Kneel for Injustice. Kneel for Equality. ✊🏼 Using our platform to help creat change. TOGETHER! pic.twitter.com/7AEA3mH63B
— London Perrantes (@London_Tyus) September 29, 2016
By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE – Isaiah Wilkins doesn’t mind sharing the story of his struggles with mental health. As a fourth-year student at the University of Virginia, he did so with an ESPN reporter for an article that was published in February 2018, and Wilkins addressed that topic again Wednesday afternoon.
The setting was Room 218 in UVA’s Physics Building, where Wilkins spoke to the 30 students in Anna Katherine Clay’s Athletes, Activism, and the Media class. Many of those students play varsity sports at Virginia, as did Wilkins when he was a cornerstone of head coach Tony Bennett’s basketball program.
“I thought his presentation was awesome,” said Greer Gill, a standout for the UVA field hockey team. “As we’ve seen, people using their platforms to share just helps other people to feel they can, one, reach out and, two, also share. I think he did a very brave thing, and it’s cool to see him back here giving [current student-athletes] support.”
Wilkins, who majored in African American and African studies, graduated from the University in 2018. He returned to his alma mater last June after playing professionally in the NBA G League, New Zealand, Poland, and Germany. He’s pursuing a master’s degree in the School of Education and Human Development while helping the men’s basketball program as a graduate assistant.
As someone whose profile was higher than that of the average college student, Wilkins used his platform to encourage others with similar problems to seek help. His battles with clinical depression and anxiety started when he was in the seventh grade.
“Mine were never sports-related,” Wilkins told the class. “Sports was my outlet. The issues came when I wasn’t playing.”
Wilkins, who grew up in the Atlanta, also touched on the photo he and his teammates posted on social media in September 2016. It showed UVA’s players, all dressed in black, kneeling on the court at John Paul Jones Arena. Their aim was to promote social justice and racial equality in the United States.
Before the photograph was taken, Wilkins said, the players met, and the team’s leaders explained why they believed such a show of solidarity was important. His roommate Jack Salt, Wilkins noted, was from New Zealand and wasn’t familiar with many aspects of life in the U.S.
“We couldn’t take the picture if everybody wasn’t on the same page,” Wilkins said.
The Cavaliers’ staff did not know what the players were planning—“We kind of fed our coaches to the wolves,” Wilkins said, smiling––but Bennett released this statement the next day: “Our guys realize there are a lot of issues going on in our country. I support their desire to promote peace and equality.”
The photo elicited a wide range of responses from UVA alumni and fans. “Some were great,” Wilkins said, “but there were a lot of not-happy people.”
Gill, who’s from Virginia Beach, was a student at Norfolk Academy when the photo was posted.
“That was at a time that I feel like I hadn’t seen a ton of [protests] in the media, so it was cool to see that before I got here, kind of knowing I was coming into a place that seemed supportive of student-athletes taking a stand,” Gill said. “Before, I never really struggled with anything and was kind of naïve that people do struggle in a lot of different realms. But I distinctly remember seeing that and thinking how it was cool that collegiate athletes could use their platform to advocate for what they care about.”
Nearly a year after the players posted that photo, the Unite to Right rally shined an unwelcome spotlight on Charlottesville. In the aftermath of that event, Wilkins said, he was asked to film a segment in which he would say, “Not my Charlottesville.” He declined.
“I think you have to be comfortable saying no,” Wilkins said. “I also think [racial discord is] part of Charlottesville’s history.”
He remembers the incident on the Corner late in his first year at UVA in which Martese Johnson, then a third-year student, was arrested by Alcohol Beverage Control agents. Johnson later received a settlement of about $250,000 from the Virginia ABC.
“Since then, I feel like there was something every year that came up,” Wilkins said.
ESPN reporter Andrea Adelson’s article on Wilkins’ mental health struggles sparked no such controversy.
“I got so much positive feedback on that,” Wilkins said. “It reinforced that this is home for me.”
Wilkins, whose wife, Catalina Pinto, also is a UVA graduate, hasn’t read the ESPN article and doesn’t plan to do so. Still, he knows it resonated with many readers, and the story highlighted an important topic.
“The timing of it happened perfectly,” Wilkins said. “I was going to therapy consistently my last year [at UVA]. The hardest part was re-living it … I wasn’t embarrassed by [the article]. I wasn’t excited about it either.”
Clay, an assistant professor of practice in UVA’s Department of Media Studies, is also a freelance writer whose stories have been published by ESPN, The New York Times, The Washington Post Magazine, USA Today and Sports Illustrated, among other outlets.
She thought a class on athletes and activism would be timely, Clay said, “just because we are in this moment where we’re seeing an increase in athletes using their platform as activists. I think it’s wonderful to see that, and it’s also really important to learn from past examples of it. Students might know the names, but they don’t really know all the activism work that the athletes did and how the media responded.”
The class, whose other speakers have included UVA president Jim Ryan, first looked at U.S. sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos and their protests at the 1968 Summer Olympics, Clay said. Former UVA basketball great Malcolm Brogdon, who preceded Wilkins at Greater Atlanta Christian, is scheduled to talk to the class later this semester.
“What I’m trying to do is kind of parallel past examples with what’s happening in the present day,” Clay sad. “We have the Winter Olympics right now. In China, obviously there’s a lot of diplomatic boycotts and [questions about] whether athletes are allowed to use their position to speak out in any way.”
The class has studied such prominent figures as Muhammad Ali, Billie Jean King and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Clay said, “but we also looked at examples in the 1960s of smaller-scale activists, like the Syracuse Nine. The students probably haven’t heard of that example or know much about it, but it did contribute to this ripple effect. I’m trying to find examples from the past that tie into the present day, so they can really learn how that activism influenced and shaped where we are today.”
Mental health is another subject Clay wanted to explore in the class.
“We talked about it a little bit already,” she said, “and that’s a topic where I thought it would be so great to have Isaiah as well, because a lot of the student-athletes in the class want to use their platform right now to speak out on mental health. It’s a cause they’re really talking about here, probably more so than some of the other topics they could speak out on as student-athletes.”
One of Gill’s teammates and close friends, Adele Iacobucci, also is in the class. Gill and Iacobucci founded the UVA chapter of Morgan’s Message in the spring of 2021. Morgan’s Message honors the memory of former Duke women’s lacrosse player Morgan Rodgers, who committed suicide in July 2019. One of the organization’s goals, its website says, is to “eliminate the stigma surrounding mental health within the student-athlete community and equalize the treatment of physical and mental health in athletics.”
Clay’s students applauded Wilkins at the end of his question-and-answer period. When class ended, Gill and Iacobucci stayed behind to talk to Wilkins, who gave them his contact information.
“I’m planning on getting in touch with him,” Gill said. “I think he would be an amazing resource to talk to the [Morgan’s Message] chapter, potentially, or just to help. We’re hoping to get him involved a little bit and hear his ideas, especially from the coaching standpoint, about how to get coaches and more athletes involved.”
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