#BLM: Black NCAA volleyball coaches share their personal stories

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Ray Gooden, Black Lives Matter, NIU volleyball
NIU coach Ray Gooden/photo by Joe Julkowski

“A lot of folks have had an uncomfortable week. 

“A lot of people have had an uncomfortable few days. 

“Imagine having an uncomfortable life during this whole thing,” Ray Gooden said. 

“I’m having a tough time speaking the truth right now. It scares the crap out of me. I’m just nervous because who’s going to protect me during this thing? 

“You can’t be surprised that I’ve been pulled over a bunch of times, you can’t be surprised that I’ve been told many times that I got the job that I’ve gotten because I’m black. Or I didn’t get any other job because of what I look like.”

Gooden, who played men’s volleyball at Ohio State and has been the Mid-American Conference coach of the year five times, is the head coach at Northern Illinois and one of five black men who are NCAA Division I women’s head coaches. The others are second-year Quinnipiac coach Kyle Robinson, whose resume includes also having been the head coach at LIU Brooklyn; second-year Lafayette coach Ryan Adams; Frank Craig III, who after last season was promoted to head coach at Oral Roberts after five years as an assistant; and Nicki Holmes, who was hired at Rhode Island in January.

In the Power Five conferences, there are three African American head coaches, fourth-year Clemson coach Michaela Franklin; Vicki Brown at Iowa, who took over as interim head coach before last year and got a five-year contract early in the 2019 season; and Marci Byers who left Radford for Virginia Tech in January.

According to the NCAA there were 16 African American head women’s coaches in Division I in 2019, not counting the coaches from the SWAC and MEAC, two leagues made up of HBCUs (historically black colleges and universities). 

While all the coaches in the 10-team SWAC are black women, in the 11-team MEAC (FAMU is leaving that league for the SWAC and N.C. A&T is headed to the Big South) Howard, Delaware State, Coppin State, N.C. A&T, Maryland Eastern Shore, and N.C. Central have white male coaches, and FAMU’s is a man from Turkey.

Men’s volleyball is another story. 

It, too, is predominantly white in America. But last year the sport took a big — no, make that huge — leap when it added six HBCU schools that will start men’s volleyball next school year. 

You cannot underestimate the significance of what that could lead to.

The current president of the American Volleyball Coaches Association, Sharon Clark of Butler, is an African American who wrote an outstanding piece this week, “Through My Lens,” for the AVCA. 

In that piece, which should be read by everyone in our sport, Clark writes: 

As an African American woman, I have spent my entire professional career uncomfortable in college athletics. I love the sport of volleyball and have gained so much from it, but coaching has left me with many scars in my life. So many colleagues thought nothing of how I felt on a daily basis. How their insensitive comments, lack of understanding, and politically incorrect behavior became a daily grind for me. After 25+ years of leading my teams, I still go to an airport to check in with a gate agent and be asked: “Who is in charge?” or “Where is the head coach?” (Don’t you see me standing in front of you with 20 tickets?) We have been marginalized, passed over, stepped on, ignored, and yes, called the “N” word while simply doing our jobs. We call it “Coaching while Black.”

***

Gooden, who will start his 19th season as the head volleyball coach at NIU in the fall, was asked point-blank if he’d ever been stopped for driving while black.

“Yes, yes. All the time,” Gooden said.

“OK, so when I first started at NIU (in 2002), my first 10 days I got pulled over at least five times,” he said. “And it was never confrontational, but no one ever gave me a reason why. 

“One time a guy said he was just trying to introduce himself to me, welcoming me to DeKalb, but I don’t think that’s the best way to do it.

“I’m lucky I’m in an area where more folks know me and they know the car I drive, so it’s easier than before. But yes, that’s a thing. It’s happened before.”

Ray Gooden

Gooden, 49, grew up in the northern Chicago suburb of Evanston, Illinois, where “there was everything, white kids, black kids, and we all thought our life was OK. I’m not a rich kid. I was a Section 8 kid, government cheese, and all that kind of stuff, but in that area, especially when you were young, it didn’t make you stand out. At least that’s how it was back then.”

Gooden, whose mother is Jamaican, probably has more perspective on race and ethnicity than most. He has three children and their mother is white, he said. 

“For everything and for how I grew up, everything’s been about respect,” Gooden said.

His son is 11, but he’s told him, “your world is going to be different.” 

“We haven’t gotten too deep into it, but when he starts driving and stuff like that, I’ll tell him ‘You’ll have to understand that people are going to look at you differently, they’re going to have different opinions of you, but being brown, being mixed is no party, either. I mean, you get the best of both worlds and the worst of both worlds at the same time.”

For now, it can feel like the worst of times.

“I’m scared,” Gooden admitted. “For a couple of days I was scared to walk outside my own house. Because everything gets lumped together. There’s a label for everything. Everything has to have a label and an identity to it and you can’t separate it right now.

“ … It’s hard because more and more there are folks who, I think, are trying to do good, but you hear the narrative that you have to make sure the protest is a peaceful protest. Before it was just a protest. Now it has to be peaceful. If it’s not peaceful, it’s not going to be accepted. And that sucks.”

***

Robinson, 45, is from Philadelphia, went to college at LIU Southampton way out east on Long Island, “and New York adopted me. I’m a Philly kid at heart and proud of it, but Philly’s a tough city and when I got to Long Island and then Brooklyn, it really spoke to me. I really believe Brooklyn is the center of the universe because of the diversity, the culture, the mentality of the people.”

Robinson’s pro career included two tours in Greece and stints in Puerto Rico and Belgium. 

“I’ve loved every place I’ve played,” Robinson said, noting, however, that in Europe the crowds made note of the fact that he was black, often chanting as such.

He’s a member of the EIVA Hall of Fame as a player and also was an assistant coach at Oklahoma. Robinson said he hasn’t encountered racism in volleyball in America.

“I’ve had nothing but great experiences in our sport,” Robinson said.

In real life, however, “I’ve got a million stories. I grew up in the ‘hood. I grew up in a place where it was kind of normal that a cop would tune up someone.”

Kyle Robinson

Robinson and his wife have four children. Quinnipiac is a small private school located in Hamden, Connecticut, just north of New Haven, that competes in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference.

“Black lives matter. That movement is important. The protests for social change are important,” Robinson said. “It’s interesting to see countries other than the United States taking part in those movements. It’s cool. There’s racism all over the world and to me there’s been racism in every country I’ve lived in and traveled to, and I’ve been to pretty much every country in Europe and I’ve been to a good part of Asia and South America.”

Robinson said it was Tim Kelly from Bring It USA who helped him get started playing international volleyball and “he taught me that the best thing you can do right away is ingratiate yourself to the culture. Learn the language, learn the nuances of their society, and adapt it to who you are. And back then the conversation wasn’t so much about changing socially, it was this was the right way to do something or the wrong way of doing things. The way I was treated or at least viewed in my own country. I love my country. Living overseas has made me even more nationalistic and patriotic for my country. But what I learned from overseas is that patriotism comes from the people and not those who govern the people. 

“When I see movements by the people I think it’s important, even if everyone doesn’t get it. Not everyone is getting why ‘Black Lives Matter’ is so important. It’s a shame, but oh, well. They either will get it or not get it and hop on board or maybe they just don’t get it. But the movement is real important.”

 ***

Adams, 33, is originally from Fresno and grew up near San Diego and played at Cal State Northridge. He graduated with a degree in urban studies and planning in the time of the housing crash in 2009. He hadn’t planned on being a coach, but after college moved to Seattle to be with his mom with an eye on being a firefighter, he said. Adams coached a club team before getting into the college game. 

He got a job at Idaho where he did more than just coach with the volleyball team, and then was an assistant at Bucknell and William & Mary before getting the job at Lafayette, a small private school in Easton, Pennsylvania, that competes in the Patriot League.

Ryan Adams

Adams said he wasn’t the only black player on his high school team and “coming into Cal State Northridge there was an African American guy on the team and we’re still friends now. He was graduating when I was a senior in high school. We immediately became connected, and it seems to me there’s always one or two on the Cal State Northridge team so it’s not a rarity. But given where I’ve worked, at the University of Idaho we didn’t have any African Americans on a wide variety of teams I was working with there. But it’s never been something I took major notice of growing up, but I realized it.”

He said he has encountered racism, “playing more than coaching. 

“There was some matches in high school when the ’N’ word was thrown around and it’s not something that hindered me from performing and performing at a high level, but I was fortunate to have such a great support system of teammates who had my back no matter what.”

***

Craig, 27, grew up in Jacksonville, Florida, and played at Lourdes in Ohio. He went straight from graduating in 2015 to catching on as a graduate assistant at ORU in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where he ultimately got promoted to assistant for two seasons before being named head coach in March, right as the world shut down.

“I’m Polynesian. I’m Polynesian black. I grew up with my mother, who is Hawai’ian-Samoan. That was our household. We knew we looked different and we knew her kids — us — looked different. Black. I understood that having to maneuver in a way that sometimes life wasn’t safe just because of the color of our skin.”

Craig’s assistant coach at ORU is former Clemson standout and East Carolina assistant/interim head coach Moneisha McKenney, who is black.

When George Floyd was murdered and the protests began, Craig said he thought of his players, in particular the African Americans, and he wanted to be sure they were OK. 

“I knew when they looked at their dads, and when they looked at their brothers, and they looked at their uncles, they saw under that knee, who was George Floyd, they also saw those people. And that just made me sick to my stomach, so I reached out to the girls.

“I knew they were going to be the ones going out there with every emotion at once and they were going to find a way to make difference. I wanted to let them know they were valued and they had a voice and they had a choice and whatever their choice was there are safe ways to do it.”

What’s more, as the only black head coach at Oral Roberts, he wanted to be sure the university understood. 

“I knew I was having these feelings and I didn’t know if I was having them because they pertained to me, but my initial thought was are the other coaches having these same thoughts.” 

He said he contacted his senior women’s administrator to make sure ORU was attentive to their needs and that they had support. The ORU response, “made me feel really good.”

Craig said this when asked about personally being discriminated against:

“I understand that experiences need to be heard and talked about. Now we need to come up with solutions. The tougher part of that is that white men and women need to have conversations with other white men and women about why is it that racism is the black experience and it’s being put on through white hands. Why can’t they see that? Are they choosing not to see it? 

“Why is it that we know so much about the white culture and the white person? Why don’t they know much about the black culture and the black person? Putting that out there, what is this about? Is it being scared of not having power or in your own community? If you support someone who’s of color are you seen as less than?”

Gooden offered this:

“Coming from a sport that’s predominantly white, there have been a lot of phone calls coming to me from people I know, colleagues and others that are white. They’ve reached out and that’s good. But a lot of times it starts off with apologies and that’s not the point of it.

“But there are people who are asking questions and looking for some guidance. And as much as I’m willing to help, I get nervous in saying it’s not my problem, because it’s everybody’s problem.“

***

Iowa’s Brown said last week in a staff meeting they were talking about what’s happening in the country.

“And I was like, ‘You want to hear how my day went? Here’s just a normal day of (putting up with) microaggression,’ ” Brown said. “I think they were actually a little bit surprised that that’s how my day goes.

“And it’s not just because I’m in Iowa. I experienced that when I was in San Francisco. So it’s not just a Southern-state thing, not a Midwest-state thing, that’s just everywhere.”

Vicki Brown /Brian Ray, hawkeyesports.com

Brown, 33, said seeing the George Floyd video was extremely impactful.

“This was the most vivid piece of video. And I don’t know, because there were other incidents with the same amount of video, as well, but it was frustrating, it was depressing, it made me angry, there were so many emotions wrapped around it, and I still had to do my job.”

The job, she said, largely meant being on phone calls.

“Even now on some of those phone calls it’s not been brought up,” Brown said. “It’s been tough. I actually had to take a personal day or two just to regroup a little bit.”

Brown grew up in Toledo, Ohio, and after her stellar career at Illinois played professionally in Austria, Puerto Rico, and Spain. She started coaching as a volunteer at Toledo, then was an assistant at Illinois State, an assistant at UC Davis, and then spent the 2016 season as the head coach at the University of San Francisco.

Interestingly, Brown got her job at Iowa when Franklin left to become the head coach at Clemson.

When the protests began, Brown said she contacted her players. “Texts led to some phone calls, and did a micro-Zoom meeting as well with our players of color and had the staff in there because every black person is not going to be the same. I know everyone wants to figure out these one or two ways to create support, but we’re a community but there are different members of the community.”

After that, Brown said, the entire team met. “It was a good start,” she said. “They’ll be back on campus and this movement isn’t just a month of June insert-into-COVID. It’s a conversation that’s going to be continued.”

Also, Brown elaborated on what she called microaggressions.

“No one’s called me the ’N’ word before, but there was an incident where I know the guy was pretty close. The microaggressions, a lot of them come in the form of jokes or trying to feel you out to see how far they can go with this conversation. It’s playful microaggressions.”

Those, she said, are offensive.

“If it wasn’t, there wouldn’t be a term called microaggression,” she said with a laugh.

Merriam-Webster defines microaggression as “a comment or action that subtly and often unconsciously or unintentionally expresses a prejudiced attitude toward a member of a marginalized group (such as a racial minority).”

In volleyball, “the most common one,” Brown said, “and it happens to this day, is ‘can I touch your hair?’ Or, ‘I’ve never touched a black woman’s hair before. Can I touch yours?’

“It’s offensive because I know my history and I know that in slavery for picking out a slave on a line people would touch hair and pull and touch and this and that. It’s offensive because of the history.”

Brown offered this:

“In talking to other coaches of color, we finally feel comfortable to be blunt and honest. And being honest, for me it’s a double whammy, being a black female head coach, as well.”

She laughed.

“It’s just a long day, to say the least.”

***

“This has been heavy,” Clemson’s Franklin said. “It’s been pretty heavy. We had a team talk this past week, and I thought they handled the coronavirus pretty well mentally and emotionally, but when we had our discussion about all that’s going on in the world you could just tell it’s just heavy on everybody’s hearts.”

Franklin’s father was the late Andra Franklin, who was from Anniston, Alabama, and played football at Nebraska and later the Miami Dolphins. Her mother, Becky, is white, and Franklin said she has plenty of stories of how they dealt with it, especially when dating. 

“For me, the protesting has done what it probably needed to do, which is bring attention to the issue, but I’m really struggling, honestly, with all the hatred in the world right now. It’s ugly. That’s what’s really heartbreaking for me personally.”

Michaela Franklin

Franklin, 37, whose May wedding was postponed because of the coronavirus, grew up in Lincoln, Nebraska, and played at Kansas State. 

“When I was playing I didn’t see a lot of people like me,” Franklin said. “That’s something that has grown and evolved.”

Her resume includes being an assistant to Gooden at NIU in the mid-2000s and coaching at Marquette for Bond Shymansky, who later hired her at Iowa after her time as head coach at Wisconsin-Green Bay in 2013. 

“Have I encountered volleyball racism? I don’t think I’ve outwardly experienced it. The unique thing about me is I’m mixed. I’m biracial, so I can get it on both sides, if I’m being honest.”

She recalled eating at a restaurant with a black friend and her mother and “my mom getting greeted and asked what she would like and we didn’t even get acknowledged. My mom was obviously livid, but I’ve definitely experienced it in the real world.

“It’s kind of what we’ve lived and dealt with and it’s positive to finally see the attention it’s getting to prompt change. I hope something comes from what’s going on.”

Franklin referenced a recent social-media post from her cousin.

“And I think it was just perfect. She said, ‘Privilege is learning about racism rather than experiencing it.’ And that’s how I feel being a head coach in the position I’m in. I understand what it represents and for me, it’s a responsibility. It’s the life that I lived.”

Which reminded her of the interview we did in March 2017 when she got the Clemson job. It was a Q&A that ended with this:

VBM: I assume it’s not lost on you, and it should not be lost on the volleyball world, that you’re an African-American woman getting a job as a head coach. It’s a small club. What are your thoughts about that?
Franklin: There are a couple of things. I feel like anyone in this position obviously has a serious amount of responsibility in leading the people who are involved in their program, but I also have a serious responsibility in regards to what I represent.
I understand that there aren’t many of us, I totally get that, but I’m in this to be great and I can acknowledge and recognize that there’s something unique about the situation, but I just look at it like I have a big responsibility.

***

One of those SWAC coaches is Penny Lucas-White, who this fall will start her 10th season at Alabama State, an HBCU. Lucas-White grew up in Baton Rouge and played at LSU, was a USA national team player in the 1980s, and has also been the head coach at Memphis and Air Force. At Air Force, one of her assistants from 2006-08 was Quinnipiac’s Robinson. 

“We were a complete minority staff,” Lucas-White noted.

Another coach on staff at that time was Verna Julaton, a Filipino-American who played at Metropolitan State in Denver, where Lucas-White’s daughter, Kayla, will be a senior next season. And Kayla White was one of the protest organizers this past week in Montgomery.

“It was a beautiful thing,” Penny Lucas-White said. “I went out there and stood among all those young adults and they were so diverse.”

Penny Lucas-White

Lucas-White also has two sons: Kyle, who played football at Oregon State, and Keefe, who will be a sophomore football player at The Citadel. She admitted there are nights she can’t sleep worrying about them. 

White cited a few examples of being discriminated in everyday life, but elaborated on a volleyball instance. She said her team was on the road a few years ago and Lucas-White said there was no doubt in her mind that her team was being discriminated against by a white official. 

“I took my team off the court and immediately protested because this man had clearly already determined what this match was going to look like,” she said. “I refused to come out of the locker room. I told them to put their clothes on. I was going to take a stand and we would never be disrespected in such a way to where feel that we’re less than. I will not allow it.”

Only a phone call to the NCAA’s Joan Powell saved the day.

“We finished the match because Joan Powell talked me down,” Lucas-White said.

“She talked me off the ledge.”

Lucas-White said if nothing else it helped her team.

“My kids, when they knew I was going to stand and fight for them, we kicked butt the rest of that year. We went on to do some incredible things because they saw me fight for them and they were able to fight for me.”

Lucas-White paused.

“It’s exhausting,” she added.

According to the NCAA, in 2019 15 percent of the Division I volleyball players were black and 15 percent of the head coaches were black. So the ratio is similar, unlike, for example, in football and basketball.

“Well, I think it’s proportionate,” Lucas-White said, “but this is what I think: When you take our Olympic team, the game-changers, the bangers were the black women on the Olympic team. When you get to the final four, the game-changers and the bangers have been the black women. It may be predominantly a white sport, but I believe it’s the minorities, your African Americans who dominate the sport, so to speak.”

***

“As a person, the storyline is all too familiar,” Gooden said. “The situation is all too familiar. For a good reason there’s a lot of conversation that’s going on right now. And that part’s good, I think. It’s creating some stuff.“

Adams hoped he’s right.

“I guess I’m coping. I don’t know if that’s good, bad, or indifferent,” Adams said. “It starts good conversation and I’ve had some good conversations with some of my peers who are in the coaching realm. It’s a good conversation starter, but the question I always end with is where do we go from here? All of the conversation is great and we need to change and all that, but without action everything will stay the same.”

Gooden, for one, is encouraged by how many young people are protesting. 

“And they’re kids who are being brought up way more diverse and way more educated and at least way more aware of things,” Gooden said. “They’ve become more outspoken and they don’t have the weight of a lifetime of situations. The energy they have is pretty remarkable.”

Added Lucas-White: “I am so proud of the millennials and Generation Z that are out there on the front lines to go out there and stand up.”

Update: Thanks for the tremendous response to this story. After we posted it Monday, it was pointed out that Marci Byers, an African American, was now the head coach at Virginia Tech. I had completely forgotten she had moved over from Radford. And Nicki Holmes, the new coach at Rhode Island, graciously emailed and included, “I just wanted you to know, mostly cause people have mentioned it, and you wouldn’t have known, but I’m 50% African-American. My dad. The rest is Chinese/Filipino.”

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