Winning Differently: Three Members of Georgia Tech Women’s Basketball Talk Inequity, Awareness, and Leadership
The Georgia Tech Women’s Basketball (GTWBB) team capped a sensational 2020-21 season by making their 10th overall appearance – and first since 2014 – in the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Tournament, advancing all the way to the Sweet 16. Under the direction of Head Coach Nell Fortner, the Yellow Jackets’ 12 conference wins were the most the program has had since the 2011-12 season. The team was largely led by graduating senior Kierra Fletcher (#41), who will return to The Flats for the 2021-22 season after being granted a fifth year of eligibility by the NCAA.
In addition to completing a historic season, the team also addressed social and racial inequities both on and off the court, via their Say Her Name campaign and an initiative with OMED: Educational Services director and Tech alumnus Sybrina Atwaters called the Race and Reel Black Consciousness Series.
Associate Head Coach Latasha “Tasha” Butts, Athletic Trainer Rachel Matthews, and Fletcher sat down for virtual interviews to reflect on the past year and what their partnership with Atwaters meant for the team.
Hill: Tell us a little about yourself, your background, and how you became a part of the Georgia Tech Women’s Basketball team.
Fletcher: “I’m originally from Detroit, Michigan and I’ve been playing basketball since I was about three years old. I was playing AAU [Amateur Athletic Union] basketball about four or five years ago, when one of Tech’s assistant coaches at the time reached out and told me the team was interested in me. I’m from the Midwest, so I wasn’t familiar with Georgia Tech at the time. But after I learned more about Tech, I was pretty interested because it’s right in the heart of Atlanta and Atlanta reminds me of Detroit. Georgia Tech is academically prestigious, so that drew me as well. Once I got on campus and saw what it was like, and the different programs it offers, I just felt this was the place for me.”
Matthews: “Columbia, Maryland, is home for me. I came to Tech in 2013 to start my graduate work, then left for a couple of years for experience. I’ve been back here at Tech for four years now, working specifically with the women’s basketball team.”
Butts: “I’m originally from Georgia. I just completed my second year here at Tech, now going into my third. Prior to Georgia Tech, I was at LSU [Louisiana State University] for eight years. Prior to LSU, I as at UCLA [University of California, Los Angeles] for three years and Duquesne University for one year. I played college basketball for the late-great Pat Summit at the University of Tennessee and also had the opportunity to play professionally in the WNBA [Women’s National Basketball Association] and internationally. All of that led me back home to the state of Georgia and here to Georgia Tech with the women’s basketball team.”
Kierra, what do you like about being a part of the Georgia Tech Women’s Basketball team?
“I like how diverse our team is. I don’t think you really see the type of diversity we have on our team anywhere else. We’re not just Black and white – we have players from Italy, Spain, and Finland, and I really don’t think you see that around the NCAA. Everyone comes from different backgrounds but we still come together to do what we need to do and we’ve really built a family atmosphere.”
Tell us about the team’s historic season. What were some highlights?
Fletcher: “I think the biggest accomplishment this year for us, as a team, was making the NCAA Tournament. We hadn’t been there since 2014, and we made it to the Sweet 16. This is something we can definitely build upon going into this upcoming season.”
Matthews: “This year was incredibly special for more reasons than one. This season just treated us really well. We were able to find true success in the midst of some craziness, and that’s a testament to our ladies and their resilience. It was a really good time.
“We got to travel with our entire program so it was fun to get to know staffers, bond, and connect with many outside of basketball who we didn’t know.
Butts: “It was rewarding to even have a season – and we got through the season healthy. I’m just thankful that our team got to experience this season and it was rewarding that our team met their goal. They wanted to have our name called on Selection Monday [the NCAA's announcement of invited Tournament participants] and go to the Tournament. I’m just so thankful that they were able to reach their goals and go beyond what they thought they’d be able to do and reach the Sweet 16. I’m also thankful for their sanity and their mental health during these times.”
What has it been like playing in the time of Covid-19?
Matthews: “It’s certainly been challenging. Specifically, for me, as the primary health care provider. I administer the Covid tests, receive the results, and am also the contact tracer. I also handle some of the other daily ins and outs, such as reminding our ladies of wearing masks and practicing social distancing.”
Butts: “The fear was definitely there. Going into every single day not fully understanding how you can contract the virus has been stressful. We had moments during the season where some of us had to quarantine as a result of contract tracing, but luckily for us, none of the team contracted Covid-19.
“For our players I felt badly, especially for our freshmen. They’re entering college and this is their first taste of it – living in a bubble, having to quarantine. But, what I will say is that our ladies handled it very maturely. They saw the bigger picture and they saw the goal.”
Fletcher: “The pandemic was a challenge. Having to test multiple times a week was a challenge but also the racial inequality and tough conversations about race and police brutality that have been highlighted over this past year were something that were hard to deal with as well. Being a Black woman myself and just seeing things that are happening to people of color at the hands of law enforcement is something that I’ve personally struggled with this past year.”
Speaking of racial inequality and injustices, could you tell us a little more about the team’s Say her Name campaign?
Fletcher: “Through discussions with OMED, I learned so much about diversity and inclusion. We can say that we are diverse team, but do we include everyone? As a team, we wanted to do something impactful – something that people would remember from this season. The Say Her Name campaign that we did included videos of every team member talking about a Black woman who lost her life hands at the hands of law enforcement. We looked up the stories of these women and decided to do this to honor one of these women at every game.
“In addition to the short video, we would wear a shirt that read "Say Her Name" and we would repeat this phrase in the video. These would be shown at home games on the big screen and we also put these on social media.”
Matthews: “Much credit to Kierra for the initiative – it was her idea. She had conversations with some of the support staff here with the team, which was then presented to the collective, and everyone loved the idea so, we ran with it. We dedicated the games to these Black women who were unjustly killed and their stories were told in our arena and on social media.
“But what most people didn’t see were the intimate moments our team had. Before every game, a Black woman’s name would be read – such as Sandra Bland, Breonna Taylor – and her story would be told. We had a moment before each game that created emotion just before we played. It really gave our ladies, including myself, a time to step outside of ourselves, a time to step outside the nature and the hype of a basketball game and to really look at something much bigger than ourselves. So, while we got to raise awareness and share these stories, it was great for our team to be able to acknowledge something other than ourselves.”
Butts: “The campaign started with a conversation between myself and Kierra. Kierra then took it further and spoke with Coach Nell about it. After those initial conversations, Kierra, Cortnee Walton, and Sydnee Durrah [GTWBB recruiting operations and video staff members, respectively] compiled a list of the women we would be representing.
"So many NCAA teams were kneeling [in response to police brutality] but we wanted to make sure that what we did was also educational. We wanted to bring to light these social injustices. So, we had a meeting and talked about some things and then came the discussion of what we wanted to do. We loved the idea of the Say Her Name campaign. We wanted to build off the campaign that the WNBA did by dedicating their season to Breonna Taylor. But, we wanted to take it a little bit further and not only honor Breonna Taylor but honor a lot of other women who could easily be forgotten. It was very heavy as the season went along to look back and see all of these names but it was something that was necessary.”
Do you think the team will carry Say Her Name into the next season?
Butts: “I honestly don’t know but I don’t think that’s a bad idea. This is not something that’s just for now – this is something we live in, every day, and I have no problem continuing with it because we know there will be more names to come.”
Matthews: “I’d love to see how we could continue this. How do we reach more people and bring more awareness? I hope to see more of this in our upcoming season.”
We’ve seen professional and student-athletes get pushback when they raise awareness of racial injustice at games. How do you counter someone who says such messaging should be kept out of sports?
Matthews: “I think it’s great for professional athletes and student-athletes to use their platform to raise awareness. Government officials have the attention of their offices; people of other notoriety use their status and their position to push for agendas that they believe in, so I think it’s only right that athletes use their platform to freely express themselves. I don’t see racial equality as political in the least bit. I think it’s freedom of speech, so if they want to use their platform and their outlets to raise awareness for what they believe in, then I support that, and I support our ladies who choose to do so.”
Tell us about the OMED-GTWBB Race and Reel Black Consciousness Series?
Matthews: “Many thanks to Dr. Sybrina Atwaters for having these conversations with our team. I was introduced to her after seeing her on a panel. She had some phenomenal things to share about herself and OMED. So, I thought ‘How can we incorporate some of her messaging into our team, which is extremely diverse?’ I wanted to do due diligence in educating our ladies on a lot of social issues and give them a space to be honest. So, I reached out to Dr. Atwaters and she came up with Race and Reel which I just thought was so clever.
“I found it to be challenging and stimulating. Our conversations really impacted me personally, just looking at systemic racism. I’d been educated on racism in the past and how it’s still affecting Black communities today, but she challenged us to look at things right here on our campus, here in Atlanta, to see that racial inequality is right in our back yard.”
Butts: “Our athletic department was doing lots of things with our student-athletes around these topics, but we wanted to give our team more of an intimate setting, over food, to give them the freedom to be themselves and to be able to speak their minds. Rachel and I talked about some things and she mentioned OMED, which is how the ball got rolling.
“Our first session watching "Dear White People" was very comfortable and uncomfortable at the same time. Our team is Black, Italian, Spanish, Finnish; we’re from South Carolina, Michigan, Georgia – we are from all over the place. We have a very diverse team. And our coaching staff – we have members who are in their 30s, 40s, and 60s. So, everyone has experienced different things. After watching the show and talking about it, it was interesting to see how different team members interpreted it. It was great to be able to talk and to educate and it was an experience that was good for me. Afterwards, our athletes thanked Dr. Atwaters. I definitely want to continue the initiative in the fall. Obviously with Covid, we are limited on some things, but I do want to make sure that we continue these discussions.”
Fletcher: This year and last year were the most I’ve been involved with OMED since I’ve been at Tech. My sophomore or junior year was the first time I had a Black professor. I think that opened my eyes to a lot of things, on top of the death of George Floyd. Our team really took an initiative to be more involved in addressing racial inequality. Like I said before, we have a diverse team, so some of them aren’t fully aware of the history of race and the U.S.
“We started doing the Race and Reel, the whole team – including coaches and staff. We would come together once a month on a Saturday with Dr. Atwaters over food and watch a Netflix show, take notes, and then come back for a discussion. I felt Race and Reel was really impactful for us because it opened our eyes to a lot.”
Butts: “George Floyd’s death woke a lot of people up. This is why we wanted to partner with OMED. I always want to be a sounding board for our team, for our coaching staff, and point things out when something is said or done that a person may not realize is offensive. I want to point it out as a Black woman. I can’t expect everyone to understand where I am coming from but I can educate them.”
What’s next for you? What's next for the team?
Butts: “We’re getting ready for things to be opened back up on campus and having athletes on campus for unofficial visits. We will go on the road in July to recruit and he haven’t done that in over a year. Things haven’t slowed down for us, but we will take a few weeks off before we ramp up at the end of May.”
Matthews: “There’s an ongoing joke that there is no off-season in basketball! So right now, we are training a few hours each week; working on skills, honing skills, and rehabbing some athletes. Overall, the summer is the time to exhale, reevaluate and check in with ourselves. It’s the primetime for me to get our athletes feeling better after a long, hard season.”
Fletcher: “After this next season is over, I’d like to play professional basketball overseas and get my master’s degree. If I can’t do that, after I’m done playing, my goal is to be a graduate assistant with a team and use my ACC post-graduate scholarship to complete a master’s degree in criminology. I’d like to work for the FBI.”
Kierra, what does leadership mean to you?
“I don’t think I understood what that meant until my junior year. I lead by example and do the right thing. If I see something that’s unjust, I’m going to speak out against it and that’s what I’ve been doing this whole season.
“Off the court as well, I’m trying to leave a legacy outside of basketball. Eventually, the ball is going to stop bouncing, so I want to do things that people will remember me by and not just remember me as a basketball player, but as someone who tried to do good.”
Coach Butts, Kierra was awarded OMED’s inaugural Women of Color Student-Athlete Impact Award at the 2021 Tower Awards. What makes her a leader?
“That kid – she’s unbelievable! From the first time I stepped on campus two years ago, she and I immediately developed a coach-player bond and I’ve seen her leadership grow. I’ve seen her grow so much and this year was a huge year for her. For her to be able to develop her ideas and speak to our team about making a difference in this world is remarkable.
“Everyone on our team will run through a wall for her. That speaks to the person that she is. She is going to do wonders in this world.”