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UAA Conversations About Race and Racism: Karl France

Karl France has been the NYU Men’s Volleyball Assistant Coach for 14 years over two stints. He was named the American Volleyball Coaches Association (AVCA) National Assistant Coach of the Year in 2020 and 2017. France served as the NYU Women’s Volleyball Acting Head Coach for the last nine matches of the 2017 season, leading a Violets team that had won only five of 24 matches before he took over to a 6-3 finish, including the title at the New York Region Challenge. He also served as the head coach of both the men’s and women’s programs at NCAA Division I Rutgers-Newark University and NCAA Division III College of Mount Saint Vincent for four seasons each.

The UAA “Conversations About Race and Racism” series seeks to lift the voices of people of color and recognize the challenges faced in both athletics and academics at the collegiate level. By sharing personal stories, we hope to elevate the conversation about race to raise awareness and bring about change.

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Never Able to be Angry

“I have been told I am too nice. Who wants to have the prototypical angry Black man on their staff? If I lose my temper, I could lose my job. That is unfair but that is how the game is played. Those are the rules. With any Black coach of significant stature, a parent is going to think you are angry all the time if you are ever angry or show any fire,” commented the large-framed France, who stands 6’5”.

He has been confronted by parents, including one parent who accused him of making his daughter cry: “I knew a lot about her situation and why she was crying. If I had yelled at that parent, I could have put a fork in my career. When you are Black, you have to be the calm coach in public and private at all times. You can never be angry.”

Misconceptions and Assumptions

France has consistently faced strange questions when he goes to see prospective student-athletes at club volleyball tournaments: “Despite the fact that I am wearing NYU gear, people ask me if NYU has volleyball. They ask me if I am a recruiter. Why do people think there are recruiters? People ask me if I am the football coach. I want to respond, ‘Yes, that’s why I flew out to see these boys play volleyball,’ but then I become the angry Black guy instead of the fun Black guy. I can’t say the things I want to say because I don’t know who is on the other side of the conversation. I have to take it and it is painful.”

Early in his career, he spent six years at the Marymount School of New York, a highly-academic prep school for girls: “I coached three sports that are not known for their diversity: volleyball, swimming, and softball. Parents want what’s best for their children, but some of them have a certain mentality of what a coach should look like. Fortunately, more forward-thinking parents can see the great things you do for their child and those types of parents far outweigh the others.”

France with former Mt. St. Vincent student-athlete John Blansfield

A swimmer and usually the one Black player on his youth basketball teams, France admits he has always gone against the grain: “Your antenna goes up. You know there is always someone who doesn’t think you should be there. I credit my mother for getting me to try different things and go different places, and Athletic Directors who have taken a chance on me.”

There are two common assumptions people make about France as a volleyball coach: “People assume I am not knowledgeable about the sport I coach. They don’t take the time to check out credentials. I am an FIVB (Fédération Internationale de Volleyball) Level 2-certified coach and have coached several teams in the USA pipeline. I got to match wits with some of the best coaches in the country in the UAA with the women’s program. People often assume I am not ambitious because I have spent several years as a number two coach. I am working with a great head coach (Jose Pina) and we vibe off each other. There are a lot of reasons why I choose to stay at NYU rather than seeking another head coaching position somewhere else.”

France is frequently asked if he ever played volleyball (he played club at Bowling Green State University, which was common in an era where there were far fewer high school boys volleyball programs): “Trust me, the people that hired me think I had the credentials to coach. Charlie Sullivan at Springfield (who has led his men’s program to 11 national titles) played soccer at Springfield. He would never be asked that question.”

Challenges of Coaching at Predominantly White Institutions

“It is a lonely place (being a Black coach in a sport without much diversity). You have to win or the person behind you has no shot,” he revealed. “I think I did that at Rutgers-Newark, and Jose and I went on a run when I came back to NYU. We have to be better than great all the time to be considered great. Having been around a long time, I can talk to other Black coaches. If you are the only one, you are on an island because no one understands what you go through.

“There are times I shout it out in my room and/or watch television for four hours. I need to decompress from all I went through that others do not go through. I understand that’s how it is. It’s not going to change in the next year or two.”

France points out that even platitudes can sometimes be backhanded. “I hear ‘You’re such a well-spoken coach.’ What did you expect me to sound like? Is that a bias or racism? I often hear ‘You don’t look like what I thought you would’ or ‘You don’t look like you sound.’ I am an educated person. I got rid of my Brooklyn accent. Do people expect me to talk like that? As a Black coach, you will never be that coach people expected. Fortunately, when I took over the women’s team, I was only switching chairs. We all knew one another. For someone coming in to a new position, that’s a whole different feel.”

Advice for Black Future Coaches

France stresses the importance of having a mentor at each level of your career. “My mentor was a German woman, Monica Anderson, who hired me to coach seventh and eighth grade volleyball teams when I had no previous coaching experience. I didn’t have a Black person I could talk to. It is critical to find somebody who can steer you through some of the things you don’t know are going to happen and what pitfalls there may be later.”

France currently serves on the AVCA Diversity Development Team: “I didn’t have a volleyball person like that, but now I am being that person for other people. Every time you go up another level, find someone who can help you. You have to find someone who will be in your corner, who will understand what you will be going through. That can be about socioeconomic class as well. Find someone who can fill the areas you need to talk about race, class, sexuality. This will help you improve exponentially as a coach. We all move forward and become a better person with meaningful conversations.”

France with Mark Fishman (USA Beach Coach & Founder of Beach Nation) and Todd Rodgers (UC-Santa Barbara legend, 2008 USA Olympic Beach Volleyball gold medalist, Head Coach Beach Volleyball at California Polytechnic State University)

Where Change Can Happen

“Systemic change starts within each athletic department and in conferences to effect change at the NCAA level. We need to have conversations about race in the athletic department,” France recommended. “We have had so many dialogues for LGBTQ issues, but not once have we ever talked about blackness. Why is that? When you answer the why, then we can have the conversation.”

France believes it is important to have sustained dialogue instead of waiting for a tragedy to happen: “Being reactionary is a problem. When a school shooting happens, the reactionary thing is to get the guns out. Brutality around police departments has been happening around the globe for years. Nobody has addressed how that feels. When a Black coach gets pulled over driving on a recruiting trip, we don’t know how that is going to end. We have to ask the why. It’s not a trangression to ask why and address it. Allies can’t be allies until they are enacted to do so. How can you be allies if you are not even discussing it? At NYU, we have a growing Black and Hispanic community on our campus, but we haven’t had any speakers addressing that.”

There are questions France believes need to be asked: “Athletic departments are supporting the programs we coach, but are they supporting us? People are not asking that question. We need to talk about how to get a better idea of what Black coaches and student-athletes face, especially in underrepresented sports.”

France points out that it is very detrimental for coaches to hold over Black student-athletes (or any student-athlete) that they are the reason that student-athlete is at the school. “When a coach says, ‘I got you in here, you would be somewhere else if not for me,’ that is not allyship at all.”

The Importance of Team Culture

“There can be subtle things like going to a Panera for lunch with one person on the team who can’t afford that. They may just have whatever they brought with them. Get to know your student-athletes and understand where everyone on your team is from,” France explained. “Choose a place where everyone can get something to eat. Make sure no one seems out of place. Not everyone has disposable income. Have those conversations about class and status. Those subtle things can be a powder keg if not addressed.”

France believes those types of inclusive conversations lead to talking about other important topics: “Being on the other side of a team dynamic is difficult. Understanding others helps you realize things don’t have to be done the way they always have. We can do things another way to be more inclusive.”

Representation matters: “Each team in the UAA would get even better if they brought in more Black student-athletes and coaches. It is really important for prospective student-athletes to see somebody like them on the court or coaching the sport they play.”

Created By
Timothy Farrell
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Photos courtesy of Karl France and NYU Athletics