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As a military kid, current Clemson University student-athlete Jackson Leech never thought twice about the diversity around him. He says, "skin color/ethnicity had never come to mind as something that would hinder you from building a relationship with someone..." It wasn't until his freshman year at Clemson that he began to fully understand the complexities of institutional racism in the United States. Naturally, Leech joined the fight to promote diversity and inclusion at his beloved university. However, his efforts and those of his fellow student-athletes appeared to be in vain after Clemson Athletic Director Dan Radakovich announced his decision to eliminate the men's cross country and track & field programs.
Leech was heavily recruited by former Clemson distance coach Michael Porter and, eager for the chance to compete at the next level, committed to Clemson University's cross country and track and field program. His first cross country season, Leech was one of the top performers on the team, consistently finishing in the top four for the Tigers. Indoor season brought new opportunities - he qualified for the ACC Championships in the 5000m run and finished 30th with a time of 15:02.82. Unfortunately, his first outdoor season was cut short by the COVID-19 global crisis, but overall, he showed great promise over the course of his first year.
Leech, under the leadership of current junior Andrew Castaño, was enthusiastic about the opportunity to participate in the Clemson UNITY campaign during summer of 2020. "It's a big problem that our school isn't diverse and it's behind a lot of the other state schools across the country," he states. "I had to look at myself and how I was approaching the issue... Just saying 'I'm not a racist' is not enough. We decided to be really cognizant of our words, our actions, and we let UNITY symbolize that whole idea."
However, in the midst of the campaign, Leech got the nagging sense that something was wrong. It wasn't until later, after Radakovich's announcement on November 5 that he was able to describe the problem. "It seemed that people just wanted pictures of us in the UNITY shirts, but there wasn't any real action from the institution," he says with obvious disappointment. Now, given Radakovich's definitive stance regarding the dissolution of the cross country and track & field program, Leech and his teammates question the university's commitment to diversity.
Leech, though, is not backing down. As a vocal member of the newly formed UNITY? campaign, he hopes to draw attention to the so-called "diversity issue." With the cuts, Clemson eliminates 67% of black males in non-revenue sports, 20% of black male athletes, and 3% of black men on campus. The team is fighting to ensure that the university, stakeholders, the national running community, and sports fans across the nation are aware of what's at stake for minority athletes. It's a big responsibility, but Leech remains hopeful as he considers the campaign's outcome. He sums it up well: "[UNITY?] is a symbol of change that needs to come."
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