A platform for change

Top college gymnast Alexis Brown uses her sport to protest police brutality

Photos by Bert Johnson

Student athletes talked and laughed with their teammates and coaches as they assembled on the large mat inside the UC Davis Pavilion for their final meet of the season on March 10. Standing in a line, the UC Davis women gymnasts held hands and prepared for the national anthem.

But when the song started, junior Alexis Brown dropped her right knee to the floor and lowered her head in protest.

UC Davis’ Women’s Gymnastics is the top-rated team in its conference, and Brown is among the best on the roster. She had a highly successful season that led Head Coach John Lavallee to describe her as “one of the highest-level performers within our conference.”

Meanwhile, Brown has also emerged as a voice for social engagement in collegiate sports. Since the season’s first meet on January 9, she has been kneeling during the national anthem that kicks off every competition. By the fifth meet, she had started raising a fist when her name was announced for awards at the end of competitions.

Brown said she was inspired by Colin Kaepernick, the NFL quarterback who began taking a knee during the national anthem last year and who was met with vociferous criticism. His protest was echoed widely, including by some members of the football team at Laguna Creek High School in Elk Grove who took a knee before a game in September.

But for Kaepernick, political dissent has come at a steep cost—none of the teams in the league have offered him a contract for the coming season despite his respectable performance on the field. According to Washington Post columnist Kevin B. Blackistone, Kaepernick has been effectively “blackballed” for speaking out about sensitive issues.

For her part, Brown and her supporters say she has experienced backlash for her statement, even though Brown doesn’t have the same level of visibility as a professional athlete like Kaepernick.

“I’m here advocating in every way I know how to, using my platform to spread awareness and knowledge about police brutality,” she said.

Bowing to justice

Brown, like most collegiate gymnasts, has been in the game for a long time. Having started training at 3 years old, she’s approaching her 18th anniversary as a competitive athlete—and the end of her career.

“Not many gymnasts go [on] to be professional after college,” she explained. “Our bodies degrade pretty quickly.”

As an activist, Brown is less experienced. She admits that before protesting the national anthem, her political involvement had been on a much smaller scale, but added that she always wanted to “get involved and use my gymnastics as a platform for protest.” A supporter of the Black Lives Matter movement, Brown decided that using her career in gymnastics as a medium for activism would be an effective way to bring attention to racial disparities in the justice system.

“We shouldn’t really necessarily stand up for [a] country that doesn’t stand up for us anymore,” she asserted.

But she also clarified her beliefs, explaining that, “Taking a knee does not mean that you are disrespecting a country, that you don’t want to be part of this country.”

Instead, she hopes that by protesting during meets she can make more people aware of the issues she’s concerned with, including police brutality. In 2015, unarmed black people were more than twice as likely to be killed by police than whites, The Guardian reported, a disparity that Black Lives Matter activists have decried.

“Making people more aware is the mission,” Brown emphasized.

Vaulting higher

Collegiate gymnastics is an overwhelmingly white sport. According to the NCAA data for the 2015-16 academic year, the last year for which data are available, 71.4 percent of female athletes were white, while only 7.9 percent were black.

These figures seem surprising given the recent victories by Olympians Simone Biles and Gabby Douglas, who are both black, but their visibility in the sport reflects the extreme talent of both athletes rather than a shift in demographics. Gymnastics is an expensive sport for athletes’ families, Brown explained, which in her view has the effect of excluding people from many backgrounds.

Coach Lavallee admitted that he hadn’t thought about the ethnic composition of the sport, but did note that Brown is not the only person of color on the UC Davis team—compared to national averages, the squad is unusually diverse, although more than half of its members are white. Lavallee explained that while political protests are uncommon in collegiate gymnastics, the coaching staff has fully supported her, calling it “perfectly natural” given the politicized tone of public discourse in the nation. And Brown described meeting with Director of Athletics Kevin Blue, saying it was “exciting to know that people in higher positions do take notice and look out for us athletes.”

Brown said that teammates and coaches have been mostly respectful, but some have questioned her political activism. She said that once she announced her plans to the team, she was met with concern and warnings. Brown recalled being asked, “Are you sure?” by teammates who predicted that the response from spectators would be unpleasant.

And, to some degree, they were right, Brown added, saying that she was “met with lot of ignorance” from some audience members during an earlier meet at the Air Force Academy. She overheard gymnasts’ parents mocking her with “cruel words,” she said. After the meet, she spoke with them carefully, putting on a calm face.

But in the end, she described the team as a family and said that her protests have been “a learning experience for all of us.”

“There will always remain a couple of people not ready for change,” Brown said. She hopes that in the future, those who disagree will see her point of view:

“I will always have love for them in my heart.”

Team spirit

Generally speaking, the on-campus response to Brown’s protest has been positive: The Office of Advocacy and Student Representation issued a letter of support and called for students in other organizations to attend meets in solidarity, while individual student athletes from other teams have also backed her.

Two of Brown’s roommates, Rochelle Nadreau and Emma Redick, are on the track and field team and attend every meet to show support. Along with a third roommate, Dani Kroll, they sit during the national anthem in solidarity with Brown’s protest. At the March 10 meet, all three were in attendance and cheering for their friend raucously, making a loud statement in favor of her stance.

“There has been backlash, there have been tough times,” Kroll admitted, but the three friends are always ready to lend support from the stands.

“Even if she feels alone,” Redick explained, “[she can] find us in the crowd and we’ll be there.”

As for political activism in the future, Brown said she thinks she will continue to be involved, but plans to approach it cautiously.

“I want to make this a positive experience for myself,” she explained, and added that she has other priorities, too. An animal science major, Brown is busy with a challenging course load and the looming process of grad school applications: A proud Davis student, she said she wants to study at the university’s top-rated School of Veterinary Medicine.

Meanwhile, her performance on the mat continues to be impressive: At the March 10 meet, she scored 9.9 out of 10 on the beam, her best event. It was the third time she had achieved such a high score, matching a school record.