BLOOMINGTON, Ill. – All summer, ISU track and cross country runner Kimathi Johnson and his fellow Redbird student-athletes discussed the changes they wanted to see within their athletic department regarding race and inclusion.
“It felt like the administration didn’t take it too seriously because nothing really came out about it. Nothing really changed.”
But after athletic director Larry Lyons used the phrase ‘All Redbird lives matter’ during a virtual meeting with fall athletes last week, Johnson and others were no longer willing to wait on the sidelines for that change to happen.
“For me, it was pretty hurtful because it was someone who I looked as someone who represented me,” remarked Johnson, an Oak Park River Forest graduate. “On top of that, he was someone who helped get me here. He was like, ‘Yeah. Give this kid a scholarship.'”
“I closed [the virtual meeting] by saying ‘All Redbird lives matter to me,’ and then I went into some COVID stuff. It was a mistake trying to roll all that stuff into one thing,” explained Lyons. “It was offensive to a bunch of our student athletes. We certainly support Black Lives Matter.”
Athletes in 16 of the school’s 17 sports boycotted team practices and meetings.
Johnson tweeted a list of demands from Illinois State athletes, including more diversity in positions of power and a plan of action to support social justice movements.
“Even if we can’t find more diversity, right now – they can’t do it instantly = a commitment to do it over time and a commitment to make people who are in power now more educated about diversity and the struggles their athletes go through.”
The ISU Athletic Department released an action plan for social change on Monday.
“Education is a big part of it,” Lyons noted. “I signed up for a 12-hour class today that has been suggested I need to take. We’re going to be serious about doing the right thing here and moving this program forward to the benefit of the student-athletes.”
Not every athlete has accepted Lyons apology, but he hopes the conversations continue and create progress.
“At the end of day, we’ve had some tension here. Guess what? We’re going to be better for it because we’re going to put some things in place that are good for our student-athletes and program that’s going to help them and move on.”