Leading in times of uncertainty

Being a leader is not easy, especially in times of great uncertainty. For those of us who hold the position of athletics director, we have all faced challenging times at multiple points throughout our careers. But knowing how to lead in a time like this (i.e., COVID-19, racial unrest in America, cancellation of spring sports, questions surrounding the viability of fall sports, etc.) is critical if you are going to ensure the stability and unity of your athletics department. Perhaps the most important part of leading in a time such as this is recognizing that silence is not an option – especially when it comes to racial injustice.

A few months ago when our nation (and the world) witnessed and learned of the horrific murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arberry, and Breonna Taylor, I knew I had to act and lead our athletics department in that moment in a way unlike any other situation we had faced. Our nation and our world made it clear that things must change and we recognized that the process of getting to where we needed to be would not be easy.

Which brings me back to the importance of understanding how to lead in this moment. As leaders, we have a responsibility to build the pipeline of the next generation of leaders. We are also responsible to uphold the mission of our great institutions by exhibiting a commitment to equity, which includes recruiting, hiring, and promoting diverse and inclusive leaders. So, out of great concern for our student- athletes, coaches and staff, I wanted to make sure they understood my position as their athletic director during the current climate of protest and social unrest and that they saw strength, compassion and empathy; yet at the same time, decisiveness and clear direction in how UC Riverside Athletics would manage through this pivotal season. These were critical components as we put together our statement, released it publicly, and amplified it on our social media channels.

But we didn’t stop there. Why? Because statements and positions without action steps and a forward- looking plan simply ring hollow. I also took a moment to reflect and examine closely why we have not been more successful on campus, within our department, and within the community doing this critical work already.

As UC Riverside’s athletic director, I have had to really lean in to drive the right dialogue for change. I am proud of the diverse team assembled since my tenure to help create the change we all want and deserve. Purposeful leaders are courageous and never stop listening and learning. After our official statement was released, I was scheduled to lead our head coaches meeting that morning. In my opening comments, I sparked the conversation and reminded our team that most of our Black colleagues and student athletes have been living this racism in America nightmare all our lives.

I recognized it was the perfect opportunity to take our coaches and staff back to 2016, when Colin Kaepernick kneeled in protest of police brutality. As an authentic leader, I was compelled to bring our coaches together immediately that next day to discuss how this may emotionally impact a subset of our student athletes. The observation of Kaepernick’s decision to kneel, at that time, was that many of our coaches did not quite understand the direct impact and some were rightly concerned about the perception of disrespecting the flag. In that moment, as athletic director, I understood how our collective views whether similar or differing would overlap in ways that would profoundly affect the advancement of our student athletes and program priorities. Thoughtfully, I initiated the tough conversation and gracefully asked the relevant but uncomfortable questions. Fortunately, we got through it in that season, respectfully.

Fast forward four years later and we are still having the conversation but today I sense our coaches and staff are more conscious, compassionate, and committed to expand professionally in an effort to eradicate injustice, especially for our scholar athletes and the future of all humanity. We assembled our coaches and a leadership group of student-athletes (followed by our staff) on a series of Zoom calls. We confronted the issue of anti-Black racism head on. We had the uncomfortable yet courageous conversations on how racial inequalities show up and how we can be the change we seek. Members of our program shared some of their painful experiences of how racism has impacted them. This helped galvanize our team members. Following these discussions and acknowledging the challenges we face and the need to be more aware, I affirmed my support for creating safe and brave spaces for us to gather and gain further insight and education so we can be better for, and toward, one another. Then, we empowered our student-athletes and provided them with a platform entitled “Highlanders Speak Up for Humanity” to lead in a way that would create real change. As a result, we identified specific action steps to take, educational and training resources to provide, policies to review and create, and commitments to make in order to appropriately enact these necessary changes.

There is a shared fatigue amongst our Black coaches, staff and student-athletes and we are now focusing on listening, learning, unlearning, and exercising “if you see something or experience something, say something” approach. We are identifying genuine and effective advocates and allies within our Highlander family and community. It is critically important having purpose driven people who always seek to create pathways for positive change. Similarly, we must recognize challenges that can block progress and be equipped to navigate and manage through each scenario effectively.

I decided to pursue a career in higher education and college athletics because it is my calling, where purpose and passion intersect for me. Every day I am reminded of my experiences as a former division one scholar athlete, head coach, and rising administrator. Now as an athletics director these roles and responsibilities take over your life and we don’t get to log off often. But having the opportunity to help uplift, guide and mentor young scholar- athletes over the course of the past 20-plus years has been incredibly rewarding. I consider myself a radical and transformative leader who leads with love, which provides us with an opportunity to move courageously forward so we can uphold our mission to enhance the quality of life and prepare our student-athletes as global leaders who will change the world.

As I reflect on what helped me most in my ability to lead at this time, I harken back to growing up in the birthplace of the civil rights movement, Atlanta, Georgia, going to college in Alabama where my parents and grandparents were born and had dreams of what life for their love ones would become, and committing my life’s work and professional career to minority serving institutions. I reflect on how I have witnessed and experienced undeserving and uncomfortable sexism, racial injustice, and inequality throughout my life. As a Black woman in America, I am reminded every day of how others benefit from oppressive behaviors that still exist. I am also the mother of two beautiful, brilliant, and brave Black children. I have to teach them about racial inequalities and bias and not just the biases of others but to acknowledge that we all have them and how to deal with it in a proper manner. Additionally, I have spent the past five years leading UC Riverside athletics brightest and most talented scholars who carry a chip on their shoulders striving to be the best in the competitive Big West Conference. I know the direct impact we have on shaping each of them as leaders. Intentionally, we have worked diligently and remained focused on our goals to build our scholar athletes up and empower them to become all that they are predestined to be. As director, I show up fully who I am so that they can see confidence and feel comfortable in their complete being when we provide an inclusive culture for everyone to thrive purposefully.

Every indicator since my tenure has proven that UC Riverside has a competitive, high achieving athletics program that cares unconditionally for our scholar athletes, coaches, administrators, and staff. Our Highlander program has made historic strides across the board with the elevation of our brand, improved academic and athletic performance and culture, and managing through local and national issues. Each experience has positioned me well to embrace this moment and what is ahead. I believe change starts at the very top and I take that responsibility seriously. My role as UC Riverside’s athletic director also involves being a member of the university’s diversity, equity and inclusion affiliate groups. Being an active partner on campus is something I am proud and honored to do and having the support our Chancellor (Kim Wilcox) and our university’s leadership team is incredibly valuable. I serve with my colleagues as an educator first and foremost and work collaboratively with all as we strive to become more effective and inclusive leaders in our organization. One thing I love about UC Riverside is the fact that we do engage in these uncomfortable but important conversations. As a leader I encourage my student athletes, coaches and staff to make use of campus resource groups, trainings and the myriad of support systems. Over my tenure I have consciously taken steps to connect with colleagues I may not have met or know very well to build meaningful and inclusive relationships. With this in mind, I have joined Sister Circle lunch meetings, the Black Faculty and Staff Association, and been very intentional in my focus on intersectionality and encouraging athletics to collaborate with other underrepresented groups on our campus. As a proud member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. I have equally enjoyed getting to know our campus Sorors of Mu Chi Chapter. And professionally, I realize that this commitment to connect and build deeper relationships on campus and within our community is key to learning and understanding how to be more supportive of embracing differences. It is always encouraging to receive the many kind notes of commendation expressing how this approach has impacted the culture and positively accelerated the advancement of UC Riverside athletics on our campus.

It is my hope that in reading this post people will take away that this moment and movement is different and positive action is required from all. No one can afford to sit this one out. James Baldwin once said, “Hope must be invented every day.” Leadership must be able to stand tall in the face of great uncertainty and challenge, be willing to be misunderstood, yet still brave enough to show up for those who depend on your presence and influence as an illustration of hope.

It is up to us to work together in the right way to ensure we are truly champions for change. Let’s keep moving forward and make this moment count for generations!

Tamica Smith Jones - GUEST BLOGGER

Director of Intercollegiate Athletics, University of California, Riverside

Tamica Smith Jones is the Director of Intercollegiate Athletics (AD) for the University of California, Riverside. In her first year leading the Highlanders, they won the 2016 Big West Conference Championships in Women's Golf, Men's Golf, had a member of Men’s Golf participate in NCAA Nationals, earned the program's first individual national champion in its Division I era, and had their best finish ever in the Big West Conference Commissioner's Cup standings. In addition, Women’s Basketball went undefeated in Conference play, finishing first in the regular season standings. Since AD Smith Jones has been at the helm of the Highlanders’ Athletics Department, her focus has centered on building a culture for champions and guiding the rising Division I program in the Big West Conference with a renewed sense of purpose and energy. As a result, the Highlanders have won seven individual Big West Championships, a first-ever national championship in the weight throw, the 2018 Big West Conference Men’s Soccer Tournament Championship, and a first-ever appearance in the 2018 NCAA Men’s Soccer Tournament/Men’s College Cup. Under the direction of AD Smith Jones, the Highlanders are leading the way on a wide range of strategic initiatives and important issues impacting today’s student-athlete, which include an increased focus on mental health and wellness with the Sports Medicine team connecting campus resources and external experts and complementary leadership training to navigate a successful professional life after sport. The increased collaborations with campus partners enabled Athletics to provide more immediate educational and emotional support for its student-athletes. In 2018, Athletics began providing additional nutritional support through its R’Fueling Station program (to provide healthy foods and snacks) and entered into a partnership with a local nutritionist to work closely with its Strength and Conditioning program. And, In 2020, UC Riverside School of Medicine’s Department of Psychiatry and Neuroscience launched a unique, first in the nation sports psychiatry fellowship program in partnership with UCR Athletics and UCR Health. This program is unique because while there are other schools that use sports psychiatrists as consultants, the UC Riverside program will be both a clinical program that helps to treat athletes but also a graduate medical educational, or GME, program that will train the next generation of sports psychiatrists. AD Smith Jones continues to use her leadership role to advance Highlanders and enact positive change!