I have always been tentative to express my love of athletics. Especially my love of football, given its consistent problems regarding race, domestic violence, and general sexism throughout America’s National Football League. I often keep my passion to myself, worried about being perceived as a part of the issue. I’ve certainly seen these darker sides of the sport, but throughout my life, I’ve been a part of more positive situations through sports than the negative ones I so often see. Growing up and playing teams within Baltimore county and city, I have seen football offer a way out of negative situations for student athletes. I have even seen it provide a way to break stereotypes in a big way.
Instead of being a complicit bystander to the issues that plague sports, it is my personal goal to shine the spotlight on the positives that sports can offer. Specifically, how it can break through barriers such as race, religion, and culture to unite us through a common love; sports. A manifestation of this unification will be hosted right here in Japan during the 2020 Olympics. Every four years the world comes together and tunes into the Olympics, usually cheering for their country, but ultimately these countries come together. The hard work and passion of the athletes often leads to camaraderie. We see this with little things every Olympics cycle. For example when Usain Bolt stopped speaking during his interview as to respect the United States National Anthem, little things like this lead to athletes everywhere respecting different cultures.
I remember my little brother running into the living room of my parent’s home from his Randallstown Panther’s practice one day, exclaiming that he had a female teammate. He was ecstatic, and it both shocked and amazed me. My brother and I played on the same team but within different age groups, so word about an amazing player in the 7-9 age group had spread quickly, even reaching my own teammates. She not only dominated but did it humbly. Eventually, within our league, it became normal to see other girls playing on different teams. This one athlete had the ability to carve her own version of success using sports. This would prove to change my perspective going forward with sports and the impact one can have.
As I fast forward to college, I remember being faced with a particularly difficult situation in my Junior year. I was forced to take financial leave. Within this moment the many statistics that my parents and siblings had fought against were about to mean nothing. The dropout rate for African-American high school students was only about 13 percent, but that number skyrockets at the level of higher education. It would have been very easy to fall into this and never return to class at Franklin and Marshall, adding to the number of black students who never get to graduate. However with the help of my parents and working myself, I eventually re-enrolled and graduated on time, with a completed research project to boot.
When I look back on that time, nothing motivated me more than football. It’s not that I had any particular aspiration of playing professionally, but when things were hardest, it motivated me to get up, go workout, study Japanese, stay fresh on what parts of Psychology I was interested in, go fill out numerous job applications and keep moving towards completing the goal of re-enrollment. It forced me to find a better outlet than me wallowing in self-pity. I just used it to work harder. If it wasn’t for football, I don’t know if I would have graduated.
When I returned to college the following semester, I was inspired to change my major. I wanted to incorporate all facets of my experience into a working model for research as well as my future. I combined Psychology, Japanese and International Studies to create my major, which I named “Culture and Cognition.” With this Culture and Cognition major, I set out to study the manifestations of culture within sports. I wanted to establish if culture affects how any given basketball player plays the game. For example, does a subject from a collectivist culture (a culture in which the group is more important than the individual) pass the ball more often than a subject from an individualistic culture (a culture in which the individual outweighs the group). I was awarded a grant during the spring of my senior year to take this project head on. I ventured to Milwaukee for a week, where I worked face-to-face with athletes, coaches, and officials from the Milwaukee Bucks, Toronto Raptors, and the Memphis Grizzlies of the National Basketball Association.
To this day, I’m driven to use sports as a positive form of development for student-athletes. Sports can teach inclusion. Sports can teach hard work. In my case, sports inspired me, the child of Liberian immigrants, to forge my own path to success, and mold my own academic experience using sports as a medium, avoiding ominous dropout statistics along the way.
So, why sports?
Sports have always been a beacon of light, always offered hope to me and countless others when attempting to find a way out of a bad situation. Sports also acts as an outlet, sometimes for something as simple as staying in shape and working out. However, sometimes it becomes a part of a student-athletes identity, affecting every aspect of their life. Just as sports have changed my life, I want to be able to help students from around the world understand that playing sports has the power to allow them to reach their potentials, not just athletically but also academically and socially. Danketsu is a manifestation of this to me, a program to help students develop something they care about while developing the building blocks of good global citizens.