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The "Clemson Family" is an integral part of Clemson University's culture. The phrase encompasses both a feeling and a lifestyle, and ultimately represents a strong sense of belonging. Members of the Clemson network support each other academically, professionally, and otherwise. After all, they share a lifetime bond.
At least, this is how the university markets the term. The reality is more complex. Clemson student-athlete Andrew Castano shares his thoughts on the subject: "The Clemson Family is dependent on the individual. When you come to Clemson, you don't magically get this feeling of being a part of something... I don't think it's something [Clemson leadership] gives out, it's something that we as individuals conjure up together... I'm only a part of a family because of the people I'm around, people that I love from the bottom of my heart."
The "people" Castano refers to are his cross country and track and field teammates. As a transfer student, Castano originally didn't know if he would get the opportunity to run at Clemson University. Motivated by the university's academic rigor, he applied and was accepted; only after his arrival did former distance coach Michael Porter offer him a spot on the team. He eagerly accepted, finally realizing his dream of several years. "At the time my life really did feel complete," says Castano. "It was euphoric."
Though Castano considers his teammates family, he has a complex relationship with the university as a whole. Unfortunately, as a minority attending a largely white college, he feels underrepresented. When asked if he had experienced any form of discrimination during his time at Clemson, Castano replied, "It's unfortunate that I have to say yes, but it's just a thing that you get used to."
The beginning of summer 2020 was a period marked by nationwide insensitivity to racial injustice. According to Castano, as a minority, it can be difficult and uncomfortable discussing political and racial conflicts. National tensions left Clemson minority students feeling alienated from their peers. Alone. In response, several student-athlete leaders decided to form a group to serve as a safe space for minority athletes to communicate, validate each other's thoughts and emotions, and support each other.
Over the course of the summer, the group evolved into Tigers Unite, a student organization dedicated to pursuing inclusion and diversity. Their most prominent initiative was the UNITY shirt. "The idea was that every team would wear the exact same shirt to show that we are united," says Castano. "All the stuff that's going on in the world... when you come to Clemson, you're not going to think about that." The UNITY movement spread quickly across the campus and gained widespread support from students, the community, and university leadership.
"Tigers Unite was clearly a response. It was a response to what was happening in the nation, and it was completely driven by the students. That's one thing I love - it was made by us. We made it our group and gave ourselves our own identity," says Castano, proudly describing the group in which he had invested much time and effort. He is also proud of his team and their actions. When asked if they would wear the shirt in support, "everyone hopped on board immediately without hesitation. The response was instant - it didn't take any convincing at all." The men and women of the cross country and track teams were fully committed to the campaign, and to the idea of unity.
However, like his teammate Jackson Leech (see spotlight), Andrew sensed that the university was not as committed to the campaign as were his teammates and fellow student-athletes. Compared to other state schools, Clemson University has rather poor diversity statistics in terms of student enrollment - in fact, Clemson's student population has the lowest percentage of black students of all public schools in the state of South Carolina. According to Castano, it felt as though the unity initiative was a way for the university to avoid and negate criticisms and scrutiny regarding diversity. "Looking back, I feel that the university benefited more from the campaign than people of underrepresented groups," says a disappointed Castano.
Regardless, university leadership repeatedly affirmed their commitment to increasing diversity and supporting minority students. In fact, on Sept. 14, Tigers Unite attended a town hall meeting with Clemson Athletic Director Dan Radakovich. Castano recalls the statement by Radakovich: "[Radakovich] said that the university had our backs with the UNITY campaign. That whatever we asked for, they would do. They said, 'don't feel afraid to ask for anything, we as an athletic department are willing to help you in any way possible.'"
Fifty-two days later, on the afternoon of Nov. 5, Castano and his teammates were summoned to a meeting with Radakovich, where he announced that, as of May 2021, the cross country and track and field programs would be discontinued. Castano was first stunned, but his shocked disbelief quickly turned to anger. He felt hurt and betrayed by the man who had just recently promised his support to minority students. With the cuts, Clemson eliminates 67% of non-revenue black male athletes, 20% of black male athletes, and 3% of black male students - the statistics certainly do not reflect an effort to increase diversity on campus.
In that moment, every statement made by Clemson leadership over the past several months appeared hypocritical. Their efforts seemed political rather than sincere. After one short meeting, it seemed the university had abandoned their previous commitment. They had chosen convenience and money over their student-athletes - over members of their own family.
In spite of Radakovich's declaration that the decision was final, the outraged cross country and track and field athletes rallied together to save their program. Not surprisingly, Castano took on a new leadership role, this time with the UNITY? campaign - an amended version of the summer's efforts. Castano says that the addition of the question mark points to the school's hypocrisy. Though the campaign is important to his teammates, it means even more to Castano. "I've been a part of the UNITY campaign and Tigers Unite for months now. I've put a lot of time into it, I've associated with that group, and when UNITY? came out, it felt really powerful to me."
Castano continues to fight alongside his teammates for his future at Clemson, but his efforts and desires extend beyond immediate personal reward. While reinstating Clemson Men's Cross Country and Track & Field is the immediate goal, long-term, Castano is driven to fight for the future of minority athletes around the country. Ultimately, Castano works to ensure that this never happens again, at Clemson or elsewhere.