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June 5, 2020

By Jared Shanker

Kragen Metz grabbed her pen and started writing.

She was listening to some of her fellow Big Ten student-athletes during a virtual RISE workshop on leadership co-hosted by Michigan Athletics on, Monday, June 1, realizing how there are multiple ways to spark change in society.

The gathering was already held under strange circumstances given the COVID-19 pandemic, but the recent killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery served as a sobering and unexpected backdrop for the conversation, and prompted her to ask herself a question.

"My biggest takeaway was self-reflection," Metz, a senior field hockey player at the University of Michigan, said. "As we were going through the webinar, I wrote down, 'What's stopping you from standing up?'"

In the hour-long RISE-led digital learning experience, dozens of Big Ten athletes and university staff discussed how leadership lessons realized through sport can be a vehicle for change.

RISE defines leadership as an action that inspires others and galvanizes them around the causes and people who need assistance. Those actions reflect values and can be demonstrated by anyone, regardless of a formalized role or position. If you inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more - you're a leader.

"It's the first time I've seen how sports can really set the platform to create social change," Illinois senior wrestler Andrew Cohen said. "A lot of people say we should separate sports and real-world issues, like the 'shut up and dribble' nonsense we hear. I think this negates all that, showing that being on a sports team and the concepts of sports and athletes can help make these social changes."

The Big Ten and college sports as a whole have been part of many seminal moments at the intersection of race and sports. Using RISE's Road to Progress, which maps out those moments on a virtual timeline, RISE's Dr. Collin Williams and Dr. Andrew Mac Intosh outlined real examples of collegiate leadership.

However, the student-athletes also discussed how leadership doesn't require any grand gestures or barrier-breaking moments. While college teams often represent a mix of races, religions and ideologies, players through their own biases can still gravitate towards teammates who look and think most like them. An act of leadership can be as simple as initiating a conversation with a teammate or even another student on campus or athlete from a rival school that has a different experience and perspective.

Metz said those workshop conversations were reminiscent of ones she was engaged in as part of her business classes. There, part of the curriculum focused on how the most successful teams aren't always the ones with the most accomplished people but the ones with the greatest diversity of thought.

"It makes it easier to be an efficient ally when you have those relationships," Michigan freshman gymnast Adam Wooten said. "I'm real close with the guys on my team, and as a guy of mixed race, I'm also a minority in my group and in my sport. There aren't many black people in gymnastics, so to be able to represent is huge to me."

Being able to educate and empower those around them was a common theme from student-athletes after the event. Gabby Wilson, an All-Big Ten freshman gymnast at Michigan, said she's prepared to live up to part of the Michigan fight song to be the leaders and best.

"I feel a lot more motivated and now I have a lot of tools I didn't realize I had as being on a sports team to be a catalyst for change," she said.

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