First Amendment Week (FAW) exists to celebrate champions of expression and to encourage others to exercise that freedom. When ESPN sportswriter Jemele Hill was a FAW Speaker, she explained her philosophy for social justice as an incremental battle: "Try your best to get people to move 10%, rather than trying to change them completely." Her sentiments, which date back to 2018, seem almost tame three years later. This season, the women’s basketball team is doing their best to conquer both of their on-the-court and off-the-court aspirations.

It would be remiss to commend their efforts without acknowledging the ongoing censorship of athlete activism in sports. Although much has changed since 2018, not everyone in the multimedia world is on board with the marriage of basketball and social justice. You may recall how Laura Ingraham of Fox News once peddled the concept “Shut up and Dribble” amid Lebron James’ political opinions, before redacting her position amid social media reaction.

“I hate that term,” said Jasmine Jones, senior forward. “I hate that word and I hate that she said it. In a way, you are degrading a human if you tell them to shut up and get on with an activity. As if they don’t have a voice for themselves. As if they’re not supposed to talk about politics. [It’s] an ugly comment. We’re not just here for your entertainment.”

Jones alludes to an excellent point: athletes can be well-rounded. You don’t have to be a politician to know politics. You don’t have to be a five-star chef to know that a meal is fantastic or downright awful. You can be an athlete and understand social justice.

“One ripple in a pond creates a great effect,” said sophomore Khari Clark. “We’re just changing the outlook of our teammates, then our teammates’ families. I think we have a really good balance of making a change within the people around us.”

The program is doing quite a bit more than dribbling this season, with full-fledged voting initiatives and excellence meetings bi-weekly. Their Excellence Program has been a team investment over the past several seasons and is made up of subcommittees such as community service, alumni engagement, career development and mental health. This year, they’ve placed a substantial emphasis on their newest committee: social justice. Despite what Laura Ingraham may think, head coach Charity Elliott couldn’t be prouder of her players.

“I’m proud of the leadership they’ve shown on this campus regarding equality and using their voices for things that truly matter,” said Elliott. “That’s who we are: we’re willing to say hard things. We’ve had hard conversations as a team and as a coaching staff. I’m just really proud that they’ve stepped into their opportunity.”

When asked to name a specific team accomplishment, assistant coach Emily Ben-Jumbo had her answer ready: “Haley Herdman and Khari Clark helped with the voting initiative,” she revealed. “They worked with the student-athlete advisory committee to get all student-athletes registered to vote for the last election. That was a huge deal.”

The 2020-21 squad has also taken part in the spread of “Race for Change,” an online racial justice campaign originating at University of California, San Diego. “Our kids jumped on it right away,” explained Daisy Feder, the team’s Director of Operations. “It was a virtual 5k race on the Manhattan Beach Strand, and it showed that all different people from all different walks of life have to be on the same page for change to happen.”

“To me, this is an opportunity to build some habits and mindsets within our team that say ‘this isn’t something that’s going to matter to us once or twice,’” added Coach Elliott. Change is something that is enduring and long-lasting. We’ve come a long way in this country, but we still have a long way to go.”

You can view clips from their Race for Change event in the team’s official intro video here.

It’s not as if the team plays basketball in a 2,000-seat echo chamber, either; instead, they find meaning in their diversity of perspective. “For the national anthem, some of our players want to kneel and some of them want to stand,” said Ben-Jumbo. “We all have our own reasons as to why we’re kneeling or standing, but for us to link arms while doing so? That is one of the very many things that I know we’re all proud about.”

And, as Jones puts it, the team’s emphasis on community outreach and social justice is much more than a frolic. It’s not a pastime. It’s a focused effort that is borne out of necessity. “People are dying,” she lamented. “If you don’t see that police are killing a lot more African Americans than white Americans, then I don’t know what else to tell you. If you don’t see race and you don’t see color, you’re oblivious to the problem.”

“I come from a smaller city,” said starting guard Ciera Ellington. I’m from Portland, Oregon, and Portland is a very predominantly white city. When I graduate and go off to (hopefully) play in the pros, I want to inspire girls that look like me to be themselves unapologetically, to do anything they want to do, regardless of the barriers or anything that anybody tells them.”

“I have a lot of little cousins who look up to me, and I really want to leave a legacy that inspires them to do something,” said redshirt junior Ariel Johnson. “I want to inspire them to do more than just sit around because the sky is the limit. I want kids to know that anything is possible if you put your mind to it.”

As a result of their shared passion, the LMU women’s basketball team has never had a stronger effect on their community. Whether they stand or kneel, they are all one. And since it's First Amendment Week, it’s a perfect time to celebrate everything the women’s basketball program has done to change LMU’s now-quiet campus. Keep using those voices, ladies! The rest of the Lions faithful look up to you.

This is the opinion of Chris Benis, a sophomore marketing major from Seattle, Washington. Tweet comments to @LAloyolan or email comments to ahutton@theloyolan.com.

Chris Benis, asst. sports editor, has been a dedicated writer for the Loyolan since September 2020. He writes primarily about in-season critiques and enjoys publishing single-player features.

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