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Following George Floyd’s death, Maryland student-athletes knew it was time to speak up

Maxwell Costes, Chigoziem Okonkwo and Zoe Young aim to use their voices to spark change on racial injustice in America.

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As Maryland baseball’s Maxwell Costes glanced around a packed stadium at Illinois in April 2019, something came over him. There wasn’t a single person that looked like him in the sea of fans that filled the stands.

“That was one of the first times I ever felt like I could put a feeling to the word other,” Costes told Testudo Times. “I could notice that me and Chris [Alleyne] and AJ [Lee] were getting heckled a lot more than other kids were. And when I heard the racial slurs coming from the stands and stuff, that’s when it really hit me.”

He’d encountered racial slurs before at games. He was used to having his heart race and his mind fill with anxiety whenever he drove around with friends and saw a police car. The same could be said for whenever he went jogging. But in that moment, the feeling of what it means to be Black in America really sunk in.

“On that big of a stage right there, that’s when it really hit me of being different,” Costes said.

Most people of color in this country have similar stories. Those moments when their minority status hits them smack like a brick. Those reminders that they often won’t be treated the same as their white counterparts.

Chigoziem Okonkwo, a tight end for Maryland football, has experienced racial profiling throughout most of his life.

Five years ago, he went to the pool on his street with his younger cousins and the woman working at the front desk asked if he actually lived there — he and his family have resided in that mostly white neighborhood in the suburbs of Atlanta for over a decade.

Joe Robbin / Getty Images

Another instance came when he was 13 years old and at the mall with friends. He recalled a security guard following the group around the mall and calling stores before they entered to warn employees that they intended to steal things.

“We’re not struggling, we have no reason to steal. It’s just you saw that we were Black, so you just immediately assumed that,” Okonkwo told Testudo Times. “It’s just crazy that stuff like that can happen, and it’s just sad to have to go through some of those things.”

Maryland women’s basketball’s Zoe Young grew up in West Des Moines, Iowa — a town that’s over 85 percent white. She faced a lot of racism, some obvious and some subliminal. She was often pulled over by police for random reasons that didn’t make any sense. She even felt discriminated against by her classmates at times.

“It’s something that I’ve been dealing with my entire life,” Young told Testudo Times. “But it’s never gotten to the extent where the life of mine or the life of my loved ones was in danger. So that’s why I’m speaking out on this now.”

Costes, Okonkwo and Young, along with countless other African-American student-athletes at Maryland, have been sharing these experiences in Zoom calls with their teammates and coaches. They’ve taken to social media to let their outrage be heard and offer words of change in response to George Floyd’s death in police custody. Floyd begged for his life as an officer knelt on his neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds on May 25 in Minneapolis.

All of that pain and hurt caused by seeing unarmed Black people killed over and over, along with their own daily battles with racial injustice, had boiled over.

Young had plans to leave the house, but she simply was too upset to drive after watching Floyd’s tragic death. “My heart was heavy,” she said. “My stomach was upset.”

Okonkwo was enraged that officers who take an oath to protect and serve could do something like that. He was even angrier when he found out the incident was over a counterfeit $20 bill, and immediately knew something like that would only happen to someone who looked like him.

When he first heard the news, Costes wasn’t shocked. But as the two-time All-American sat down and watched the full encounter, he was taken aback and disturbed.

“We’re all human. … You would think in any situation, if somebody is telling you they can’t breathe, that it would flip a switch in you or something that this man literally is having his life taken away,” he said. “It disturbed me that a human being like that can exist. And much more so that a human being like that could exist and be in a position of power.”

As Costes considered whether to post his thoughts on social media, a saying from his head coach, Rob Vaughn, popped into his head. On the first day they met, he told Costes, “Baseball is what we do, but it’s not who we are.”

The first baseman — who is ranked as the 34th-best prospect for the 2021 MLB Draft — knew an organization could be less likely to draft him if he frequently posted about activism and racial injustice, but Costes had to put his personal values before that. In addition to daily Instagram posts, he wrote an essay entitled “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Social Consciousness.”

“This is going to be in history books one day,” he said. “One day, one of my kids is gonna come home and ask me about it and talk to me about it, like, ‘What did I do? What was I doing?’ How stupid would I feel if I said, ‘Eh, I was too worried about my draft stock to really be a part of anything.’ How stupid would that sound?

“One of the things I try to live by is that the only way you get remembered is by how you affect people and the relationships you have with them. So for me to just sit on the sidelines and not say anything or not try to educate people, or not try to help keep pushing the movement forward, not only is that incredibly selfish of me given the fact that I have such a big platform ... but I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t do that.”

Okonkwo expressed a similar sentiment. He cares more about speaking his truth and being a part of history than where he gets selected in the NFL Draft.

In addition to spreading awareness and educating others with her social media platform, Young attended several peaceful protests organized by young adults in her hometown. She said she was left breathless to feel support from a community that often was unwelcoming in the past.

Young’s teams have always lent that support, though. Whatever prejudice she experienced growing up, she could always turn to a locker room filled with people of different backgrounds that only judged her by how she played.

She said she especially experienced that with the Maryland women’s basketball team in the days following Floyd’s death. Brenda Frese’s squad came together from four different time zones across the globe for a Zoom meeting to have an open conversation about racial injustice and people’s personal experiences. Everyone gave input as the group worked together to form a public statement.

“It’s important that we have that support as well as have those conversations within our teams because we are a diverse community,” Young said. “We have incredible programs, and with those programs comes responsibility to advocate — not only for the members of our team, but for people across the world and across our country who maybe can’t advocate for themselves.”

Mike Locksley, who is one of just 14 African-American head coaches across FBS, led the football team in a similar exercise. During one of the program’s regular Zoom leadership meetings, he asked everyone to break off into their position groups so each player could express and share how they felt about the whole situation, as well as their own experiences with racial injustice and discrimination.

Afterwards, the team came back together and decided it wanted to form a collective statement; each group shared something it wanted to include. The final product includes sentiments that range from describing the pain Floyd’s death brought them, to their desires to be “difference makers” and “leaders of change,” to the importance of exercising one’s right to vote.

“A lot of [our white teammates] really started to understand how different it is to be Black and white in America,” Okonkwo said. “That was really good. We got so much closer as a team.”

The Big Ten — led by Kevin Warren, the first and only Black commissioner of a Power Five conference — looks to continue such conversations and empower student-athletes through its Anti-Hate and Anti-Racism Coalition. Officially launched June 1 with representatives from all 14 universities announced Monday, the coalition aims to develop ways to actively combat racism and hate throughout the conference.

As soon as he heard about the initiative, Costes reached out to his academic advisor to see if he could get involved. After submitting an application, he was selected as one of three student-athletes to represent Maryland, along with Okonkwo and softball player Taylor Wilson.

Costes, along with countless others, has experienced racism and hate firsthand. These are deeply rooted systemic issues that won’t be fixed overnight, but he hopes to be a part of slowly erasing them.

“I look forward to doing this, getting a chance to help affect some real change,” Costes said.

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