For NCAA Division III commissioners Portia Hoeg and Patrick Summers, being the only people of color in their positions has been starkly divergent.
“Throughout my time on campuses and in the commissioner’s chair, I have been the only black woman. It is important to pursue issues of diversity and inclusion, but it is taxing to sometimes be the only person bringing up these issues in any given venue,” commented Hoeg, the Centennial Conference Executive Director. This changed for the 2020-21 academic year with the hiring of Danielle Harris as commissioner of the Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference.
New England Women’s and Men’s Athletic Conference Executive Director Summers, who was born in the Philippines, finds that he is often overlooked as an ethnic minority in the same rooms. “Asians are like a lost ethnic minority. Things are happening to all people of color,” he expressed.
The commissioners facilitate conversations and actions in their respective conference offices, working with multiple groups to enhance the student-athlete experience throughout NCAA Division III. The group (Division III Commissioners Association) is not a policy-making association, leaving it in an unspecified position in terms of making announcements.
“Everything right now is a unique challenge. Racial unrest has led to difficult and sensitive talk as an association,” stated Presidents’ Athletic Conference Commissioner Joe Onderko, who currently serves as the Division III Commissioners Association (D3CA) president. “Our room has been overwhelmingly white and majority male. We need to determine how we can be intentional about addressing these issues. The athletic student-body is much more diverse than what our body looks like.”
“I would love to see us continue to take leadership roles on any initiative, especially this one. The pandemic has allowed us to focus on racial injustices,” remarked Hoeg, who coordinated discussions on race at the D3CA’s virtual summer meeting. “We have this wonderful platform with individuals dedicated to shining a light on student-athletes. Our membership is hungry for these conversations so we can collaborate with all those bodies and brain trust to sustain dialogue.”
“This is an opportunity for us to have these important discussions and determine action plans,” added Summers, who made an impassioned plea to the D3CA to make a public statement about racial equity after the police killing of George Floyd. “Whatever we do can’t just be a reaction. Tackling these issues is as important as health and safety, and student well-being.”
Whether in their careers or simply navigating their way through daily life, Hoeg and Summers have each suffered through misconceptions, microaggressions, and outright racism.
“Early in my career, I had an experience with a coach that is a consistent theme for black women. I am very passionate about college athletics and the topic we were discussing was particularly important to me,” Hoeg explained. “She asked me, ‘Why are you so angry?’ I am direct and know what I want and believe — that doesn’t make me angry. Someone else could address something in the same way, but they are seen as strong, a leader, and professional. These are the microaggressions that I have had to deal with.”
Hoeg at the 2019 NCAA Division III Field Hockey Championship banquet
Sometimes it was even more overt. “A colleague was telling a story about growing up and talked about a dog-pile (when a group of people jump on each other, often seen in athletic celebrations), but she called it an n- pile,” she recounted. “I just looked at everyone in disbelief, but because of their roles, I didn’t say anything. It never occurred to them to not say that, especially in my presence. I can only imagine the historical context of that term and it is not a pleasant thought.”
Hoeg, who admits she is tired of spending so much time getting her hair done, sometimes driving an hour to an appointment, is embarking on a natural hair journey. “My hair is always something I have had to think about. If I am meeting with presidents, I considered how I was presenting myself. I didn’t want to turn anyone else off,” she disclosed. “If I had an Afro, it could be seen as militant, unkempt, or not professional.”
Harking back to her days on a campus, Hoeg vividly remembers interviewing a young man for an assistant football coach position. “He asked me if he had to cut his dreadlocks for the position. He had been told by one of the coaches that his hair wasn’t professional and that (NFL head coaches) Mike Tomlin and Tony Dungy didn’t have dreadlocks,” she revealed. “I told him I only cared that he knew his stuff, that he could have dreadlocks, curly hair, or be bald. The candidate understood that I did not feel the same as that coach. For Black people, our hair is our crown and there is pride that comes with that. It is an extension of you and to ask someone to remove a piece of that is not right. We wouldn’t do that with any other culture.”
In his early twenties, Summers was working at a private high school as an assistant athletic director, and tennis and basketball coach. Over the summer, he was working a camp at the same school when he was pulled over for allegedly running a stop sign. “I was asked to get out of my car with my hands up and had the officer’s gun pointed at me. He forcibly placed me on the hood of my car and handcuffed me,” he described. “He accused me of stealing the car because there was no way a person like me could afford it and I didn’t belong in that neighborhood. After being on the hood of my car for an hour, he let me go with a warning. The warning was to never come back to that neighborhood.”
After 9/11, he was walking to grab lunch when he was physically and verbally assaulted. “Four people in a pickup truck started following me,” Summers recalled. “As they drove by, they threw bottles at me and told me that I didn’t belong in their country, that I should go back to mine (in far worse language than that).”
Summers with his daughters and niece at Universal Studios in California
Just this year, Summers was out taking a walk when he was verbally accosted by a group of teenagers in a car, blaming him for bringing COVID-19 to the U.S. “Things are not getting any better.” he commented. “It doesn’t matter that we are in 2020. We are still allowing symbols of racism and sidebar comments that some people perceive as funny.”
“The test for us is what we should do next, not only what we do while in the moment and as a reaction to injustice,” Summers advocated. “We must continue this process when it’s not in our face and when it pains us the most.”
Hoeg believes that regardless of the make-up of an athletics department, everyone needs to be involved in discussions about race. “One of the things I have heard the most is that the burden continues to be on the Black staff, coaches, and administrators. It is one thing to have an experience, but we can’t put the onus on them,” she explained. “Everyone needs to have a seat at the table. It is going to be uncomfortable, as it is for any important issue like LGBTQ and mental health issues. You aren’t expected to know the answers. Know what you don’t know and have someone facilitate a conversation, but also take the time to listen, learn, and serve as a positive change agent.”
Hoeg with her son at the Centennial Conference Wrestling Championship
“As difficult as this is, we are educators and this is an opportunity for us,” Onderko remarked. “The sadness, anger, and the difficult aspects of these gratuitous killings give us the opportunity to make positive changes out of it.”
“We need to develop policies and procedures that focus on racism. We have to keep these conversations at the same level they are now,” Summers said. “We all need to be advocates. We need to figure out what that means for each of us individually and collectively.”
“It is important to lay out a game plan to address these issues. We can’t just have piecemeal actions to appease Black people like celebrating Juneteenth or giving everyone Election Day off so they can vote. Those things are great, but they do not solve the issue or get to the root of the problem.” Hoeg elucidated. “Student-athletes will see right through that. If my department puts out a statement on racial equity, but no coach or staff member looks like me, it is obvious. We have to be intentional about diversifying staff, going above and beyond to find specific positions. You can’t sit back and hope resumes will fall in your lap. You have to go digging and be creative.”
“We need to constantly be anti-racist. We can’t just not be racist. Don’t normalize things that shouldn’t be normalized,” Summers communicated. “We need to continually engage with each other about this. There is a lot of work ahead of us. I’m ready to be part of the change. I’m ready to be better.”
Summers with his daughters
“As conference leaders, we are part of the conversation with the membership. They represent us and vice-versa. We want to understand where they struggle,” Hoeg expressed. “Reach out to Black coaches and staff and ask what we can do better. They are feeling the burden on their campuses often in environments that lack a racially diverse student population. It shouldn’t take another George Floyd for us to address these issues. It can’t just end with conversations. We must enact meaningful and sustainable changes.”