Athletic development starts at a young age. Offensive lineman Ian Park was six when he started playing. Nandi Mehta started travel soccer in seventh grade. Symone Abbott first picked up a volleyball at age 10. Brandon Medina was 5 years old when he stepped onto a soccer field.
For these four Northwestern students, racial prejudice influenced their lives as athletes; however, most of the racial and cultural obstacles they faced took place in their childhood, before they arrived at college. At Northwestern, the narrative has become more nuanced. These athletes experience race uniquely as one of, or the only, member of their race on their respective team.
Protests at the University of Missouri this past fall sparked conversations about race and inclusion on college campuses across the country. When Mizzou’s football team stood in solidarity with Black students and refused to play, protests involving racial discrimination distinctly wove their way into athletics.
At Northwestern, athletics and protests mixed differently. Protesters wanting to stop the proposed reductions to the Black House interrupted the dedication of the new athletic facilities at the Henry Crown Sports Pavilion. One of the biggest issues in this year’s ASG presidential election was the experience of marginalized groups on campus. But do these same conversations on race and inclusion follow athletes onto the playing fields?
The four student athletes featured in this story do not represent the experiences of all student athletes of color. But their stories demonstrate the stereotyping, discrimination and cultural barriers they’ve had to overcome to get to where they are today.
Volleyball, Communication Sophomore
Everyone wanted Symone Abbott to play basketball. From her dad to her gym teacher, everyone assumed a tall, athletic Black girl would. Not volleyball.
“[My dad] was like, ‘It’s in your culture. I played basketball, your mom played basketball, you should be playing basketball,’” Abbott says.
The pressure started early in fifth grade gym class, when students chose basketball, floor hockey, juggling and more. Abbott chose juggling. Her teacher asked her why she did not choose to play basketball.
“He just assumed I would go over there,” Abbott says. “That just kind of let me know maybe I should start fitting into that, and then I tried it and hated it.”
As she got into volleyball in middle school and joined a club team, her coaches did not bother developing her skills after they saw her 6-foot frame.
“They just looked at ‘Okay, she’s tall, she’s Black, she can jump, we should just put her in the middle,’” Abbott says. “That kind of put me at a disadvantage when it comes to learning the all-around game, because they just threw me in the middle and didn’t worry about teaching me.”
Abbott soon realized she was not going to be tall enough to play middle in college – most players are at least 6-foot- 2 – so she asked her coaches to move her to the outside. They refused, which forced Abbott to change clubs altogether.
At the next club, Abbott refined her game and became a dominant outside hitter, propelling her to the Northwestern team, where she has been in the starting lineup since she was a freshman.
Like in almost every other volleyball team she has played on, she is the only Black player out of 15.
“They think I’m like the guru when it comes to Black culture,” Abbott says. “I really don’t know that much, but I get a lot of questions.”
The questions took a much more serious tone in fall 2015, after activists protesting the proposed renovations to the Black House interrupted the dedication of the new athletic facilities at the Henry Crown Sports Pavilion.
“Of course, me and my team talked about it. They just want to know if I felt like that, and I said, ‘No, I don’t,’” Abbott says. “Athletes really don’t feel the brunt of it if there is a lot of racial things going on out there because we are athletes.”
Soccer, Weinberg senior
As two-time captain of the women’s soccer team and one of Northwestern’s representatives on the Big Ten Student-Athlete Advisory Committee, the conference’s student athlete government, Nandi Mehta has turned into one of the school’s most distinguished student athletes. The senior midfielder stands out not only for her leadership skills, but also on the field as an Indian athlete, an ethnicity that is rarely represented in soccer in the U.S.
Mehta grew up playing on predominantly white teams for both her high school and her club. When she was younger, she didn’t face the same kind of stereotyping that several other athletes interviewed for this story experienced – Mehta says it’s because there are so few Indian athletes in general.
“Honestly, probably in the sense with [Abbott], there are stereotypical sports that Black people play, and it’s not like that for Indian people,” Mehta says.
But there was familial pressure for her to not play soccer at all. Mehta’s grandfather, who was born in a small town in the state of Gujarat, India, was opposed to her playing soccer as anything more than a hobby.
“The idea of anybody playing a sport that seriously, that didn’t exist in India at that time, especially not for girls. That’s unheard of,” Mehta says.
Despite her grandfather’s wishes, Mehta’s parents encouraged their children to play sports. They saw how happy she and her younger sister were in athletics and let them pursue their passions as intensely as they wanted.
The two eventually became collegiate athletes: one soccer player and one equestrian. In both sports, the Mehta sisters were always the only Indians on the field. That changed for Mehta this fall when she got an Indian teammate, freshman Simmrin Dhaliwal.
“I was really excited when I found out that Simmrin was coming,” Mehta says.
Mehta’s presence helped put Dhaliwal’s parents at ease when their daughter transitioned from high school to Northwestern. Because both sets of parents grew up in India and lacked first-hand knowledge of the American college experience, they struggled to fully understand the importance placed on collegiate athletics.
“Having me on this team and having gone through it gave [Dhaliwal’s parents] a sense of comfort,” Mehta says. “They knew that somebody has gone through it, and it’s going to be okay.”
In order to see more Indian athletes and more diversity in general on playing fields around the country, Mehta says that the integration needs to start at a younger age.
“It has to be like an Indian family getting their kid into sports, Black people playing volleyball and ice hockey and things like that,” she says. “I think the more that happens, the more you bridge cultures.”
Soccer, Weinberg junior
Brandon Medina was born in Mexico City and moved to Chicago when he was 5 years old. He is one of only two Latino players on the Northwestern soccer team; Cuban goalkeeper and Weinberg sophomore Francisco Tomasino is the other. The pair is two of a small number of Latino Northwestern athletes in general.
“For soccer, it’s kind of weird, especially for a team in Chicago – there’s obviously a strong Latino population, and we do recruit a lot in California and Texas – to not have more Latino presence [on our team],” Medina says.
Growing up, the racial makeups of Medina’s soccer squads varied depending on the type of team. His high school team, St. Ignatius College Prep, a private school in Chicago, was mostly white, while his club team, Raiders FC, was mostly made up of Latino athletes.
While not yet an American citizen (he is currently a permanent resident and plans on getting his official citizenship in the next year or so), Medina considers himself both Mexican and American.
“Sometimes I actually yell [on the field] in Spanish,” he says. “The Northwestern guys look at me like ‘What the hell are you saying?’ I struggled with it a couple of times. For example, ‘man on,’ (te llegan) I say it in Spanish, or ‘turn’ (vuelta) or ‘pass me the ball’ (pásala). It’s really weird. Sometimes I’m trying to say it, but it doesn’t come out in English, and it doesn’t come out in Spanish, and it’s just gibberish.”
For the Latino soccer players who come to Northwestern, Volunteer Assistant Coach Ovidio Felcaro can smooth the language dichotomy. He is a native of Argentina, who has been with the soccer team for 14 of Head Coach Tim Lenahan’s 15 seasons as coach.
“[Felcaro] speaks Spanish,” Lenahan says. “He’s been in constant contact over the years with Brandon’s father, and also can pull Brandon aside to talk in Spanish to provide that comfort.”
But Medina did not escape racist incidents growing up. With his club team in high school, he traveled down to a tournament in Georgia and played a team that consisted of mostly white players.
“They were saying ‘Go back to Mexico, go over the wall,’ kind of that thing. It’s kind of difficult because it’s the middle of the game and there’s always a lot of trash talking going on, but that was a bit out of it. You don’t usually hear racial stuff in the middle of a game.”
In college, he says the trash talk he hears during the game is directed more at the whole team and is along the lines of, “Northwestern, you guys don’t even know how to party.”
But at Northwestern, he found the lack of Latino athletes strange, especially in soccer, a sport with a typically larger Hispanic presence, a concern he raised to his head coach. Lenahan says in his experience, he has seen fewer Latino athletes at elite tournaments.
Another factor out of the team’s control is when recruited Latino athletes decide to commit to another school.
“I do remember there’s been a couple of times where we have tried to actively recruit Latinos on the team who would do a great job,” Medina says. “But for one reason or another, they decided to commit somewhere else.”
Football, Communication Redshirt junior
In the days leading up to one of his biggest games of the year against rival Bethel Park High School, then-high school senior offensive lineman Ian Park’s mind wasn’t on his half-white, half-Korean heritage – he was simply preparing for the matchup.
But one of his upcoming opponents, a trash-talking wide receiver, was thinking about Park’s race and posted about it on his Facebook wall.
Yeah, we’re gonna smack you guys. You’re a stupid chink.
“That was basically it,” Park says. “Just that word. I remember that word.”
Park mentioned it to one of his friends, his friend told the principal and that player was suspended from the game.
“It’s just an insult based on where you come from and what you look like, it kind of gets to you,” Park says. “I try not to think about that and just play football.”
Racially charged trash-talk is not something new for Park: He has dealt with it on just about every stage of his career.
“As a whole, Asians don’t really have a big presence in football or many American sports,” he says. “They think all Asians are the same, a lot of stereotypes – being smart, all this kind of stuff, not being athletic.”
Park’s two brothers also have football experience at the collegiate level. His older brother, Alex, played quarterback at Dartmouth College from 2011-2014. “It was especially tough for my older brother, being quarterback. Especially anyone with some Asian ethnicity at QB, I feel like people weren’t sure what to think of him,” Park says. His other brother is an offensive lineman at Amherst College. While Park says his family never had any explicit talks about overcoming racism, his parents were always there for him whenever he was down or had a bad day.
“My brothers and I, we’ve always just tried to let our play do the talking,” Park says. “If you’re a good football player and people see that, they’ll put all biases aside, sometimes.”
Park says that most of the time at the college level, race has not come into play despite being one of the only Asians on the Northwestern football team.
“If I ever meet somebody that is Korean or Asian and they’re trying to play football, I immediately try to make a bond because there aren’t many of us out there,” he says.