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Former Northwestern athletes lead at the helm of the wave of athletic activism

As athletes’ social action pleas garner national attention, former Wildcats lead the way.

Los Angeles Chargers Training Camp Photo by Joe Scarnici/Getty Images

As the surge of social justice-driven protests across America enters its fourth month, the world of sports has once again taken center stage in the Black Lives Matter movement.

Following an incident in late August in which Kenosha police officer Rusten Shesky fired seven shots into the back of Jacob Blake, athletes from all major American professional leagues and multiple prominent college programs boycotted practices and games to raise awareness and push team owners, league administrators and fans toward action. While athletes have played a role in the Black Lives Matter movement since its inception — most commonly by kneeling during the national anthem — the recent wave of collective team actions entered uncharted territory as the first of such protests to force game postponements in several professional leagues.

With the Big Ten fall season postponed, it has been difficult for current student-athletes to participate in unified protest with their teams. But several Wildcats at the next level in a variety of sports have taken action in the wake of recent events. Of all of Northwestern’s alums in the sports universe, here are three notable #ProCats who have gotten involved.

Nia Coffey

League and team: WNBA, Phoenix Mercury

Years at Northwestern: 2013-2017

No league has presented more zealous support of the Black Lives Matter movement than the WNBA. In keeping with this trend, the WNBA’s return to play in Bradenton, Fla. has featured plenty of protests, from players leaving the court during the national anthem to the Washington Mystics’ coordinated t-shirts worn on August 26 before WNBA players decided to pause play altogether following the shooting of Jacob Blake.

Representing the Wildcats in the league is Phoenix Mercury forward Nia Coffey, who earned first team All-Big Ten honors at Northwestern in each of her four collegiate seasons. In an open letter published on Phoenix’s team website, Coffey expressed her frustration in the wake of George Floyd’s death.

“I’m sad, heartbroken, hurt, feeling helpless, and hopeless,” Coffey wrote. “But I know in my heart, I can’t give up, we can’t give up because those who have lost their lives don’t get the opportunity to move forward and help create a positive change our country desperately needs.”

Later in the letter, she charged readers to take action at the ballot box, even suggesting they extend their influence in government even further.

“Do your research and learn about the candidates involved. If you don’t like your options, consider running for office!”

Tyler Lancaster

League and team: NFL, Green Bay Packers

Years at Northwestern: 2013-2017

Before he rode a contract as an undrafted free agent all the way to a starting role with the Packers and before he ever sported the esteemed No. 1 jersey as team captain at Northwestern, Tyler Lancaster was a Chicagoland kid from the Southwest suburb of Romeoville, Ill. As such, when he saw the protests and riots in Chicago this summer, he felt moved to use his platform and resources to address systemic injustices in the city he grew up by.

“Socially,” said Lancaster, “there’s definitely a lot of wrongdoings out there. I was sort of stuck in a place like, what can I do?”

Lancaster said he began to engage his teammates in candid conversations surrounding said “wrongdoings” when he was put in contact with Sam Acho, a former linebacker for the Chicago Bears who highlighted Austin — a west Chicago neighborhood whose population, according to the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, is 84.2 percent Black — as a food desert that could benefit from external help.

“He said, ‘What can we do? We see a liquor store on every corner but we don’t see a market, we don’t see these kids having a place that’s safe to go,’” Lancaster said.

Along with Acho’s newly-established organization Athletes for Justice, Lancaster helped buy a liquor store in Austin, which is currently being transformed into a market with the hope of providing not only a grocery store to the community but a space for local youth to safely work.

“I was blown away,” Lancaster said. “I was like, would I like to be a part of that? Absolutely. There’s a lot of issues in the world but can we be a light? I cried a little bit.”

Justin Jackson

League and team: NFL, Los Angeles Chargers

Years at Northwestern: 2014-2017

Anyone who has paid attention to Northwestern football in the last decade knows that Justin Jackson is an incredible football player. He leads the ‘Cats all-time in carries, rushing yards, all-purpose yards, rushing touchdowns and total touchdowns. But aside from his skills on the gridiron, Jackson has built quite a name for himself in the world of athletic activism.

A recent GQ interview referred to Jackson as “the most progressive voice in the NFL.” This title is not unwarranted. JJTBC was an outspoken supporter of Senator Bernie Sanders in the recent Democratic presidential primary, going so far as to canvass for him in Nevada, and has otherwise made his political stances clear on Twitter with viral posts such as this one:

During the recent wave of protests, Jackson has separated himself as a leader in the Chargers locker room despite being in only his third year of professional play. When the Chargers entered their new digs at SoFi Stadium in Los Angeles for the first time on Aug. 27, Coach Anthony Lynn decided it was necessary to have an all-team meeting to discuss the recent events in Kenosha before returning to football activities.

When the team decided to cancel their blue vs. white scrimmage in protest, Jackson was one of only a few players selected by his teammates to address the media and didn’t shy away from the specifics he thought were necessary to create meaningful change.

“Right now, in a pandemic, we want health care,” Jackson said. “We want a [Universal Basic Income]. We want the police to stop killing unarmed black men. We want racial profiling to stop. We want community policing to be better. These are all things that we want, and we’re crying out for them, we’re protesting, and we’re not seeing those changes.”