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‘All Redbird lives matter’ comment leads ISU athletes to skip sporting events, practices

University coaches and alums, including one in the NFL, have criticized the comment by athletic director Larry Lyons as “insensitive.”

Illinois State University
Illinois State University athletes are demanding a series of changes from their Athletics Department after an insensitive comment from the university’s athletics director.
Clare Proctor/Sun-Times file photo

Athletes at Illinois State are refusing to attend team practices and sporting events after the head of the Athletics Department reportedly said “all Redbird lives matter” when discussing the Black Lives Matter movement on a conference call last week with players and coaches.

Students in all but one of the university’s 17 athletics programs have said they won’t return to their teams until their list of social justice demands are met, including a concrete, comprehensive plan of action to support racial justice protests and a commitment to diversity in the athletics administration. The missed team events are mostly practices because competitions are postponed or canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The Athletics Department released a plan Monday afternoon that partially addressed some of those issues, but that athletes quickly said was insufficient.

The strike started after athletic director Larry Lyons said on a department-wide preseason call last Wednesday that “all Redbird lives matter,” referencing the university’s mascot in a play on the “all lives matter” slogan often used by critics of the Black lives matter movement.

Students who said they were offended by the comments took to social media to list their demands, which also included hiring mental health professionals who specialize in “minority struggles” and more diversity among athletics trainers. Athletes have said coaches and alums have been supportive.

A coach on ISU’s track and field team wrote on Twitter that Lyons’ comment was “insensitive and frankly one that attempts to drown the movement.” An assistant coach with ISU’s men’s basketball program posted a message that called “all lives matter” comments “hurtful and cruel.” Davontae Harris, an NFL player and ISU alum, said in a Tweet that he was going to have to “disassociate myself with Illinois State as a whole” and that Lyons “was fully aware of what he was doing ... we can’t keep allowing people to pretend like they don’t know any better.”

Lyons, through a spokesman, declined to comment Monday. The spokesman said Lyons would wait to see athletes’ response to the plan released that afternoon before speaking again publicly. The plan includes a review of hiring practices “with the goal of creating a more diverse and equity-minded staff,” diversity and inclusion training for administrators and a commitment to hire a therapist “with specific skills and experience providing counseling and mental health services to student-athletes of color.”

Larry Lyons, Illinois State Athletics Director, is facing scrutiny after an “all Redbird lives matter” comment.
Larry Lyons, Illinois State Athletics Director, is facing scrutiny after an “all Redbird lives matter” comment.
Illinois State Athletics Department

In a story published Friday by the student newspaper, the Vidette, Lyons said, “I know I hurt a significant number of them by the choice of these words. That was not my intention and I am truly sorry for that.

“Black lives do matter and I am serious when I say that, and all Redbird student-athletes lives matter equally. I should have said that, and I did not. I have a lot of trust to build back,” Lyons told the student newspaper.

Jordan Wilkerson, a decathlete for the track and field team and one of the leaders of the athlete strike, said students felt offended and disrespected when they heard Lyons’ comments, which they felt minimized the social justice movement and their experiences as Black people. He said Lyons’ apology in the days since isn’t enough.

Jordan Wilkerson
Jordan Wilkerson, an ISU decathlete, is among the students leading a strike over “insensitive” comments by the university’s Athletics Director.
Illinois State University Athletics Department

“It’s just a hard time, but I feel like Black people have always faced a hard time living in this country, and all we know is to be resilient and keep fighting,” Wilkerson said. “We don’t have a lot of minorities in the athletics administration. ... It’s really hard for Black students or students of color to really feel safe and comfortable when people in positions of power don’t look like them.”

Of the Athletics Department’s 15 administrators, 14 appear to be white.

“Our boycott is only going to stop if they meet [our demands],” Wilkerson said. He added that he doesn’t find the initiatives released Monday to be adequate because they were “quickly and poorly put together” in an attempt to stop the strike, and that he’s “had outlines for class assignments that were more thorough.” The Athletics Department didn’t list out a step-by-step action plan or consequences for not following through, he said.

“That’s going to be up to our discretion if they meet that,” he said. “It’s not going to be up to some things that they just check off boxes. We need a thorough, implementable plan. We need to see change, we need to see resources being moved around.”

Wilkerson said he and other athletes are giving Lyons a chance to meet their demands and aren’t calling for his job. But if “Larry Lyons can’t do that, then we want someone else who can do it.” He said students are willing to hold out of competitions when the time comes.