Toledo, wearing EMBRACE DIVERSITY shirts, link arms before their basketball game against Akron at the University of Toledo's Savage Arena in Toledo, Ohio.
BLADE/LORI KING Enlarge
With two words across the front of its warm-up shirts, the University of Toledo women’s basketball team chose to use its platform as college athletes to send a message of positivity, unity, and inclusion.
“Embrace Diversity,” as the shirts say, is a motto of sorts for a Rockets team that includes players from seven different countries — England, Italy, Finland, Switzerland, Sweden, and Canada — as well as seven different states in the United States — Ohio, Michigan, Illinois, Minnesota, Mississippi, Georgia, and North Carolina.
“We just wanted to bring awareness to what is going on in the world and in this country,” said Mikaela Boyd, a junior from Hillside, Ill. “We have a diverse team, and we wanted to highlight the fact that we are all from different backgrounds and we come together to do something great. Why can’t the rest of the world do that too?”
In the most respectful way it could, Toledo wanted to show that diversity should be celebrated and not used as a divisive force.
“With everything that is going on with the racial encounters that weren’t going really well, we just felt that since we have a voice, and we are on this platform, that we should step up and let our voice be heard,” said Olivia Cunningham, a junior from Horn Lake, Miss. “Making the shirts was a good way for us to try to bring everyone together and show a message that we are embracing diversity instead of running away from it, like we saw society doing in certain situations.”
UT coach Tricia Cullop said she was proud of the way the team rallied together and came up with a means for spreading a message it felt was important.
“I think our players tried to find a positive way to address what was going on in the nation at that time,” said Cullop, whose Rockets are 11-5 overall and 2-2 in the Mid-American Conference heading into Saturday’s home game against Northern Illinois. “Our players wanted to do something to show the unity and why we have been successful. We have players from all over the place.
“Instead of taking a knee at the anthem, which they felt would be taken wrong, they wanted to turn it around and do something where people would see that across their chest and realize that we are trying to promote a really positive thing. We all get along and we all respect each other. We value each other and there is not one person on the team more important than the other, despite where we come from, and what we look like, and what our backgrounds are.”
Cullop admits it can take time for some of the international players on the team to adjust, not only to life in the U.S., but also to the rigors of college basketball. She said it is to the point now that some of the older international players are able to help some of the younger ones with their transition.
“At the beginning, it made me feel more comfortable,” said Mariella Santucci, a sophomore from Bologna, Italy, “because my biggest problem was the language, and there were other people from other countries that relate with me. At the same time, even the American people and my teammates, they don’t care about the fact that I’m from another country. They learn how to speak with me, they learn how I speak, they learn my accent, and they embrace it.”
Toledo's Olivia Cunningham, left, a Mississippi native, and Sarah St-Fort, a native of Canada, high-five. UT's team has players from seven different countries and seven different states.
Blade/Lori King Enlarge
The American players on the team have welcomed the international flair, and while it might be tough to get to know each player individually at first, they have all shown a willingness to make the dynamic work.
“It takes a lot of work initially when the players come over, just with communication differences being a challenge to get used to,” said Michaela Rasmussen, a senior from Chaska, Minn. “But we are all very willing to work on it and improve, and get better every day. Once you realize other people’s differences, it makes you appreciate them and why they do what they do. And just because everyone is so different, it makes it kind of fun.”
Cullop said simple interactions in practice can, at times, be difficult to explain because they can be taken in a different context by different players.
“If you listen into our practices, there are a lot of different accents,” Cullop said. “Sometimes we have to stop and explain something that may sound simple to a team that just embodies people from the United States. Sometimes a statement can be taken different in different countries. Even though we have to stop sometimes and drive it home, I think our players now are sensitive to the fact that we need everybody to understand everything so we can move forward together.”
As a means of getting to know players better last season, Cullop had each player do a presentation on their native culture. The team would share a popular meal from the region, and learn about the customs and traditions of the country. Cullop invited international students from that specific country who are at UT to share in the presentation.
“It was great, because sometimes our kids from the United States don’t get a chance to know what it is like to live in Finland or Italy, and we kind of miss out on all those things about the player that are special,” Cullop said. “I thought it helped all of us understand each other better.”
With a team that has become so close, “Embrace Diversity” has become a rallying cry of sorts.
“We know we are a diverse group, so we really embody what we are stating,” said Jay-Ann Bravo-Harriott, a senior from London.
Cullop has been impressed with the fact that everyone is on board with the “Embrace Diversity” philosophy.
“They really look after each other and have each other’s back,” Cullop said. “That’s a good thing that has really come of this is. Because we have so many different players, our group could be very divisive. But instead, they have found ways to accept each other and value each other, and it’s become a very positive thing.
“As a coach, I was really proud and excited about the way they wanted to embrace the issues that were going on.”
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