CHAMPAIGN — Demonstrations and protests condemning racial injustice and police violence popped up across the country in the wake of George Floyd’s death last month while in custody of the Minneapolis police.
The Illinois volleyball team discussed the issue during one of its regular team Zoom meetings, and fourth-year coach Chris Tamas put the question to his athletes.
The Illini volleyball program has a platform from which to be heard. Did any of them have anything to say?
Rylee Hinton did.
The Champaign Central graduate and sophomore on the Illinois volleyball team first reached out to teammate Kennedy Collins and team manager Michael Ryan with her idea for a video discussing how racism had affected their lives. Collins, Ryan and assistant coach Rashinda Reed, who are all also Black, provided insight and helped Hinton develop her idea. Tamas lent his support.
“We wanted something that was going to resonate,” Hinton said. “There’s a lot on social media right now, so you definitely want something that was going to make people think.”
The final product was a video lasting 1 minute, 22 seconds involving the entire Illinois volleyball team.
The video juxtaposed White athletes detailing all the issues they haven’t dealt with — how to deal with police, fearing for their safety in traffic stops, dealing with less overt but still clear racism — with Hinton, Collins and Ryan providing a simple response. They, or their family members, have.
“It’s definitely an uncomfortable conversation and it can be hard to talk about things like this, but I like it,” Hinton said. “I want people to see it. I want the message to be sent. Even though it was uncomfortable, I was happy to do it.”
People have seen it. Hinton posted the video to Twitter late Thursday morning. By Friday afternoon it had been retweeted more than 150 times, had more than 500 likes and was viewed more than 23,000 times.
“There’s oppression that happens all over the world, and unfortunately this is a bad part of our history and seems to be continuing,” Tamas said. “I just told them we have a platform to say something if they want to. … I think it was great for a lot of different reasons. I felt it had a lot of impact. There’s a lot of truth in it, too.
“The idea to have it personalized had to be OK’d by everyone’s personal stories and their families, but obviously everyone was on board.”
Hinton shared some of her and her families’ stories. Hinton herself has been accused of not being able to afford something expensive because she’s Black. She also shared that her brother has been searched by the police during a routine traffic stop and that her dad had a gun pulled on him after being pulled over by police.
“Honestly, it’s not difficult for me because I want people to know about this stuff,” Hinton said. “I want to bring awareness to it. I wish I didn’t have to share these stories, but I’m happy to see people can really understand the issues and see this happens to everyone.”
Every member of the Illinois volleyball team — players and coaching staff — filmed their part of the video at home. Hinton collected them all and sent them on to Joel Schmidt, an assistant director of video services for Fighting Illini Productions, who pieced the video together.
Approximately a month from the idea’s conception, the video was released. Seeing the final product for the first time elicited a simple reaction from Hinton.
“It was definitely a long project, so seeing it finally come out was like, ‘Wow,’” she said. “I was obsessed with it. It turned out exactly how I envisioned. I mean, even though I knew exactly what was going to be said, it was still really moving to see it all come together.
“It was definitely longer than I was expecting when I first pitched the idea. It was really interesting to see all that goes into the social media side of athletics, but it definitely took some patience in the process. The staff was great. I couldn’t have done it without them.”
The idea for the video — and the reason Hinton felt it was important to create — has brought the Illinois volleyball team closer together.
“I talked to people about these issues and uncomfortable topics that I had never talked to about it before,” Hinton said. “It was really cool to see them open up and be so willing to learn and understand. … I’ve had a lot of long conversations. It brings you closer when you talk about such serious and uncomfortable topics. I definitely would say this made me closer with my teammates — especially since this is a topic that weighs really heavy on my heart. Being able to discuss it with people closest to me is really big.”
Tamas feels the same way about how the video and the conversations about race and injustice have deepened the relationships for his team.
“Yeah, it is uncomfortable — especially if you’ve never lived it — but part of doing that is just that, having the conversation and recognizing it’s uncomfortable and just listening and trying to do your best to understand,” Tamas said. “We just want to keep helping as best we can and keep moving forward on the issue. Whenever we talk to all of our athletes, we want them to have an impact on other people’s lives and not their own. We constantly talk about the value of being on a team and being there for your teammates and helping other people out. I think this is just another extension of it. Hopefully it’s making our community a better place and impacting people all around us.”
The response Hinton and Tamas said they’ve received about the video has been overwhelming positive.
Tamas shared with the team Friday morning that he’d received positive feedback from other members of the Illinois athletic department, other volleyball programs and his friends and family.
Hinton’s experience has been the same.
“A lot of people said they were brought to tears and they were just really moved by it, which was exactly what I wanted,” she said. “I wanted it to really resonate. Of course, there’s always a few outliers who don’t necessarily agree, but for the most part I’m happy with the way it turned out and most people seemed to like it.”
Hinton’s not giving much credence to the negative responses she’s seen to the video. They might not be as prevalent, but they still happened.
“It’s really frustrating sometimes to see that and honestly kind of shocking and I actually can’t believe people could not understand at all,” Hinton said. “I try not to think about it too much. There were so many more good comments that came out of it than negative, so I don’t really lose sleep over them.”
The initial video this week, though, will just be the first. Hinton has plans for more. The 6-foot-2 middle blocker for Illinois wants to keep discussing the issue and utilize her platform as a Division I athlete as long as she has it.
“One of the things I don’t want this to be is I don’t want this to be a trend we talk about once and never really talked about it again,” she said. “This isn’t a trend. This has been going on for decades and decades, so we shouldn’t stop talking about it. I’ve talked with some of the staff, and I’m going to try and keep making more videos. There’s some important historical dates coming up that I want to make videos for. I’m hoping to get them out in the future and keep this going as long as I’m on the team, honestly.”