Escaping the athletic fortress

U of M runner feels liberated by becoming a regular student

U of M students protest during an “Is there a right way to protest?” discussion. Photo by Julia Johnson)
On February 11, 2016, U of M students protest during an “Is there a right way to protest?” discussion. (Photo by Julia Johnson)

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Natasha Moore plans to graduate from the University of Minnesota this December with her African American Studies degree. She is considering attending graduate school, possibly somewhere down South, her years at the U of M not what she’d hoped for when she was recruited.

Moore came to the U of M in 2013 to run track, but she says almost two years later, due to a series of racial incidents that culminated in her filing a racial harassment complaint against a school male trainer, she literally ran away from the sport. “I made a big scene, and eventually they [school officials] made him say he was sorry” for a racially insensitive remark, said Moore.

The St. Paul native had hoped that running collegiate track would be a natural progression for her. As a youngster, track had become her sanctuary. “I started running in the seventh grade,” recalled Moore. She joined the Inner Cities Athletic Association where Henry Combs, Tremaine Lindsay and Paul Jackson coached her.

“That was my family,” she said. “They took me out of my neighborhood. I made it to the Junior Olympics. It was the first time I realized I could do something. It was the first time I saw Black people doing something positive.”

Moore also excelled in the classroom. She later graduated ninth in her class at St. Paul Johnson High School, where she also competed in track (a four-time all-city sprinter) and won conference titles in the 100m, 200m and 400m, setting school records in all three events as well as competing in three state meets.

But until the university recruited her, she didn’t see college in her future, admitted Moore. “I was a straight-A student, but I didn’t think I would go to college” because of the cost. “I didn’t believe I was going to college until I received a recruitment letter as a junior.” The Gopher coach “[told] me about how many new Black girls he was bringing to the team.”

However, once she arrived at the U of M, Moore quickly realized the cold reality of college athletics — a seemingly segregated environment. As an athlete, Moore wasn’t allowed to work during the school year due to NCAA rules, even though she didn’t have the full scholarship that football and basketball players normally get. She had to stick to the regimen of her sport.

“The expectations did not allow you to be anything other than an athlete,” she said. “And if you give them anything less, then you’re a failure.”

“It’s hard to be a Black student on this campus,” said Moore. “To be a Black student-athlete can be hard[er].” And what’s maybe even harder is being a Black female athlete, a triple-whammy: “I know some of my [former] teammates who had babies, but being Black, they just get shunned. Whereas, there have been Whites that have had babies, and it has been a totally different attitude” towards them by coaches and others, she said.

Moore was redshirted her freshman year, but she never ran for the Gophers. She left the team in 2015. “I got this stupid [maroon and gold] backpack,” said Moore, pointing to the piece of equipment given to all Gopher athletes, a separating symbol that set them apart from their fellow students on campus.

“Everybody comes up to me and asks, ‘What sport you play?’” After she tells them she quit the track team, “I look like a failure” in their eyes, noted Moore.

Now, a “regular” student, Moore says she feels liberated: “The athletic department is like a fortress,” she said. “I look at it like a castle with a wall that nobody can penetrate. I realized over the last couple of years…a rift between Black athletes and regular Black students” exists on the Minnesota campus.

Moore has since immersed herself in her studies and other on-campus activities. “I wanted to do something else with my college life. I felt like I was being starved from my college life.”

She did a two-year faculty mentorship program and joined the Differences Organized! coalition. This past February, she and others peacefully “took over” an MPR panel discussion at Northrup Auditorium in protest of the university’s slow approach to addressing diversity issues.

As for her complaint against the male trainer, it was investigated by the school’s equal opportunity and affirmative action office. “We did find a violation of university policy,” stated Director Kimberly Hewitt. “The [athletic] department took appropriate response to that.”

U of M Interim Athletics Director Beth Goetz told the MSR, “We’ve done some things that are intentional to build an inclusive environment” for all athletes, including a staff member assigned to oversee the department’s diversity and inclusion efforts “for both staff and student athletes,” she noted. “We got a lot of work to do.”

“If athletes have complaints, they need…a safe space where they know they won’t be retaliated [against] if they do speak out,” said Moore. “There needs to be an outside entity…that has more power than the athletic department…who can take over when they are not doing the right thing.

“I don’t know if the attitude in the athletic department has changed,” said Moore, adding that she doesn’t blame her former teammates or coaches for the racially insensitive atmosphere that she encountered at the school: “I’m not trying to bash them, but it’s important that the truth be told.

“It still hurts [leaving the team],” continued Moore. “But I do feel stronger… I feel stronger because I feel a sense of control over my life.”

 

Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to challman@spokesman-recorder.com.

 

Related content: Offensive comments drive athlete from U of M track team

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