Student-athletes start Owls for Justice to fight against racial inequality

Written by: Sam Cohn // Photo by: Jackie Terpak

Temple student-athletes have come together in recent weeks forming a collective group called Owls for Justice, fighting to end racial inequality starting with the Temple and North Philadelphia community.

Owls for Justice started with just 12 members releasing a statement on May 5, making it clear that as student-athletes they “have to work as a collective unit to accomplish [their] missions and win.” The group has since expanded to more than 130 members with representatives from 17 of Temple’s 18 varsity sports. 

“We actually put out an email to everyone who’s in our athletic department explaining who we are and what we do,” Men’s Soccer’s Manny Ikeocha said. “And we gave them the option to join, so that’s how we got over 130 people.”

After a week had passed following the wrongful murder of George Floyd, Temple Football linebacker Isaiah Graham-Mobley and Temple Gymnastics junior Jackie Terpak reached out to the Athletics Department questioning their lack of response. Graham-Mobley, Terpak, and many of their fellow Temple student-athletes felt there was more they could do.

In an early conversation about how to best represent themselves and their mission, Temple’s Mental Health Specialist Dr. Stephanie Coakley pitched the name Owls for Justice. 

With that, the group began to take shape.

In their original statement with 12 signees from 10 different teams, the group made it clear they do not tolerate racism or discrimination of any kind. They recognized a statement wasn’t enough and vowed to take further steps to foster change beginning within Temple’s Athletics Department.

Following the statement, Owls for Justice mobilized the Temple community organizing a peaceful protest Saturday, June 6. Starting at the corner of Broad Street and Cecil B. Moore Avenue, the group marched nearly two miles south to Philadelphia’s City Hall where a larger peaceful demonstration was taking place. 

Owls for Justice has since organized town hall forums, participated in weekly Zoom meetings, and sparked important conversations within the Athletics Department to create tangible change and make sure this time it’s a movement, rather than a moment.

“Nothing that’s happening now hasn’t happened before,” Ikeocha said. “But this time is different. More people who aren’t Black are starting to see this is a human rights issue and not a political issue… I had to use my voice and use what I’m feeling to change our community environment for the better.”

Ikeocha has always been involved in social justice work in some capacity and educating those around him but for this to happen during his time at Temple made the decision to be a vocal leader in the group a no brainer.

As for Temple Women’s Rowing junior Rylie Hager, it was a chance to be around others who are as outspoken about racial issues as she is.

“I’m on the rowing team which is like a 95% white sport,” Hager said. “I haven’t always been around people who are wanting to be involved in this stuff and wanting to talk about these issues because it doesn’t affect us. I was excited when this group got together because I was able to now be around very like-minded people who are also passionate about these things having really, really productive conversations.”

Having important conversations and showing support for Black teammates has been a major influence in getting more student-athletes to join the fight, Hager added.

Owls for Justice released their follow-up statement Tuesday, reviewing what they’ve accomplished so far and a list of eight future goals.

Their goals include but are not limited to, expanding voter initiative into the fall semester, developing warm-up shirts or patches on jerseys to further vocalize their support, and to have a presence at the March on Washington on August 28, contributing to the national movement.

In terms of voter registration, Owls for Justice is testing out programs among student-athletes that educate students about mail-in ballots, how to register to vote, and when to vote. Beyond that, they’ll work to send links and articles to ensure fellow student-athletes are informed about various candidates.

Temple athletes have also already been approved to shuttle buses down to the March on Washington for the 57th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Numerous coaches have said they’ll be comfortable excusing players from missing practices in order to be in attendance. 

Although many goals begin with change within the Athletics Department, they aim to expand to the rest of Temple’s student body. 

With so many student-athletes joining Owls for Justice, it’s easy for people to get lost in the shuffle. They’re currently working to create smaller groups tackling various goals, Terpak said.

“In [Wednesday’s] meeting we had a discussion about having different committees within each group,” Terpak added. “We’ve just been thinking of different things, whether it’s a social media group, a voting group, [an education group,] or more like that. We’re still figuring it out but we’re getting things together.”

Wednesday night meetings are Zoom calls with just the leadership group comprised of one person from each represented team. Thursday night is when they convene with the whole group or as many members that can make it. 

One of the challenges of working towards these goals has been having discussions remotely due to COVID-19 restrictions.  

“It’s definitely a challenge not being able to see everyone in person and to not have these constructive conversations in person,” Graham-Mobley said. “Everyone gets kind of nervous when they can hide behind the computer screen. But we’re just taking it on the chin and using whatever we can to stay forward and keep pushing.”

“That’s why we’re trying to work as hard as we can now so that when we get back on campus it will be easier,” Ikeocha, who is a member of the voter initiative group, added. “We don’t know what the coronavirus is going to be like when we’re there.

Photo credit: Jackie Terpak

As of right now, Temple has announced classes will be in-person and students will be on campus until Fall break, followed by a transition to online classes. Fall-sport athletes are hopeful they will be able to play their seasons and use their platform to stand for change. 

Justin Miller, who oversees student academic affairs in the Resnick Center, Assistant Director of Compliance & Student-Athlete Affairs Olivia Wynn, and Dr. Coakley have each been extremely supportive of the movement, according to members of the group. 

Student-athletes have been given room to make the movement what they want and work independently, however, Hager mentioned the Athletics Department has provided any extra support when needed.

In addition to the Athletics Department staff, student-athletes have talked to donors, the IDEAL offices, the Black Student Athlete Union, and Temple Progressive NAACP looking for support and guidance to better educate themselves on how to go about real change.

Student leaders repeatedly talk about ways to make their voices heard, educating themselves, and fighting for basic human rights.

“We’re in a world now where you can use your social media platform to make a difference,” Graham-Mobley said about ways others can be an ally to the movement. “You can use your phone to make a difference. So everyone needs to know that their voice matters. A lot of people are being silent because they’re like. ‘What’s my place in this?’ That’s where education comes in. That’s where uncomfortable conversations come in.”

“I would just say everything we’re pushing for,” Terpak added, “push for at your school and push for in your community. Educating yourself and those around you is extremely important at this time.” 

Owls for Justice will be holding another peaceful Black Lives Matter protest at the corner of Broad Street and Cecil B. Moore Avenue Wednesday, July 8, at noon. 

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