Vanderbilt football alum spearheads NCAA’s inclusion efforts

Sports

"I represent the underrepresented."

Tulsa head coach Philip Montgomery, right, is congratulated by athletic director Dr. Derrick Gragg after an NCAA college football game against Central Florida on Saturday, Nov. 19, 2016 in Orlando, Fla. Tulsa won 35-20. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)

INDIANAPOLIS. Ind. (WKRN) – One year ago, everything changed.

It changed drastically and painfully for one man’s family and friends, but the impact reverberated across a nation.

On May 25, 2020, George Floyd was murdered by former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin.

Seven hundred miles away in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Derrick Gragg stared long and hard at a job posting: “NCAA Senior Vice President of Inclusion.”

At the time, Gragg was serving as the athletic director for the University of Tulsa.

“I was very interested in it when I saw it posted, but after I saw the initial posting and talked to my wife about it, about 6 days after that, George Floyd was killed,” said Gragg, who played wide receiver for Vanderbilt from 1988 through 1991.

“For me, the platform for this position, it went from just what I think of being a very important or significant diversity and inclusion role, into what I think is one of the most premier out-front roles of this sort in all of higher education.”

Gragg landed the position in the middle of a pandemic. Despite the virtual challenges, the role itself was an easy transition with his background in athletics, both as an administrator and student-athlete. But his natural calling to be a trailblazer made it a no-brainer.

“My mom helped integrate a high school back in 1965 with a handful of other black students in Huntsville where I’m from. She’s always been a pioneer,” he said. “So for me in my career, I’ve always been a pioneer, too. Whether that’s fortunately or unfortunately, everywhere I’ve gone, I’ve probably been the first or the only African-American a lot of times.”

From athletic director to senior administrator, the crux of the job has always been the same.

“I represent the underrepresented.”

Through working for the NCAA, he primarily represents student-athletes. The response and social justice movements were front and center on college campuses and with student-athletes themselves. Whether it was Tennessee football’s Trey Smith leading a Black Lives Matter march on campus or Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence being the unofficial face of change for college athletics, young people spoke up.

“People like to be brave, but there’s also some fear involved. I tell people all the time, young people are the people that lead movements. For instance, Martin Luther King lead the Montgomery County bus boycott back in 1955. He was only 26 years old and I think back to when I was 26 and what I was doing.”

Gragg’s task is to take what has already been sparked by student-athletes and make it more impactful. His challenge is to elevate their voice and ensure the right people listen.

“It goes back to what we’re calling critical conversations. Critical, necessary. Some people call them difficult or uncomfortable,” said Gragg. “We’re encouraging coaches and campus administrators to lean in and listen to the student athletes.”

In order to listen, the message needs refinement.

“They started out really at the forefront of the movement really making a lot of demands and what I’ve tried to reinforce with a lot of them, is when people in power hear the word “demand,” they’ll dig their heels in. So lets talk about the language or what it is you really want and I don’t think it’s anything that’s really unattainable or something that’s hard to do, it’s about messaging.”

Gragg has met with student-athletes virtually but hopes to see them face-to-face and harness their power and voice. Additionally, the conversation about how to create meaningful change extends beyond the NCAA.

“We want to pull as many people as we can. Like-minded individuals, mainly in the sports world…I’ve been on national calls with professional organizations, all the chief diversity officers from the NFL, the NBA, MLB, MLS, NASCAR, and some of our commonalities and how can we get together. We want to work with the coaches associations and try to ensure that our student-athletes, through those legislative groups, do have another voice, a seat at the table and can help inform rules and regulations as we go forward.”

As a former student-athlete and current student-advocate, his message hasn’t changed.

“You always have to climb yourself out of the valley. Clean yourself up, dust yourself off and then when you win, I tell people all the time, celebrate. Celebrate the moment, but then you have to dust the confetti off at the end of the day, catch a deep breath and then what I say is, run back down into the valley, and go get someone else. So that’s basically the way that I lead.”

The grind hasn’t stopped for Gragg since he stepped out of his cleats and into servant’s shoes. His work is never done. The heat was turned up on May 25, 2020, but the flame hasn’t and won’t die down.

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