Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, March 29, 2024

Lady Vols get more than a game from Howard, D.C. visit

Members of the University of Tennessee and Howard University softball teams take time for a group shot. - Tennessee Athletics/UTsports.com

Students across the country travel to Washington D.C. for spring break. The Tennessee softball players did the same, only this trip had a much deeper meaning.

The Lady Vols visited the nation’s capital to learn more about Black history. They played a game against Howard University, visited several Black-owned establishments and toured the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

“Our D.C. trip was truly a cultural experience all around for me,” Tennessee graduate center fielder Kiki Milloy says. “Spending time with the Howard players and going to the museum of African American history helped me experience the Black culture that you don’t get to experience while going to a PWI (predominantly white institution) as a Black person.”

Tennessee head coach Karen Weekly first visited the NMAAHC in 2017 and says the experience changed her in ways she can’t easily explain. As a white woman, Weekly knows she can never fully understand the history, culture and hardships of Black people. But she felt compelled to ensure her visit would have long-lasting ramifications.

“It was one of the most impactful things I have ever experienced in a very sobering way,” Weekly says. “I remember being there and thinking everybody needs to see this. Everyone in the country needs to visit and learn about this.”

Weekly’s platform as a head coach gives her the power to take her team places that can enrich her players’ understanding and teach them life lessons beyond the sport.

Weekly decided to find a way to bring her team to the D.C. area for a game. She wanted to play Howard so her players could learn more about the experience of historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs). It was the first time in program history that Howard hosted a ranked team.

Howard head coach Tori Tyson helped Weekly create a travel plan that exposed the UT players to as much Black history as possible.

After the teams played, they had dinner together at Ben’s Chili Bowl, a D.C. landmark started by 91-year-old Virginia Ali and her late husband Ben in 1958. The gathering spot, which survived the 1968 D.C. riots, served as a place of comfort for civil rights leaders such as Martin Luther King, Jr., who regularly frequented the restaurant for a chili cheeseburger and conversation.

The morning after the game, Tyson and some of her players met the Lady Vols at Sankofa, a Black filmmaker-family owned and operated bookstore and cafe, before giving them a tour of Howard’s campus. The Lady Vols spent the afternoon at the NMAAHC and finished the day with a picnic lunch near the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in West Potomac Park next to the National Mall.

“After all the emotions I felt, the only way to sum it up is grateful,” says Lady Vols senior Rylie West. “I am grateful to be at a university that allows teams the opportunity to have experiences like this. I am grateful Coach Karen made this trip happen and prioritized African American history because it is American history. In the museum, there was an entire exhibit dedicated to African Americans in sports, so I leave with this quote from Nelson Mandela, ‘Sports can create hope where once there was only despair. It is more powerful than governments in breaking down racial barriers.’”

Weekly’s drive to bring her players to the district was amplified following the murder of George Floyd in 2020 and the racial reckoning that followed. Weekly had some “eye-opening” discussions with former Black UT players about their experiences in their daily lives.

“It sparked conversations that should have been talked about all the time, but unfortunately it takes an incident like that to get everyone’s attention,” Weekly says. “The problems haven’t been resolved, not even close. It’s human nature to start to just focus on other things. But we can’t just focus on it when something bad happens like George Floyd. We have to keep talking about it and understanding what needs to change.”

Tyson was happy she could play a role in enhancing UT’s cultural experience in D.C.. She would love to see more programs make time to learn about diverse cultures. It’s something sports can do better than almost anything else.

“I give Karen all the credit. People talk about doing things to be helpful and she was intentional about making this happen,” Tyson says. “It’s important that she didn’t just play us because it’s part of her team finishing a trip to the area. She brought her team to give them an experience of a lifetime and perspective that will probably help beyond their time at Tennessee.”