Angie Torain Takes on Diversity in Notre Dame Athletics

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The Black Lives Matter movement, so prominent in the wake of George Floyd's death in May, has created within college athletic departments an urgency to emphasize diversity like never before. Within the past two months, the University of Iowa, Syracuse and Pitt have announced personnel maneuvers on the diversity front. In Kansas alone, three schools — KU, K-State and Wichita State — have done likewise. Angie Torain, an athletics administrator at Notre Dame since 2017, in June was named senior associate AD for Culture, Diversity and Engagement while retaining her previous duties pertaining to compliance. AB senior editor Paul Steinbach asked Torain to assess the racial climate in her corner of the athletics world.

What makes the timing right for positions like yours?
Diversity and inclusion have been a part of the university's goals for a while. From an athletic standpoint, we had started a diversity and inclusion council, and the thought process was that we needed someone to oversee diversity and inclusion for our department, staff, student-athletes and coaches. And then with the recent social injustice, our student-athletes speaking out, coaches and staff wanting to do some things, it was time. We couldn't wait anymore. We were in a hiring freeze at that time, but I didn't want this to be a scenario where we could not jump on this opportunity and do what we always have been planning to do. It was time to move it forward.

When you saw the footage from Minneapolis of George Floyd in police custody, what was your personal reaction?
Oh, my goodness, I probably will do it now. I cry. I vividly remember. I think I was getting ready for Zoom calls, of course, and we had the TV on. I looked at the TV, and I just could not believe what I was seeing. So, I just immediately started crying. And it took a while. As you can see, it still gets me.

Did it serve as motivation as you accepted your new position?
That was part of it all, but I would say the main thing that made me jump to this was the response of my colleagues — our coaches, staff and director of athletics. We didn't just continue with business as usual. We stopped and we talked about it, and it became the focal point of all of our meetings before we got started. And the calls or texts that I got from the staff that said, "You know what, Ang? I don't know what to say, but know that I'm thinking of you. I don't know what I can do, but I'm here for you." Those are the things that made me say, "Yeah, we can't lose this momentum. It's time to move right now."

I noticed that among the six avenues of change outlined in the "StaND Together" initiative is voting — another topic that is trending among college athletic departments as they turn election days into off days for student-athletes. Why is voting getting so much priority right now for student-athletes?
They're realizing that another means for their voices to be heard is through the voting process. I mean, I'm sure they've heard their parents tell them. There are so many social organizations that are pushing voting and so that was one of the things that our student-athletes wanted to do, to use their voice in this next election.

What do the words culture, diversity and engagement mean to you?
We talk about trying to understand where we are as a culture. We have our principal values that we work upon and that have been set out by our athletic director, but it's very important for us to touch base on what's going on in our culture. How do our staff, coaches, student-athletes feel? Are we tending to their needs? Can we have open discussions? Are we retaining our folks? Culture has always been a part of the department, so it was kind of cool to be able to keep it there. Diversity Is about being open to all different thoughts, all different types of people. We don't want the same thinking. Diversity is key to our department moving forward, being the best that we can be, being able to think outside of the box. In order to do that, you have to welcome diverse thoughts, people, etc. Engagement is more a piece of how we are going to engage more with the South Bend community, how we are going to engage with our campus. Athletics and the university campus are really intertwined, probably more so than any other university that I've worked at before — a great relationship with regards to university and athletics department. So how do we continue that engagement? How do we help our student-athletes use their voice in athletics to reach across to campus? How are we more involved in the community? There is a desire of our student-athletes to be more involved in the South Bend community, so engagement is about the university and the South Bend community as a whole.

Do diversity concerns differ depending on the sport?
You may see diversity in particular sports, and that's wonderful that you see it in football, basketball and mainly in track, but we should see it in all of our sports, right? All of our sports should have the goal or the desire to bring diverse students to campus. Not only does it help from an athletics standpoint, but it diversifies our campus as a whole and enhances the experience. Also, it's not just about student-athletes. Look at the coaching staff and administrative staff. It's one thing to bring different, diverse student-athletes to campus, but they want to see people that look like them, as well. They want to find that there's someone there they can relate to and know that we're holding ourselves accountable and ensuring that we are hiring the best individuals, of course, but also those who will bring diversity and different thoughts, different ways of coaching. Yes, we might have better numbers from different sports. It just doesn't stop there.

Is it important to look at what you are doing institutionally as well as how you can improve relationships between races on the same team?
I think it is. You have to look at both. It's an educational process for all. When students are in their classroom, being able to have the opportunity to be educated regarding diversity and inclusion. And then from a student-athlete perspective, it's more of a conversation of support for one another. Your teammates are there for you, but I think a lot of times — and this is just my opinion — student-athletes don't know how to support one another when they're in a situation where they don't have the resources or even understand or can even relate. So I think this has provided us that opportunity to say, "Okay, we need to educate all of ourselves on how we have civil conversation, how we continue to support one another, and open up everyone's eyes in this situation." But I do think it has to happen on campus, too, because the student-athletes are in class with students who they don't know just as much as they are with their teammates.

How do you go about setting up that educational process?
The wonderful thing right now is that our coaches are all in, and are already having conversations with their teams — some at the request of non-student-athletes of color and some with student-athletes of color. Our Student Welfare & Development department has also provided resources — our sports psychologists and our Staff Diversity and Inclusion director, Eric Love. So, we've already provided some resources for coaches to have these conversations with their student-athletes. Our student-athletes are asking for programs. They're taking the lead, and I'm centralizing what they want to do. If there's something that a group wants to do, let's see if there's something that another team can do or if that programming should be done by everyone. It's not solely on me to create the programming. I think we have the infrastructure on campus to help us. I'm just kind of that middle person who can make sure that we're using the resources that we have, make sure we're not leaving out anyone who could benefit from it. Will I come up with some programming? Yes. But at this point it's more letting our student-athletes use their voice and tell us what they need.

Are they aware that this new position exists and are they free to contact you directly?
Yeah. Also, I think it's awesome that our Student-Athlete Advisory Council has made it an initiative of their own to have two individuals who are focused on the StaND Together initiative. I'm working with them to ensure that the programming and the conversations that they want to have are rolling back up to our StaND Together Initiative. Believe me, I get a lot of emails from student-athletes who are ready. They're ready to move and ready to act.

This article originally appeared in the September 2020 issue of Athletic Business with the title "Notre Dame adds a name to its diversity efforts." Athletic Business is a free magazine for professionals in the athletic, fitness and recreation industry. Click here to subscribe.


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