Nearly 50 years ago, former Jacksonville University basketball player Artis Gilmore, along with the rest of the JU basketball team walked into a restaurant for a team dinner following a hard-fought game. Restaurant management said the team could be seated. Their only condition: African American players on the team had to eat in the kitchen.
“I guess we are all eating in the kitchen,” head coach Tom Wasdin responded. But instead, the disgruntled restaurant management staff relented and sat the entire team in the normal dining room.
Gilmore, now a basketball Hall of Famer, wouldn’t have been afforded the opportunity to play college basketball if it wasn’t for Wasdin, who broke the racial barriers by making Gilmore just the second African-American man to play college basketball in Florida.
The breaking of social barriers was just one of the areas covered Tuesday afternoon at ESPN’s The Undefeated 2019 Wasdin Speaker Series, an event focused on athlete empowerment and using their voice and platform to inspire positive change, said Michael Reid, the dean of the College of Health and Human Performance.
Speakers included: Artis Gilmore, Tom Wasdin, professional softball player A.J. Andrews, three-time Olympian Michelle Carter, freshman Gators soccer player Cameron Hall, world champion hurdler Grant Holloway, Gators track and field and cross country head coach Mike Holloway, former NFL player Marcus Pollard, CEO of USA Track & Field Max Siegel, Miami Herald sports journalist Alanis Thames, former NBA player Etan Thomas and ESPN NFL reporter Cameron Wolfe.
More than 200 guests in attendance included Gainesville high school students, UF student-athletes, students from all three organizing colleges (the College of Health and Human Performance, College of Journalism and Communications and the Levin College of Law). among others who came to the event to hear from panelists.
Senior NFL writer for The Undefeated Jason Reid led a discussion between Pollard and Thomas, who both played over a decade professionally in their respective sport.
The three opened by discussing athlete use of social media in the scope of social justice, which Thomas is a strong advocate for.
“If you look at LeBron, he has just as many followers as Trump. When he says something, everybody hears it,” Thomas said. “It’s like if Muhammad Ali, back in the day, had a Twitter account. There’s so much power in that.”
Pollard pointed out the benefits but cautioned about the dangers of social media and spoke on the current climate of the NFL in regards to player activism.
Before the creation of the NFL social justice initiatives, the league didn’t provide a vehicle for players to voice their opinions on the things they cared about, he said.
“Now, they’re creating that which is commendable and definitely heading in the right direction,” Pollard said. “Players now have a platform to speak out against the NFL or for social justice or inequalities.”
The Undefeated Senior Writer Lonnae O’Neal moderated the following discussion with A.J. Andrews, first woman to win a Rawlings Gold Glove Award, and Michelle Carter, the first American woman to win an Olympic gold in shot put.
The three spoke about some of the struggles women in sports face and how they have overcome some of these challenges. Andrews said women, no matter what feat they accomplish, aren’t recognized as much as men performing the same athletic accomplishment.
“For me, when it comes down to creating my lane for influence, it is about being loud about my success,” Andrews said. “In reality, it’s a story that should be told. If other people aren’t going to write that narrative, I’m going to write my own.”
Carter faced similar challenges in finding her identity when she first started competing professionally in shot put. It was believing in herself that helped her carve out a path for success, she said.
“If you don’t believe in yourself, it’s hard for everybody else to get on board with you.
“When you become really good at what you do, people take notice.
“I kept pushing myself, and that’s how I was able to break down barriers, not just in my sport, but in myself. When you second guess yourself, you can never break down the barrier for others, if you can’t break it down for yourself.”
The Undefeated’s Jason Reid, who writes on race and social justice in the NFL, said that the town hall tonight wasn’t about changing opinions, but opening up people to different perspectives and new schools of thought.
“We are trying to come to a place in this country where athletes can continue to feel empowered on issues they feel are important to them but also have a level of acceptance from society,” Reid said. “Events like this where we continue the dialogue, I personally hope it can put the country in a better place where people aren’t talking over each other and just listening.”