Imagine working for years to be at the top of your sport and finally earning a spot as one of the favorites for an NCAA title. What, beyond a debilitating injury or illness, could possibly inspire you to give up on chasing that once in a lifetime dream?
Sanjuanita (Sam) Martinez, a senior cross-country and track standout at Cornell College in Iowa is a 5-time All-American, one of the top D-III steeplers, and has a serious shot at an NCAA title. Yet, she is choosing to potentially take herself out of contention and that choice has nothing to do with her health. Sam is refusing to run for Cornell College and instead running as an unattached athlete (racing as an individual and not as a part of her school’s track team) and is trading in her Cornell uniform for an all-black kit.
She is using her high-profile position as a star athlete on campus as an act of protest racism on campus. Read on to find out what happened to inspire Sam’s activism, what she hopes to accomplish, and how the school and her team have reacted.
Sam explains what happened to inspire her activism:
On Sunday night [April 10, 2016] students wrote, “Build a Wall/Make it Tall” on the kiosks [public graffiti spots] on campus. I saw this message at 8 am and by noon, since it hadn’t been taken care of, some sorority sisters of mine and I took it upon ourselves to just paint over it. We didn’t write a message or retaliate, we just felt that the wording made many uncomfortable. It wasn’t until 7:58 pm that we got a message from our VP of Student Affairs regarding the incident.
A day later, on Monday, April 11, passengers identified as male Cornell athletes shouted from a car, “Build a wall!” several times at pedestrians from the Latino student center, Union Latina. Then on Wednesday. April 13, Sam noted someone wrote “Trump 2016” and “weak at the borders” in chalk on campus. On Thursday, April 14, masked students spray-painting over a message of unity on the kiosks. Additional graffiti on campus read, “If I could deport you myself I would.”
It wasn’t the acts or words themselves that inspired Sam’s protest, rather it was the actions, or lack of actions, of the school administration and local police force that inspired her. Sam explained that she and others were dissatisfied by the response of the administration, which initially dismissed these events as acceptable free speech. In response to complaints about the anti-Latino graffiti, school officials responded, “Free speech can, at times, cause frustration, anxiety, and fear, especially among groups who have felt marginalized.”
Sam fired back when I asked her about the school’s statement, saying “free speech does not equal hate speech and we as people of color, have not felt marginalized, we are marginalized.”
Stating additionally that she did not feel “included, equal, and safe” on campus, Sam declared her intentions on social media to wear black instead of representing Cornell.
When asked about the incidents at Cornell that inspired Sam’s protest, Jill Hawk, Public Relations Director for Cornell College, issued the following statement:
Incidents this past week have had an impact on the entire campus. Cornell College respects all of our students’ opinions. Cornell College strives to make sure students feel welcome and valued. Sam Martinez and all of the students are strong contributors to the campus culture. Faculty and staff are working toward erasing any feeling of insecurity. Cornell College believes it has a strong policy on freedom of speech. Administrators, staff and student leaders regularly take part in policy reviews for the entire code of conduct, but at this time there is not a policy review planned based on recent incidents at Cornell College.
Sam is undeterred and not backing down. As long as she’s protesting and running as an unattached athlete and not wearing her team uniform, Sam will not be eligible to defend her conference championship or participate in NCAA competition, where she is ranked number two in the steeplechase. However she feels that fighting for social justice is more important:
In 10 years my record will be broken, in 15 all my records will be gone. In 20 years I will be forgotten and in 30 who knows if I’m even still running. I will forever be a Mexican-American and that will never change. So yes, it is worth it. I owe it to my family, my friends, and most importantly to myself. I am standing up for myself and I want the concerns of our POC to be acknowledged. Another medal or even a national title won’t be anything more than an accolade in the future.
Sam stated that making her stand in the realm of athletics is especially appropriate given that “the majority of the perpetrators on campus have been male athletes, some of whom had already been suspended from their respective programs prior to these incidents. That makes me very uncomfortable not only as an athlete of color, but as a female athlete.”
Sam’s coach and most of her track teammates have voiced their support for her, even if it means missing their team captain’s contributions on the track.
Many of my teammates … told me they really admired the stand that I was taking. There were a few who were mad and didn’t understand why I was doing it but that’s okay. Everyone is entitled to their own opinions. There were a few athletes from other teams who said they had heard my story and hoped that things would soon change at Cornell. One in particular gave me a hug and said she would be keeping me and my friends in her prayers.
In addition, Sam hopes her story may have influence outside of the Cornell College community. “I’ve had many athletes from other schools tell me horror stories from their schools, so I feel like it’s definitely not a new issue,” she said after taking 2nd place in the 1500m this weekend at Western Illinois University.
Sam will attend Drake University School of Law in the fall with intent to specialize in international law, working with immigrants and refugees.
Would you forgo your running dreams to take a stand?