Words by Russell Dinkins
Top photo by Emily Maye
Portrait by Molly Seltzer, Seltzer Shots
My fight to save college track programs is derived from a sense of purpose and borne out of a profound love for this sport and the transformative impact it can have on someone’s life. From the opportunities it can afford, to the benefits of body and mind, to the lessons of grit, perseverance, growth, and accomplishment, this sport brings immense value to individuals and to the community.
A few months ago Tracksmith’s Nick Willis reached out to me with a fantastic opportunity to support my efforts to save college track and field programs. Since June of 2020, I have helped to save men’s track and field programs at Brown University, University of Minnesota, and William and Mary by engaging in grassroots organizing and message advocacy.
I am not a part of any formal organization, nor did I have movement activism experience prior to this work; I am just an athlete who loves this sport, who has been afforded tremendous opportunity via this sport, and who wants to see these opportunities preserved for others. So, instead of just being upset about what was happening, I decided to get active. It was my scrappy persistence, the stick-to-it-ness, that I believe caught Tracksmith’s eye, and I am so incredibly grateful for their support.
One of track and field’s unique strengths is its diversity. Track and field is one of the most diverse sports in college and is one of the only sports with a high level of Black athlete participation. Contrary to the salient images of NCAA football and basketball that pervade on television, 67 per cent of athletes in the NCAA are white, and most participate in affluent sports. Track and field, in addition to its diversity, is one of the most accessible sports, being the cheapest sport at the high school level. Track and field is also the largest sport by participation at the high school level. If college sport is to truly intended to function as a vehicle for educational opportunity via athletic excellence, then track and field is the gold-standard. No other college sport provides opportunity as equitably, as proficiently, or in as wide-spread a fashion as track and field.
My work in this space began by happenstance via an article I wrote on my personal Medium account. Like many during the beginning of the pandemic, I found myself stuck at home looking for something to fill my time. For years I have been interested in sharing my thoughts by writing on issues of politics, race, class, and society, but I was nervous about sharing my writing publicly. However, with the lockdown, I decided to take the plunge and began writing on several topics, with each article garnering a few hundred views each, which at that time, without a large platform, was great.
Then in June 2020, I heard that Brown University cut its men’s track and field program. After speaking with some of the Brown alumni, I decided to write an article on Medium to address some of the racial implications of Brown’s decision as their track team was one of their few diverse teams on campus and one of the only teams with a large number of Black students. In fact, their track team had more Black men on it than their soccer, baseball, lacrosse, and ice hockey teams combined. And to add insult to injury, they were elevating their nearly all-white sailing team to varsity, effectively replacing their diverse track team with their homogenous sailing team.
My intention for the article was to get the message out to the public and to generate some buzz around the issue so that traditional publications would be interested in covering the story. Instead, what happened was that my article itself went viral. Upon seeing this, I decided to get active and began organizing to bring the message to an even greater audience.
It worked, and within a week of posting the article, Brown University announced that they were reversing their decision. Since then, I have successfully led organizing efforts that have helped lead to men’s track and field program reinstatements at the University and Minnesota and William and Mary, using the organizing framework that Brown alumni used in their fight. To date, I have helped save over 150 opportunities - opportunities that disproportionately benefit Black students.
I am now in the middle of yet another fight, this time with Clemson University, whose decision to cut their men’s track and field and cross-country program will cut over two-thirds of the university’s non-revenue Black male student-athletes and three per cent of their Black male students overall. Clemson has proven to be the most difficult challenge yet; despite this, we have made tremendous progress, creating a viral campaign video that has been viewed a quarter of a million times and has been shared by former NFL star Terrell Owens and prominent sports journalist Jemele Hill.
In addition, national outlets such as ESPN, Sports Illustrated, and the New York Daily News have covered the campaign. However, the most important movement is that I filed a federal civil rights complaint against Clemson University, claiming that the cut is discriminatory on the basis of race. The Department of Education is currently processing the claim. If the Department elects to open the case, Clemson University will be under federal investigation for violating the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Clemson University, just like the other schools that I have challenged, is feeling the pressure, and we, the save Clemson track organizing team, are confident that we are on the right track.
My work over the last few months would not have been possible if it were not for Tracksmith and their generous support. In keeping with their values, Tracksmith elected to not look on from the sidelines but rather decided to support running in America directly by supporting my work. College track and field is an integral part of the larger running community, and I am very appreciative of Tracksmith’s role in helping to save these college opportunities.
Moving forward, I will continue to build on the progress that I have started and am optimistic that additional victories are on the horizon.
One thing that I hope you all can take from this is that we all have the power to effect change. I, a person who previously did not have a large platform, have been able to successfully pressure universities to do the right thing and preserve the opportunities that disproportionately benefit Black students. Similarly, Tracksmith utilized its position as a growing force in the larger running community to directly support the work happening on the ground. You, no matter if your influence is small or great, have the ability to make this world a better place. It is incumbent upon all of us to address the issues of the world that we’ve inherited so that we may leave the world better for those who come after us. That requires us to fight against racialized injustice but also to fight against the numerous other injustices that challenge our world. My fight is to save Black college sporting opportunities via track and field; your fight will likely be something different, and that’s okay. The beauty of it is that if we all do our part, no matter how big or how small, no matter the arena, we will collectively create a world that may not be perfect, but one that will be better.
More broadly, it is my hope that, at the very least, my story inspires you to take the leap and challenge yourself to do something that you’ve been afraid to try. For me, it was writing; for you, it might be a 10k race, or hiking up a mountain, or running in public down a busy sidewalk. Whatever it is, it is my hope that you are encouraged to take that leap because just like, my article on Medium, you never know what amazing things may result if you don’t take that first step.
Yours in running,
Princeton Alumnus and NCAA DMR Champion turned social justice activist