transition from high school to college at UNL has the potential to be difficult, Baker said.

“When you are first coming here from Atlanta or South Carolina, and you don’t understand or you don’t know all the people you’re working with, you’re gonna gravitate somehow toward something or someone you have (something) in common with,” Baker said.

And if one of those people isn’t a person in power who looks like you, that can be hard, he said.

But Baker said he has been encouraged by the amount of coaches who have reached out in the past few years, particularly in the past few months. They want to know how to start the conversation and make athletes feel welcome.

“One thing I tell them all the time is, I have no problem having these conversations, but I don’t have the influence you do for your team,” Baker said. “So it’s gonna mean something different coming from you than me.”

Recently, Scott Frost said on the radio that he used his unity council to get feedback from the football team on reactions to Floyd’s killing. Fred Hoiberg recently had the only African American female on the Lincoln police force speak to his team.

Baker has talked with some coaches about how to set up monthly talks, or set aside one hour a week as a team, to study history or injustice. That’s encouraging, he said, but this won’t go away or improve overnight.

Baker wants to get the Huskers Inclusion Council off the ground. Get it to the point that, in every decision made in the athletic department, there’s a diversity and inclusion component.

“If I can meet with every coach and every department head and ask how we can sprinkle this into your team and department, that’s when we’ll really get into a true transformation,” Baker said.

His main goal is to make it clear that the athletic department doesn’t have an adversarial relationship with student-athletes or college students.

Recently, Kansas State football players threatened to boycott the season if a student who posted an insensitive joke about Floyd on Twitter wasn’t expelled. At Oklahoma State, star running back Chuba Hubbard threatened to boycott the season after coach Mike Gundy was pictured wearing a One America News Network T-shirt.

Baker wants student-athletes’ voices to be heard. He pushes for it. But he wants the entire athletic department to work together on problems in-house. It takes time to build that trust, to build that welcoming community.

“We always just want to let them know, we’re on the same side,” Baker said.

He also wants to help push for a diversity and inclusion director in every athletic department in America — he’s one of about 20 in the country.

The 20 or so have a group text. They exchange ideas, they talk strategy with one another. They hope to give a push to the NCAA to require one of them in offices everywhere.

“I really want to try and make Nebraska an example of to say, ‘Hey, this is what you do,’ ” Baker said. “We’ll get there.”

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Chris Heady covers Husker football and is the Nebraska men's basketball beat writer. He started at The World-Herald in 2017. Follow him on Twitter @heady_chris. Email: chris.heady@owh.com.

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