Ashley Robinson runs a flourishing youth basketball program for girls and boys in Dallas. Combined with players that she trains, the former Tennessee Lady Vol has gathered more than 80 children under her wing during the past three years for tutelage.
At 6-foot-5, the former starting center has quite the wingspan, enough to also accommodate a wide range of thoughts and an inclination to speak her mind.
Last week, she took the conversation beyond basketball.
Robinson converted a virtual conference on Zoom with some of her girls, a weekly gathering that typically revolves around hoops, into a conversation about George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis, which has spawned a tsunami-like reaction both nationally and abroad under the broad heading of race relations.
There were 15 to 20 girls in the conference, Robinson estimated. Their ages ranged for 10 to 13 years old. There were white and black girls involved along with different ethnicities represented.
“When I was their age, that was the first time anyone said anything about the race of my best friends,” said Robinson, whose friends were mostly white. “Even then, it didn’t make sense.”
Robinson gave the parents a heads up about the conference’s subject matter and invited them to join. She also included several of her friends. Some were from the aforementioned time in her life, growing up in Grand Prairie, Texas. Overall, their backgrounds were as diverse as the children’s.
Ostensibly, Robinson wanted to be forthcoming and transparent with her players about her perspective.
“I have to fight the good fight,” she said on Monday. “I can’t do what I do with racism. I can’t do what I do with division.”
But she also wants the girls to feel comfortable talking about subjects that are uncomfortable in nature. Hence, her decision to divert the conference from basketball. She’s broached the Me-Too movement with them as well.
“It’s opened up a discussion for them to start talking to each other about it,” Robinson said. “I believe that it gives them a safe place to talk about these things. And it gives them a safe place to talk about these things with people that are different than them.”
Robinson, who has 5-year-old biracial son named Destin, refers to herself as “momma coach” with regard to her players and added, “I’m not raising girls to be quiet but to stand up for themselves.”
With her intentions in mind, I referenced her alma mater and the joint statement released on Sunday from UT athletic director Phillip Fulmer and the 15 head coaches of Vols and Lady Vols teams. The shared message was nearly 500 words in length and thought-provoking in its scope.
Specifically, the statement noted that among the life lessons taught by sports is “the less-touted ability to fully accept and embrace people who are different from us and have very different life experiences.
“On healthy teams, if you wear the same jersey as me, I’ve got your back – regardless of race or ethnicity, it doesn’t matter.”
The statement smartly asked the following two questions: “Why do these healthy cultures exist in small sports teams’ locker rooms all across the country but not in our larger communities? What can we study in a healthy team dynamic that can be applied to a metro city or a rural farm town?”
While not proposing any solutions, the thought process concluded that “if total acceptance, understanding and empathy – regardless of human differences – can coexist on sports teams, those things should be able to coexist anywhere.”
The statement’s conclusion spoke firmly and dramatically to the UT fan base in saying, “If you’re going to support our black student-athletes when they compete, please have the courage to support them and their families in their daily pursuit of peace, happiness and equity.”
In all, it was a statement to which Robinson could relate and utilize as both a mother and a “momma coach.”
Dan Fleser is a 1980 graduate of the University of Missouri, who covered University of Tennessee athletics from 1988-2019. He can be reached at email@example.com.