For six years, I have been playing with SquashBusters, a sports-based youth development and academic program with sites in Boston, Lawrence and Providence, Rhode Island. Because squash is often viewed as a Caucasian sport, you wouldn’t think my squash team is made up of mostly black and Latinx athletes—but it is. Since my teammates come from minority backgrounds, we relate to one another on a level beyond sports.
As high school athletes look forward to participating in college sports, we often do not think about the lack of diversity among college teams. However, because there is less diversity in college teams, you should expect you may struggle to build a sense of community with your teammates if you are a minority athlete.
When minority students enter college many experience culture shock, which the Oxford Dictionary defines as “ a feeling of disorientation experienced by someone who is suddenly subjected to an unfamiliar culture, way of life, or set of attitudes.” This culture shock extends beyond the classroom and onto the field. “No one here looks like me” is a phrase that too often echos in the head of minority college athletes.
According to the NCAA, from 2016-2017, in the sport of squash, black male college athletes made up 3.6 percent of all players, while whites made up 57.6 percent. Similarly, black women made up 2.8 percent, while white women made up 58 percent. Sports that lack diversity lack understanding of different cultures and ideas. For minorities, this insufficient knowledge from their peers can make it hard to bond with them.
Ravi Rao played with SquashBusters in high school and now plays for his college team at Bryant University in Rhode Island. He describes his relationship with his former teammates at SquashBusters as a family, a group of people who build each other up. Now, he says he is close to his team at Bryant, but wouldn’t consider them family. The SquashBusters team “ just gets me,” said Rao. It is easier to build a team when the teammates all relate to one another. By understanding each other, they create a stronger bond which strengthens the team.
Felix Polanco, a senior at New Mission High School, has been playing tennis with Tenacity—a sport and academic program for urban youth—for seven years. One aspect Polanco likes about Tenacity is that his team members look like him and share similar backgrounds and upbringings. He plans to continue playing in college, but fears his new teammates may be prejudiced. While he wants them to understand him, he’s also not going to force friendships.
“I would still be cool with them, but not as cool as I am with the people I have at Tenacity,” said Polanco. If he does run into conflicts with his future team, he will simply focus on himself as an athlete. “I am in it to play the sport, and they shouldn’t keep me from playing my sport,” he said.
Your love for your favorite sport can be compromised if there are people on the team who do not respect you. While you should try your best to talk through every situation and express your feelings, it is understandable if you need a break from your team. As Polanco said, you play the sport for your own personal growth. The people there should push you to be better, not make you feel worse or insecure.
Christopher Ferguson, 18, from Chicago, has been playing squash for five years with Metro Squash, a Chicago-based squash, academic, mentoring and life skills program. Through sports, he has learned discipline from his coaches and has developed healthy, long-term friendships with his teammates. Yet, Ferguson has faced racism from other players outside his program. As he thinks about playing in college, he hopes not to encounter more racial situations. “It would hurt to not continue playing if the environment was hostile,” said Ferguson. In order to combat this, he said, the best thing for athletes to do is educate their teammates on racial tolerance.
Talking to your team about what makes you uncomfortable can give your teammates a better understanding about you and can potentially lessen tensions within the group. As high school athletes look forward to playing in college, they should keep in mind the challenges they might face when dealing with teammates who may not hold the same viewpoints. Push yourself to speak out against those who say or do hurtful things to others. Hold your new teammates accountable, but if it becomes too much to bear, know there is a much bigger community out there who will push you as an athlete and respect you for who you are.