Brewer: Platforms – A letter to athletes

June 3, 2021, 8:34 p.m.

Trigger Warning: This story contains mentions of suicide and suicide ideation that may be troubling to some readers.

I started playing serious basketball when I was 11, in a small neighborhood north of Toronto — Barrie, Ontario. At 15, I was selected for the provincial team: at 16, the Canadian national team; and at 17, signed to play at Stanford University. As quickly as my basketball career began, I became acutely aware of these mystical words: You have a platform.

At 23, as I sit in my childhood home, I’ve been reflecting on the battles I chose to fight on this platform.

Four years ago, I attempted suicide. In the years since, I’ve grown into an outspoken mental health advocate. I worked achingly hard through physical and mental pain to build the semi-stable path I’m on now. With that said, I had a piece of the healing puzzle in my back pocket — one that I didn’t have to fight for. I was supported through a mental healthcare system that notoriously harms people who don’t look like me.

I didn’t fully internalize these things until I graduated in 2020, after sitting on the bench for my four-year collegiate career, consistently being told that I whispered everything I said. Mental illness barred my confidence to the point that I didn’t know what I was or wasn’t capable of. So I stopped talking. I was afraid  —  terrified, really. There’s a lot to unpack about being a Stanford basketball player who can claim 40 points to her entire career, especially after many of her former teammates just won the National Championship.

But, there were ways in which I still had a voice and didn’t capitalize on it.

Now, nearly a year after I graduated, I’m thinking about my voice —  its place and volume, then and now. I’ve grown a lot. I’ve reshaped how I advocate. And I’m thinking about what this word “platform” really means.

In the past, I unintentionally excluded myself from many conversations because my beliefs didn’t align with them: racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, classism, ableism, antisemitism, Islamophobia and any other form of discrimination.

My heart has always been for the opposite of these things, of course, but that doesn’t exempt me from needing to talk about them, learn more (learning is not a destination) and challenge how I’m complicit. Theoretically (and not so theoretically for some people), I can live my life without thinking about many forms of discrimination and oppression. I do think about them, but I have the privilege of choosing not to.

A platform is a staircase between two landings — believing something in your heart and choosing to do something about it. This is the most arduous paradox to be in. The more you know about the true history and complicated contextual nature of an issue — the more stairs you climb — the more defeating and overwhelming it feels, physically and mentally, to do work in that space. Yet, you’re now in the only arena where you can truly internalize the urgency of your work. There is a cost to authenticity and empathy — seeing, feeling and breathing the complexity of the history of harm. It hurts. But it hurts those on the path much more, if you choose not to climb the stairs.

When Peter Parker tells Tony Stark he wants to be like him, Tony replies, “And I wanted you to be better.”

I’m not here to be a role model. I want you to be better than I was, and I want to help you get there.

In the pop-culture sense of the word, I don’t have the platform that other athletes I played with have, but my voice is equally needed in the coat of change we’re threading. It’s a coat that only feels too big if we each don’t contribute a thread and wear it together. We have to hang this coat on the same hook we hang our hats on.

That is why this letter must come from me. There are more athletes out there like me than there are in the white heat of the spotlight. We know now (and should have known sooner) that the silence of many is deafeningly louder than the voice of one.

I want to share an example. Many of the people whom I trust with my life are Black — they are my best friends. If you’re an athlete, you might find yourself in a similar boat. This proximity, no matter how intimate, is not a proxy for the work that needs to be done to fray and unravel unjust systems. It’s not a badge to wear.

I deeply love the people in my life who are different from me (on any basis), and I think they know that. I also know that they love me. However, though it is necessary, I don’t think love is sufficient — it doesn’t exempt me from anything. It is a catalyst. What it does is make my voice imperative.

As a mental health advocate, I’ve spoken with many people who experience suicidal thoughts. I always tell them that they are loved, which might be helpful at the moment. Yet, no matter how sincere I am in that statement, it doesn’t fix the lack of food security, housing, safe environments, childhood development support, inclusion, affordable and decent healthcare services, income and social protection, employment, job security, work-life balance and educational opportunities that often lead one to consider the worth of their life. I might love the person. I’m sure God loves them. But the system doesn’t. And that can make life on this Earth unbearable.

Through it all, the most powerful voices for social change project from female professional athletes. Their voices, among many others, have piercingly disrupted our implicit biases and forced us to question the legs on which we stand. Between the lines, though, there is a deeper message to athletes: The weight of change rests disproportionately on all of our shoulders, not just those that have a “platform.”

In the safety of a classroom or training facility, we have hardly scratched the surface of questioning the rigidity of rules, systems, ideals, biases, norms and power dynamics. Defining roles, forging identity and re-evaluative thinking are the keystones of youth, especially within athletics. If your team is to be successful, you must understand and perform your role impeccably well.

But first, you must know and believe that you have one.

Athletes like step-by-step rules. Hearing that “working hard is how you earn playing time and define your role” eases the confusing and uncomfortable nuance of learning and growth. For four years, I equated my game time and associated “platform” with the reach and importance of my voice. Despite what you are told, there are no concrete steps to playing time. There are also no finite to-do lists that outline, for example, the eradication of racism or explain anti-racism.

In fact, given the current state of the world, there are not many rules left intact.

As I listen to the female athletes who have paved the way before me, I hear this: Stop seeking and using rules to protect yourself. Becoming a better human is not a playbook to memorize — we should be working towards being one for the rest of our lives.

Climb the stairs because of your heart. It’s okay to stumble when you’re tired. It’s okay to make mistakes. Don’t stand at the bottom waiting for someone to hand you a rulebook called “How to Climb the Stairs Without Getting Tired.” Even for athletes, that book doesn’t exist. Even at peak performance, we all know that stairs leave us winded.

Learning is not graceful — it is nuanced and founded on how we respond to our missteps. The silver lining is that our minds are malleable. Now, we have to do a much better job at verbalizing it. Each of us, All-American or not, has a role. This is your platform.

As athletes we have approached games like going to battle with and for our families, hoisting the belief that championships are bigger than ourselves. Swaying the outcome of a game demands everyone’s purposeful action.

Often, my “game time” came in practice on the scout team. I mimicked the offensive tendencies of our opponent for that week, while my teammates learned how to defend them. We won a lot of games because we knew how to defend someone. As I connect what I have learned through playing basketball to the real world, I see the urgency and obligation to learn and unlearn, persistently and deliberately, saving lives and lifting voices that are not my own.

I also learned when to stay in my lane. As a relatively small guard, driving into the key often meant I wasn’t doing it to score. I was doing it to pass to someone who was better positioned to put the ball through the hoop. Similarly, in life, we must simultaneously use our voice and know when we aren’t the one that needs to be heard.

Knowing how to use our voice when the conversation isn’t about us is the most difficult task, and as athletes, we’ve been uniquely trained to do it.

How deeply you care also diffuses into your ability to give constructive criticism, challenge another’s limits and open your heart to what is best for a given team. Your voice is what is best — it pumps the lifeblood through the heart of transformation. Hold each other accountable to use it.

Be selfless, assertive, curious, competitive and consistent because you envision potential in this perennial, demanding season. Study, train, fight and thrive in the ambiguity and unpredictability of the world, as you do in competition. Call out injustice as loudly and as passionately as you do a ball screen.

I often think back to the basketball moments I remember most — the moments that changed me and the people around me from the roots up. These moments are the times we deviated from the script — the instances where we challenged antiquated rules embedded in a new game plan. They are the moments when someone threw a pass the full length of the court on curious hope, and we scored.

As this school year comes to a close, think about how you will lay the seed for next season. There is hope lathered through the hands that will assemble, sculpt and evolve the future where impact decision-making rests. These hands are your own.

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