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When Black Athletes Perform In White Cities, The Locker Room Is Their Safe Space

A Nevada Football Player celebrates on the field.
Photo courtesy of Lawson Hall
Lawson Hall was recently listed on the 2020 preseason watch list for the Wuerffel Trophy. This trophy is awarded to a college football player who best combines exemplary community service, athletic and academic achievement.

Student-athletes of color chasing the dream to play at the college level are faced with the harsh reality that most college towns are in predominantly white cities, like Reno. Finding a sense of belonging can be hard, but many find a trusting community in private areas, like the locker room, and in some cases, it becomes a space to escape racism.

Editor's note: This story contains offensive and racist language. 

If you’re a person of color walking into a Reno restaurant, a coffee shop, or even a department store, the chances of you being the only person of color are pretty high, and those chances become magnified if you’re Black. That's because only 2.7% of the people living in Reno are Black, according to the most recent census data.

For Lawson Hall, this experience is all too true.

“Oh my God, it was crazy. When I first got to Reno, I noticed immediately. Me and my mom went to a Denny's, and there was nothing but white people in there, and I wasn't used to that,” Hall said. “I kind of noticed this is going to be a little different.”

Hall came to Reno on a visit in 2015 and officially moved to Reno after being recruited by the University of Nevada football team.

“I knew that most college towns were in predominantly white cities, so I was kind of expecting that, but I just never [witnessed] it firsthand until I came on my visit. It was shocking, but I quickly got used to it,” Hall said.

A Nevada football player playing defense.
Credit Photo courtesy of Lawson Hall
When Lawson Hall was asked to provide a statement supporting Black Lives Matter, he came up with a bigger statement by working with his teammates to record a video message. Several players shared heart-wrenching memories of being racially discriminated against. Other teammates stated their solidarity.

UNR's population is predominantly white, and only 3.3% of the student body is Black, but as for the football team, the staff says that more than two-thirds of the players are Black. Hall is a critical leader on the team and plays as an inside linebacker. He was recently named to the watch list for the Wuerffel Trophy. He’s a graduate of the university with a Bachelor of Science with a minor in economics and is currently working on a master's in business administration. He says he’s one of three Black students in his graduate program.

“I kind of use it as fuel. [When] people look at Black men, they don't really look at them as hard workers. They don't expect much from them. I kind of use that as fuel to be on my A game,” Hall said.

Hall says racial discrimination is nothing new inside the classroom or on the field.

“They love us on the field, but they don't know who we are off the field,” Hall said. “In the crowd, when we're playing games, there are racists [and] non-racists cheering you on. But when you get off the field, I'm just a Black man. I’m really nothing. I’m not doing anything for them. It hurts, to be honest. I mean, it's just reality.”

Hall loves the game and the fans, but he's been playing football for so long that he's learned how to identify which fans he needs to protect himself from.

“I can tell when someone is racist, and I just try to keep my distance,” Hall said. “One of our coaches made a questionable call on fourth down. I heard a fan say, 'Get his black ass off the field. Get his black ass out of here,' and I heard it. I turned around and was like, ‘what did you say?’ I just ignored it, but I hear some of those remarks. There are definitely racists up there.”

Hall says being an athlete has repressed his voice. As a football player, he’s been taught to stay away from anything political and off social media until this year. After the nation’s most recent protests calling out racial discrimination, systemic racism and police brutality, Hall was asked by football staff to write a message showing support for Black Lives Matter. Instead of a statement, he decided to make a video exposing the racial injustices he and his teammates have faced.

His video led to tough conversations between coaches and Nevada players who, for the first time, realized some of their teammates are facing racial injustice every day.

“It was cool to hear our guys talk it out and be able to work through some of that discourse,” Nevada defensive coordinator Brian Ward said. “Sometimes life gets so busy that it takes something like this to be able to open up dialogue, and that's the beauty of everything happening right now. People are afraid of what they don't know or what they don't have experience with it. Those bridges are always built because of communication or a common purpose.”

Ward says he's hurting for his players and his hometown of Minneapolis. He remembers how beautiful and diverse his neighborhood was on his childhood bike rides down the very same street where a police officer knelt on George Floyd's neck for many minutes while Floyd repeatedly said he couldn't breathe.

Both Ward and Hall said the best thing coaches can do is listen and open dialogue so that people in positions of power, like coaches, can help players stand up for equity and what they believe in, not just at the college level but professionally.

“Our coaching staff and our whole organization have been real on top of social injustice,” Devin Gray said. “Our owners donated money. Our head coach was out on the streets, protesting with people.”

Gray is a Reno native and a wide receiver for the Atlanta Falcons. Looking back, he says his high school was pretty segregated, but it wasn’t until he went to college to play for the Cincinnati Bearcats when he realized the color of his skin wasn’t always welcome.

A man at football practice.
Credit Photo courtesy of Devin Gray
Devin Gray was born and raised in Reno, Nev. He went off to play football at Sierra College and finished his college career at the University of Cincinnati. Currently, he's a wide receiver for the Atlanta Falcons.

Gray often took trips to Kentucky, which borders Cincinnati, to visit the local bowling alley. He says it was a total culture shock because he remembers white people staring him down just for being Black. Now, Gray lives in Atlanta, Georgia, close to Brunswick, the city where Ahmaud Arbery was shot and killed while on a jog, just three months before the killing of George Floyd. Three white men have been charged with Arbery's murder, according to multiple media outlets.

“That city is an hour away from me, but Georgia has different cultures,” Gray said. “Atlanta is more cultured, but as soon as you step out of Atlanta, I feel like it's more of what people would say is the south, and that's where I get those looks that I was getting in Kentucky. People like that are still out there in those little cities, and they don't see colored people every day, so of course, they're looking at you weird. And they're probably racist because that's the way they have grown up. They don't have exposure [or] friends that are colored, so they don’t know how we act, and it's uncomfortable for them."

Gray says that we’re living in a world where Black people are seen as a threat, simply because of the color of their skin. It's in the same world that he will start to raise his newborn baby girl, Journey.

“I have to protect her, and I would hate for that to be her, where she's just looked at differently and targeted because somebody doesn't feel safe. Or they thought she might have stolen something when she's not doing nothing,” Gray said.

Gray plans on teaching his daughter her rights at a young age but hopes that by the time she's his age, things will change.

A newborn in a peach sun dress laying on a bed.
Credit Photo courtesy of Devin Gray
Devin Gray is experiencing a new chapter. He became a father to a newborn baby girl named Journey Gray. He says protecting her is his new duty.

The Mountain West has announced the postponement of all fall sports, including football contests and championship events, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

As a note of disclosure, the license to this station is owned by the Board of Regents for the Nevada System of Higher Education. 

Stephanie Serrano (she/her/ella) is an award-winning multimedia bilingual journalist based in Reno, Nevada. Her reporting is powered by character-driven stories and is rooted in sound-rich audio. Her storytelling works to share the experiences of unserved communities in regards to education, race, affordable housing and sports.
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