Kevin Anderson scanned the faces of nearly 100 University of Maryland athletes gathered at Heritage Hall inside Xfinity Center. They had not come for an early-semester orientation. They had not come for a meeting on NCAA compliance issues or academics. They were rather invited by Anderson, the school’s athletic director, for an open forum to talk about whatever they wanted.
But though it was one of the largest turnouts since Anderson began organizing the sessions a year ago, it began in silence. It was the 16th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, and Anderson asked for reflections. Nobody would speak up at first. “I’ve been around you, I know you’re not this quiet,” Anderson said. “So I’ll share my experience.”
That seemed to loosen up the room. The discussion ranged freely from hurricane recovery to Islamophobia to Confederate statues to President Trump. Much of the first session of the new academic year focused on Charlottesville and recent racial tension in College Park, which heightened in May when, in separate incidents, a noose was discovered at a fraternity house and a visiting student was stabbed to death at a campus bus stop.
“How do we start accepting our differences?” Anderson asked midway through the forum. By that point scores of students were raising their hands and waiting their turn to chime in.
This is the kind of dialogue Anderson envisioned when he created the forum in the fall of 2016, feeling the need to give his students a platform in the midst of a divisive presidential election. He didn’t know if it would spur any change, but he hoped the forum would give the athletes tools to be vocal voices on campus and in the community. Anderson didn’t want to be in the dark about any racial or social issue the athletes might be wrestling with. Though he has not directly acknowledged that his forum is a preventive measure, one potential benefit could be avoiding controversies that have engulfed a handful of other major athletic departments in recent years.
“I wanted to have a forum with our student-athletes, where we could talk about all of these worldly issues. Not about athletics, not about academics, but what’s on your mind? What are you feeling? How do you see this?” Anderson said. “I just wanted to sit down and hear what they were thinking.”
Anderson’s attempts to strengthen communication with players comes in the wake of several high-profile acts of protest by college athletes, including among major football programs. Northwestern’s players attempted to unionize in 2014-15; Missouri’s team boycotted practices and threatened to skip games as part of larger student protests over racial incidents on campus in 2015, leading to the resignations of the chancellor and the president of the state university system; Minnesota’s players staged a two-day boycott last December over their concerns that 10 teammates were suspended without due process in the wake of an alleged sexual assault of a student.
Anderson, 62, has not had to deal with an ordeal of that magnitude in College Park. And while holding an open forum for an hour once a month certainly doesn’t keep his department immune, it does represent Anderson’s efforts to give his athletes a voice at a time when it might seem more beneficial to suppress it. He believes his forums can help him build meaningful connections with athletes in racially and politically charged times.
Alex Leto is a senior on the track team who tried to recruit as many teammates as he could to the discussion this month. He said of Anderson: “In my experience, interacting with him, I’m impressed that he actually cares.”
Leto was one of about 10 athletes who attended the first of the forums, dubbed “Kickin’ It With Kevin” by the athletic department, in fall 2016. He wasn’t sure how deep the conversations would go. It was worth it to attend, though, because the opportunity to talk to other athletes from other sports about social and political issues had never really been a realistic option.
Leto said the first topic Anderson broached was the activism of Wisconsin basketball player Nigel Hayes, who made national headlines last year as a staunch pay-for-play advocate. (In a separate public forum on campus in 2015, Anderson publicly defended the NCAA’s decision to not pay players.) Attendance gradually increased from that initial discussion, with more than 60 athletes representing all 19 of the athletic department’s teams regularly attending. Anderson noticed that it took a few students several sessions to work up the courage to speak; one sign of progress was that one outspoken athlete was challenged more frequently by the end of the year.
“At the end of the day, we’re told he runs this multimillion dollar business and he has all these expectations and stress that goes with selling the product of University of Maryland athletics. So he’s head honcho, he’s doing his job, but then he brings himself down to a personal level and just wants to talk with us,” Leto said. “And not just talk to us about, Hey, how’s the weather? Hey, ‘Monday Night Football’? … He wants to talk about deep societal issues and get to the nitty-gritty.”
Anderson’s forum reflects his unconventional path, beginning with his upbringing in San Francisco. He was surrounded by campus activism by the time he graduated from San Francisco State in the late ’70s; by the late ’80s, he was a Xerox employee who wanted to transition to college athletics at a time when few minorities held leadership positions.
“We’re all a product of our environment, and I think Kevin has taken the best of every environment he’s been in. He can be in any environment, all black, all white, Latin American, mixed,” said Washington Nationals Manager Dusty Baker, a longtime friend and mentor to Anderson and the godfather to Anderson’s son. “Kevin is about truth. He’s a great listener, which I think is one of the hardest things to come by, especially when you’re in a leadership role when you’re expected to do all the talking.”
Listening to athletes is often not at the forefront of big-time athletic departments, but it’s clear that Anderson has made it a priority with his forum and in Big Ten meetings, according to Jim Phillips, the athletic director at Northwestern. Phillips has noted Anderson’s outspoken nature on two issues in particular: schedule compression and time demands placed on athletes.
“I think it’s just easy to see that Kevin is always going back to the student-athlete experience and always speaks about it. And I think that comes from his relationships with student-athletes,” Phillips said.
Phillips said he and Anderson spoke often about the Northwestern football players’ attempt to form the first union in college sports. (Phillips opposed the union, which was eventually rejected in 2015, but supported giving the athletes a voting role on issues such as health, welfare and safety.) That situation underscored the sometimes contentious balance between athletic departments’ business interests and their relationships to the athletes.
“I’m proud of how we handled it, and I think it has started dialogue, not only at Northwestern and Maryland, but across the country,” said Phillips, who added that Northwestern has several student-athlete forums. “In today’s world, you have to do those things. You have to be really connected to the student-athletes.”
The dialogue at Maryland has extended past pay-for-play, which didn’t come up in the first open forum of the school year. Race did. (The Washington Post was granted access to the forum on the condition that students not be quoted directly so they could speak freely.) Students particularly were outspoken on Charlottesville and the death of Richard Collins III, an African American student at nearby Bowie State who was stabbed at a bus stop on the College Park campus in late May. Sean Urbanski, a white Maryland student who was reportedly a member of a racist Facebook group called “Alt-Reich Nation,” has been charged with murder.
Though most of Maryland’s athletes were not on campus at the time of the incident, Anderson sent out a statement to all of them and vowed in late June that his department would help the university “continue to get better in this area.” As it became a central topic at the first forum of the year, Anderson patiently waited for every athlete to say their piece. They came from all walks of life. There were students from Europe and South America, and students of Middle Eastern descent. There were African American students. There were white students from the South and the West. And there was Anderson, reminding them that they could make tangible change by holding discussions.
“But if we really want to be effective, and do what we really need to do and what we talked about, we’ll start talking about how we can move the needle,” Anderson said.
As Anderson closed the forum, it was well past 9 p.m. and the lights inside Xfinity Center had dimmed. He stuck around as long as he could anyway, shaking hands and giving hugs to athletes.
In the months ahead, students will be able to can get a head start on the agenda by suggesting topics for the forums to the athletic department. Advocacy has been borne out of the group: basketball player Brionna Jone worked with the student government as a senior last year to host a diversity and inclusion seminar in the spring, which opened up the forum to a larger group of students.
“It’s been a vibrant discussion from the beginning. One of the reasons for that is that Kevin is a very good facilitator. He sets the ground rules for the kids … they feel like they can say anything,” said Sue Sherburne, senior athletic director for academics and student development. “The numbers continue to expand.”
And the conversations are ongoing. After the open forum, Leto and his teammates walked to their car and drove back to their apartment in College Park. They had been up since the crack of dawn to train and attend classes, but they continued talking about 9/11 in their living room.
“You can’t be in ‘Kickin it with Kevin’ for hours,” Leto said, “and if we could, we would be there forever.”
More college sports coverage from The Washington Post: