Black athletes and St. Cloud: SCSU struggles to diversify athletics staff

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Although St. Cloud State University (SCSU) continues to aggressively recruit Black student-athletes, there are no Black head coaches in SCSU athletics, and only a couple of Black assistant coaches. “I wouldn’t even say it’s a crawl, but we continue to address it,” admitted John Lewis, assistant athletic director of promotions and community relations, of the school’s progress in trying to hire more coaches of color.

Fourth in a series

Lewis has been at SCSU since the mid-1990s, beginning as a graduate student. He easily recalls, “I was the only African American GA [graduate assistant]; then I left and came back and became a full-time assistant coach, and I was still [the only] one.

“Right now, I think we have a [Black] volunteer assistant coach in football, and one that’s full time or part time in outdoor track and field and cross country, and he’s of African descent,” Lewis points out.

Lewis has served on several coaching search committees, including chairing the search for the head baseball coaching position. He explains, “What the search committee really does is give recommendations to the supervisor and the president — we don’t rank anybody. It’s up to the supervisor and the president to make that call.

“I think for the most part, we now have a standardized [interviewing] process, and then it goes through different channels where it has to be approved by the president, then [the school’s] affirmative action [office] and human resources. There are no exceptions.”

Diversity was a top priority in each search, according to Lewis, who added that in three other searches at least one person of color was included; but, for whatever reason, they didn’t get hired. “At least two went to the [on-]campus interview, and we just did a phone interview with the third [applicant],” he says.

Lewis also said that salary, “location, [and] maybe weather” typically are three factors that may play a part in keeping more Blacks and other persons of color from applying for SCSU job openings, especially in athletics.

The school’s history of race relations may also be a factor, noted SCSU President Earl Potter. “As an institution, I am not comfortable with the degree in which we have taken advantage of our diversity,” he said, adding that he strongly believes that diversity in SCSU athletics is important. “Overall, I am concerned about the composition of our coaching staff,” he added. “I would say we need change in athletics.”

After reading an earlier report quoting several Black student-athletes who feel isolated at the school (“Black athletes and St. Cloud: Are they compatible?” MSR, Jan. 15), Lewis admitted, “I was surprised by the article. We have so many African Americans and minority student-athletes. Some love it, and some don’t.
“You have to weed out [if it is] discrimination or bias, or is it that you are not playing and someone is better than you. There are some who don’t play [but] have a good experience [at SCSU].

“It is vital to have a good player-coach relationship,” Lewis continued. “If we are not having that connection,” he continues, “be it the player, the coach, or the system, then we need to address it. I wouldn’t want my kids [to] be in that situation, or anyone else’s kids [to] be in that situation, where they don’t feel welcomed.”

Lewis also stressed that SCSU isn’t alone as a college campus “where you may not be treated fairly. That’s the case on all campuses. The University of Minnesota has those same types of issues.

“The biggest issue [at SCSU] is learning and educating each other on different cultures, which we don’t spend enough time doing. [But] to say that [because] St. Cloud has a small number of minority students [racism] happens more frequently than at the University of Minnesota… It’s racism everywhere.”
SCSU dance professor Debra Leigh said of Black student-athletes’ concerns, “I don’t think there has been much consideration to seeing a new structure for student-athlete programming.”

“Student-athletes as a group and students of color tend to hold to themselves,” President Potter said. “They have a culture, orientations, and a set of values that’s not shared by anyone else. The students who have the best experiences at St. Cloud State become attached to a peer group and a support group…a network of people you can trust.”

Black student-athletes should get more involved with the school’s Student-Athlete Advisory Council (SAAC), Lewis suggested, as that group will listen to their concerns. He also encouraged student-athletes to talk to him: “My [office] door is always open, but a lot of student-athletes don’t use it. Instead of coming in here when you get in trouble or you broke a code of conduct, just come in here and say, ‘Hello.’ I encourage that, but do a lot of minority students know that? Probably not.

“I feel a responsibility that I am a role model,” said Lewis, “and I am going to make sure that person, whether they are Black or White, that they are doing the right things, and their number-one thing is to get their degree.”
Whenever negative things do occur, Lewis emphasized, they must be addressed immediately “and not get swept under the rug.”

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

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