Questioning The Status Quo
Question the status quo. It is the first tenet of the Haas School of Business and something imparted to all of its students. Something that sticks with them even after they graduate.
So when Jazmyn Jackson, a 2018 graduate of the Haas School of Business and star for the Cal softball team, first heard about Athletes Unlimited, she was intrigued. The brand new professional softball league had no coaches or general managers; it was completely player-run. There is a draft every week and players earn points based on their in-game stats, and whether their team wins an inning or the game. It's like a real-life fantasy league.
"I was thinking, I'm a traditional softball player, what is this?," Jackson said. "I don't want to do it like this. I'm all about the team stats, but now being here, I've never played a more team-oriented game, because winning every inning and winning the game gets you so many points."
Once Jackson was in, she went all-in to try to make the league the best it could be by changing the way things have always been done. She is a member of the five-person Player Executive Committee and on the Racial Equity Working Group. The Player Executive Committee works to establish the rules of the game and the guidelines for how the players have to operate and behave, as well as setting COVID-19 standards and procedures and the penalties for breaking those rules.
As part of the Racial Equity Working Group, she helps Athletes Unlimited change the way things have normally been done in order to address issues regarding race and gender. The group came up with 36 recommendations for internal policies and procedures to promote diversity and inclusion.
They also started talking about the National Anthem. Did the players want to stand or kneel? Did they want to raise their fists up to support people of color? Since it is a new-league, co-founder Jonathan Soros suggested doing something different.
Having just seen an ESPNW video celebrating the 48th anniversary of Title IX, Jackson immediately thought of creating a video of a spoken-word piece showing the athletes' accomplishments. She thought of something that told the stories of all the players, accurately representing what they have gone through, such as the sacrifices they have made to play the sport they love, what it takes for the top one percent of softball players in the world just to make a living.
With those thoughts in mind, Jackson knew who would be the best to articulate them. So she turned to one of her former classmates and friends at the Haas School of Business, Asha Culhane-Husain.
Culhane-Husain was a member of the track & field team at Cal, competing in the heptathlon and receiving her degree in business administration. She also minored in theater, dance and performance studies, and studied abroad during her time at Cal, going to the respected Gaiety School of Acting, Ireland's National Theater School.
Upon her graduation, Culhane-Husain received the Oscar Geballe Postgraduate Scholarship, which allowed her to earn a master's degree in history and literature from Columbia University. As part of the program, she travelled to multiple universities in France, all of which allowed her to pursue acting as her profession. After researching, observing and writing about students at the Conservatoire national supérieur d'art dramatique (CNSAD), France's National Academy of Dramatic Arts, she applied to the school and is now one of 90 students enrolled at the academy, training professionally.
Culhane-Husain and Jackson knew each other from their time at Cal; they travelled in the same circles as student-athletes in the Haas School of Business. They had a lot of respect for each other and the work that they both accomplished while at UC Berkeley, and since they have graduated.
Jackson heard Culhane-Husain speak at a number of events around campus, including the commencement speech at the 2018 Haas graduation. Culhane-Husain mentioned a number of other students in her speech, including Jackson, honoring her ability to graduate from the prestigious school while also representing Cal and the United States on the softball field.
"Asha has always moved me, whether it be her speech at the end of the year for female athletes or her speech at our graduation for the business school," Jackson said. "She's just an amazing artist and I wanted her to be a part of this. Not just because she's my friend (she is), but she is just absolutely amazing and her work is so moving. I know how she's made me feel and how empowered and inspired I felt from her. That's exactly what I wanted, that's exactly what I envisioned for the piece."
Representation matters. That is why it was important to find someone that would represent the players' interests and bring their collective voices to light. Which is why a fellow Golden Bear was the perfect choice.
Jackson brought that idea to the Racial Equity Working Group and the founders of the league. They all jumped on board, and Culhane-Husain got on a Zoom call with 30-40 players and asked them to start sharing intimate details of their experiences.
"I think it's a dream to be able to use the skills I have developed at acting school and also share the messages of these athletes," Culhane-Husain said. "I think that it is just a fantastic project of both combining my history in sports, but also using my skills to express the emotions of things."
The National Anthem has been played at sporting events across the United States for more than 100 years. Jackson has heard it countless times before games, both in college and as a member of Team USA. Since 2015, she's played in international tournaments and even won gold medals representing America on the diamond.
"For me, it was never about representing my country, I never thought about it like that," Jackson said. "The people in my country, that's what I'm representing. A whole lot of people, they're not going to see me and think she's Team USA. I did have a huge tie to the national anthem, whether it be negative or positive feelings. That is the state of America, and that's what America is going through. I love my country, I just wish it would love everyone back."
That's why it was important for Jackson's voice to be heard, as well as every other softball player who is competing with Athletes Unlimited.
"The point of the project was to express the voices of athletes and to basically be as based in integrity and based in their words as much as possible," Culhane-Husain said. "I spoke to all of them and told them, 'You have a blank slate. I'm here to listen to whatever you want to express to the world; feel free to be excited, be passionate, be angry, be happy. Just have a blank slate; be selfish with the space. I'm listening to you,' and then they did. They spoke and they shared their stories. That was a really humbling experience that they trusted me with all of those really intimate details. Then, I tried to enter into those emotions with them and find a way to express it artistically."
Culhane-Husain captured the players' thoughts and created a six-minute spoken word piece (at the 19:00 mark of the video) that she performed at the opening ceremonies for Athletes Unlimited in front of all of the physically-distanced players. It was played in concert with the national anthems of all of the countries that have competitors in the league at the opening ceremony. She also created 90-second and 45-second versions, which have been turned into videos to be played before every Athletes Unlimited contest, both locally and on TV, that will replace the national anthem. The games are being broadcast on CBS Sports Network and ESPN.
"I know how she was so invested in everything that we said and I knew that she was going to do a great job of putting our voices together, and I was so excited," Jackson said. "I hadn't heard it, but she made it personal to us and made us feel heard and represented. She didn't say any names, but it all felt like us. It was all of our stories. Hearing that video and feeling so represented, but also so one with the group around you, I've never felt that during the national anthem, the way I feel it with this piece."
"I think if you love something, you want to make it better," Culhane-Husain said. "I think that was the point behind this; they love both their platform and what they are doing. This was a way to make it better, not a way to in any way bring any negativity into this space. But to uphold the ideals but also express maybe where those ideals have fallen short in their stories and how they make those things better."
In other words, questioning the status quo and trying to empower those around them. Just like UC Berkeley taught them.
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