‘What can we do?’ The movement behind the Badgers’ black ‘W’ crest

Something has to be done.

It’s a statement which was uttered around the country after the death of George Floyd at the hands of the Minneapolis police on May 25. Including by students at the University of Wisconsin in Madison.

In particular, a group of Badgers athletes who are Black — like many others — had reached their tipping point. Racism, discrimination, social injustices — subtle and overt — had been a part of their lives well before Floyd’s death — counting their time at Wisconsin.

There were plenty of recent incidents still ringing in the group’s ears. For example, in 2016, someone at a Badgers football game had a costume portraying Barack Obama with a noose around his neck. This past September a Homecoming video put out by the university included no people of color.

“It was an uproar,” said Armoni Brown, who is on Wisconsin’s track team and will be a junior this upcoming year. “We have a Black Student Union, fraternities, sororities, we have Black student-athletes they could reach out to be put in a video. They chose not to do so. That was kind of upsetting.”

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Brown says “there’s not many people who look like me on this campus.” The figures back her up. According to the latest totals via The Princeton Review, Wisconsin has a total undergraduate enrollment of 33,456. Of those, just 1.9% are African-American.

Brown noted that when she walks around campus she’ll get stopped and asked if she’s an athlete. When she inquires why the person thought that, invariably the answer is because she’s Black. “Which I am [an athlete], but to ask the question, that’s not right,” Brown said.

Brown also was in an African-American studies class where it happened she was the only Black student enrolled. When a question arose, all eyes turned to her.

“I’m like, I’m in this class to learn. I know a lot but I’m in this class to learn just like you are and I don’t know have the answer either,” she said. “It’s just frustrating and annoying, but nothing I’m not used to and can’t persevere through.”

With all that (and more) as a backdrop, this close-knit group got together and decided they needed to take action.

“With everything going on in the world and the university having some changing to do, this is a perfect time to use our platform and our voices to speak upon the issues that we feel are going on at UW-Madison and hopefully make a change,” said Brown of the conversations which took place.

What can we do?

Many ideas were discussed and it all came down to something so simple, yet brilliant. Something that wasn’t in-your-face but would be recognizable enough to make a point and perhaps fuel discussion. The group decided they’d ask the administration to put a patch on every athlete’s uniform — and for football a helmet sticker — using the school’s W logo but with the letter black instead of the usual white.

“We chose the UW crest because it’s a symbol for the entire student body,” Brown explained. “We didn’t want to make it just about us, because it’s not just about us, it’s about everyone on this campus.”

Brown and other athletes took to social media June 18 to get the word out and inform others of their intentions, as well as try and get other Wisconsin students, athletes and alumni to sign a petition backing them.

The reaction was swift. Brown’s tweet produced 106 retweets and 469 likes — despite the fact she has just over 300 followers. Those reacting included current and former Badgers athletes such as Montee Ball, Tyler Beach, Brevin Pritzl and James White. There were also several supportive replies.

But with the good comes the bad and there was some negative feedback to Brown’s tweet, including from one account which has since been deleted. Brown handled the tweet – which basically accused this movement as being racist towards white people — with aplomb and the kind of professionalism not normally associated with a 20-year-old (or, for that matter, on Twitter).

“A minority has come through a lot of situations where we are brought upon where we realize how to handle a situation, what way can we speak upon a situation, how can we speak without being rude, is this a person that needs to be educated, or something like that,” Brown said. “At a time like that it really wasn’t about going back and forth or arguing with this person, it was just saying it’s not me who that wants to change this black W or white W, it’s a whole bunch of us. It’s solidarity. We’re not saying forget every other student. All students matter. But at this particular time we want everyone else to know that Black lives matter or people who are unrepresented matter as well.”

On July 2, the students took to social media again, posting the black W logo and repeating their intentions and desires, as well as round up more signatures for their petition. Brown said the petition was signed by somewhere between 2,000-3,000 people at last count, although she hadn’t had a recent update.

“The first post was more making people aware and we’d love for you guys to sign this petition to get this approved,” said Brown, who is also trying to get changes made in the Waukesha School district, where she went to school at Waukesha South. “The second time is we have this many signatures, the people are with us, and (athletic director) Barry Alvarez, (chancellor) Rebecca Blank, this is what we have, are you willing to listen? And if so, are you willing to do what we want to happen.”

Turns out, Wisconsin officials were listening.

On July 3, Faion Hicks, a cornerback on Wisconsin’s football team, posted on an Instagram story which included this note: “The Black W has been approved. S/O to everyone that has supported and used their platform to bring awareness ❤️”

Despite Hicks’ announcement another week went by and nothing had been announced. When asked for a comment on the black W initiative on July 14, the Wisconsin athletic department sent this comment to foxsportswisconsin.com: “We have been in communication with several of the student-athlete leaders around their desire to have a black ‘Crest W’ on their uniforms this season. We stand with them in their message of solidarity and inclusion with the University’s Black and underrepresented communities. We need a little more time and conversation, but we feel good about where this will end up.”

A little more time was less than 24 hours.

On July 15, out of nowhere Wisconsin revealed that when sports return, its teams will adorn a black W.

“I saw it when everyone else saw it,” Brown said of the press release. “It was a surprise to me, too.”

A patch is likely – the release mentions the “uniforms will include a university crest logo with a black ‘W’” — but there was no word on a potential helmet sticker for football.

Additionally, the university also allowed that the motion W will also be used for this purpose, pleasing words to the athletes’ ears.

“The motion W is significant for athletes. It was the athletics department showing support, too, for unrepresented athletes on this campus,” Brown said.

One of the goals of the athletes was to have merchandise for sale and the university press release also mentions the black W will be on “select athletic apparel.” The group plans on getting together this week to discuss their thoughts on the merchandise and what charities and/or groups they’d like to see the proceeds sent to, which they will then present to the university.

There are other things to be discussed as well. For example, how long will the patch and/or stickers remain? The group floated out the idea of it being for one year to get the conversation started, but in reality, they’d like to see these exist for as long as possible.

“We honestly — we said one year but the goal is to have it as long as we can. We’re going to go after it every year,” Brown explained. “Obviously we had the Confederate flag at NASCAR taken down, the Mississippi state flag and all these statues being torn down all over the country. It’s like, these things aren’t going to be rebuilt again so why would the black W be only a one-time thing? It shouldn’t be a one-time thing and we hope it’s not a one-time thing. Showing solidarity for unrepresented athletes should be for more than one academic year but we just thought that it’d be best if we slowly start and then once it keeps going we’ll ask Barry or whoever needs to be asked if it can be a permanent thing.”

While there’s work still to be done in finalizing the details of the black W logo, this is but one small step. Don’t believe this will be the end of Brown and her group’s influence on trying to change mores and perceptions, and fight against racism. In fact, you can count on it.

“We’ll go back as a group and see what other thing we can do as leaders and student-athletes to try to help us be as comfortable as we can on this campus,” Brown said. “I don’t know what that can be … but we’ll be posting often and let the people know.”

Hopefully Wisconsin — and Wisconsinites — will continue to listen.