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River Hawk Athletes Champion Diversity, Equity and Inclusion

UML Earns Perfect Athletic Equality Index Score for LGBTQ+ Policies and Practices

The UMass Lowell and American flags fly in the wind in front of the Tsongas Center Photo by Ed Brennen
Created in partnership with the Office of Multicultural Affairs, the Athletics Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee helps UMass Lowell student-athletes, coaches and staff address systemic inequities.

By Ed Brennen

Amanda Baptiste ’21 grew up in Taunton, Massachusetts, a city rich in her Portuguese heritage. When she arrived at UMass Lowell four years ago to pursue a degree in exercise physiology, she quickly identified with the cultural diversity of the city — and her new school.

“I felt very welcome on campus,” says Baptiste, a distance runner on the UML women’s cross country and track and field teams. “But there’s always room to grow, no matter where you are.” 

Which is why last summer, when Director of Athletics Peter Casey asked Baptiste if she would like to represent students on a new Athletics Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) Committee that was being created in partnership with the Office of Multicultural Affairs, she didn’t hesitate.

“I’m all in. What do you need from me?” said Baptiste, now a graduate student in the School of Education.

Co-chaired by Leslie Wong, dean of equity and inclusion in the Office of Academic and Student Affairs, and Ruben Sanca, assistant athletics director for administration, the 25-person committee got to work last fall identifying ways to help River Hawk coaches, staff and student-athletes address systemic inequities.

One of the committee’s first tasks was to create an Athletics DEI webpage that serves as a one-click hub of athletic policies, campus resources and events.
“There are never too many voices when it comes to ensuring that every person has the right to live, work and to be authentically who we are in all of our identities.” -Dean of Equity and Inclusion Leslie Wong

“It’s important to have the information right there for our students to be able to quickly access so they can reach out for help if they need it,” Sanca says.

While work on the webpage was under way, the Athletics Department was contacted by Athlete Ally, a nonprofit LGBTQ+ athletic advocacy group. According to its Athletic Equality Index (AEI), which measures LGBTQ+ inclusion policies and practices of all 360-plus NCAA Division I athletics departments across the country, UML ranked No. 140 with a score of 40 out of 100.

“That made us go back and see what we could be doing better,” Sanca says.

Athletics took a number of steps, including adding resources to the webpage such as an Inclusive Fan Code of Conduct and a Bias Reporting link, and encouraging more staff members and student-athletes to participate in Ally Space training. The result? UML became one of just 14 Div. I athletic programs in the country to receive a perfect index score of 100 this May, joining the likes of Ohio State, Boston University and the University of Southern California. UML is the first school to achieve 100 in the America East Conference, where the average score is 43.

“Often, athletic departments are on board with inclusion but may not be aware that their policies aren’t fully accessible, or they may need help with certain practices,” says Joanna Hoffman, director of communications for Athlete Ally. “The AEI provides schools with a clear blueprint of where they are and where they need to improve.”

Wong says events of the past year, most notably the death of George Floyd and the demands for change that it sparked nationwide, have “further illuminated” just how critical it is that diversity, equity and inclusion become all-inclusive priorities.

“The Athletic Department is using its platform to speak out, to share and create spaces for dialogue and change. This is incredibly powerful to be able to tap into our own spheres of influence to engage this work,” she says. “There are never too many voices when it comes to ensuring that every person has the right to live, work and to be authentically who we are in all of our identities.”
Three people stand and watch a women's soccer game on the field below Photo by Ed Brennen
Creating an Inclusive Fan Code of Conduct was one of the steps taken by the UML Athletic Department that enabled it to receive a perfect Athletic Equality Index Score from Athlete Ally.

Last year, Chancellor Jacquie Moloney created the UMass Lowell Council on Social Justice and Inclusion to strengthen the university’s culture of diversity and inclusion. As a member of the council’s DEI task force, Sanca says he’s been happy to share the Athletic Department’s strategies with the university at large.

“One thing that a lot of other departments can learn is that they have to be able to leverage resources. That’s essentially what we’re doing in Athletics: leveraging existing resources on campus and from external resources such as our conference and the NCAA,” says Sanca, who is also a member of America East’s “Spread Respect” advisory group. 

One of the goals of UML’s Athletics DEI Committee — to recruit, retain and develop a diverse workforce — is already being put into practice. Wong and Sanca were both involved in the final interviews for the women’s basketball head coaching position this spring, “to get a sense of how they felt about DEI and social justice issues,” Sanca says. Denise King, a former assistant coach for the River Hawks, was named head coach in May.

In March, former UML men’s basketball coach Stan Van Gundy — who was mostly recently head coach of the NBA’s New Orleans Pelicans — spoke to student-athletes about using their platform to encourage social justice and spark change.

“Our student-athletes are having a lot more conversations about these topics,” Sanca says. “We have such a diverse group of students within Athletics, and we want to be able to use that diversity to our advantage. How can we learn from each other?”

It’s a question that student-athletes like Baptiste are eager to help answer.

“Being in Division I, going to tournaments and national championships, all eyes are on you,” she says. “So being able to use your voice for good in the end is so important.”