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How Wrestling Can be a Platform for Social Justice

By Matt Krumrie | Oct. 08, 2020, 11:32 a.m. (ET)

Lee Kemp is one of the most accomplished wrestlers in United States wrestling history and has a laundry list of accolades to back that up. Seven-time national champion. Three-time World Champion. Three-time NCAA champion. The list goes on.

Kemp achieved all of this despite facing/overcoming several off the mat challenges throughout his life, chronicled in detail in the documentary Wrestled Away: The Lee Kemp story.

That included racism and discrimination. Even today, as he speaks on topics related to social justice and race, he faces backlash — even from peers within the wrestling community.

But it won’t stop him from advocating for change and expressing his beliefs.

"This is the Lee Kemp you don't know," says Kemp. "I am a person and I can have an opinion. But some people don't like that. I've had people who I respect in the wrestling community send me direct messages criticizing me. Others say 'Lee can we talk' because they wanted to hear from me at a deeper level. That's how intelligent people discuss things, they talk things out in a civil manner. But it doesn't always happen that way. Especially with social media.”

Kemp has expressed his views on social justice, racism, the Presidential election, and much more. Wrestling coaches emphasize the importance of getting comfortable being uncomfortable. That doesn't translate off the mat to one of the greatest wrestlers in American history. People, on social media have told Kemp that if this country is so bad and he doesn't like it here, he should just leave.

It doesn't phase Kemp.

"It's interesting that when I was in the wrestling room and having success, it was an equal playing field," said Kemp. "I was just another guy on a team, even though I was black and the others were white, we were considered equal. When people look into sport, there is no racism. But that's not how life is. Walk outside the wrestling room, and it all changes."

Kemp recently shared his story and insight with members of the Columbia University wrestling team during a Zoom call.

"The conversation Lee had with our team was one of the most impactful things I've witnessed during my tenure as Head Coach at Columbia University," said Zach Tanelli, Columbia University wrestling head coach. "Lee was open, genuine, and sincere with his feelings and the stories he shared."

Tanelli continued: "One of the hardest things when delivering a message to college students is being relatable. To get on their level so that the message isn't received as being talked down upon. Lee's accomplishments speak for themselves, but they also give him instant credibility among the team as a wrestler. He's one of their own. It changes the narrative and context around a topic like social justice, which may cause young people to put guards up. It helps create empathy and forces our student-athletes to listen, perhaps more than they would under normal circumstances because Lee is part of their family. Tough, perceivably uncomfortable conversations through the perspective of someone that our men aspire to be like transforms Lee's experiences and makes them a somewhat "shared experience" for our team. Our team will never truly know the obstacles that Lee had to overcome during his life and his athletic career, but I think this conversation might give a deeper meaning and purpose to them if they can help educate and advocate. I think that helps create change. When someone you know and care about was affected, you inherently take a deeper interest in what the cause of that pain was."

Kemp, Tanelli, Afsoon Johnston — an Iranian born girl who overcame being an immigrant, minority, and female wrestler to become the first American woman to earn a World Championship medal in wrestling, and Victoria Diaz, Media and Communications Manager for Wrestle Like A Girl and gender equality and equity advocate, share their thoughts on how wrestling can be a platform for social justice.

Zach Tanelli, Head Coach, Columbia University Wrestling

"As the head coach of Columbia University's wrestling program, I have a responsibility to guide these men in far more ways than wrestling. Our country has never been more divided and I hope that more people than myself would like to see that change. With COVID-19, and the physical separation that it has created, it has been difficult to use our wrestling program as a platform to fight for social justice in the ways that I envisioned. Now and in the future, we are planning events and speakers (like Kemp), people whose road through life should be recognized and whose perspective is important as ever. Columbia Wrestling (as well as other programs at the University) have committed to the "Ivy Promise," which is an Ivy League initiative launched by the 16 Ivy League basketball programs, working to achieve reform and stand for justice, education, and support of our communities.

“I think we can all take a step back and be real with ourselves about what is taking place in our communities. Systemic racism is real. White privilege is real. There are more opportunities for white males than any other demographic that exist in this country. It isn't political, it's not right or left, it's just truth. We need to recognize that there are people that are under-represented, whose voices are not often heard, and be leaders in our community by listening and then acting.

“I deliver the following message to my team often. For every matter at hand, there are really only two options: right or wrong. There are a lot of ways to do the right thing and there are a lot of ways to do the wrong thing, but in the end, those are the only two options. Social justice means something different to every single person, but in my opinion, it's really as simple as doing the right thing. We need to change the system and that takes time, but frankly, we don't have any more time. We can all move our personal needles each day, do better and choose right, in every interaction or circumstance, big or small.”

Afsoon Roshanzamir Johnston, an Immigrant from Iran and the First American Woman to Earn a World Championship Medal

Afsoon Roshanzamir Johnston is an Iranian born woman who overcame tremendous adversity to become an American success story. She also became the first American woman to earn a World championship medal in wrestling (1989/47 kg/103.5 lbs). Roshanzamir added a World silver medal in 1990 and continued competing on the national level for a decade. She made four U.S. World Teams, won three U.S. Open national titles, and brought home international medals from events in France, Russia, and Canada. She wrote about the hardships and injustices she overcame being an immigrant, minority, and female wrestler in her new book Afsoon - Iranian Girl Overcomes Adversity to Become American Success Story.

"As wrestlers, we must realize that we are in the public eye and have influence. We need to use this influence in a positive manner and step into a leadership role. We can use our voice on social media or in-person to speak up against any injustice that we witness. We can educate ourselves and have a base of knowledge of mistakes that have happened in the past, to make sure these mistakes are corrected and not repeated. Social justice to me means equality and opportunity for all human beings regardless of our race or gender. The sport of wrestling has been around for a long time but hasn't always offered the same opportunities or equality. It is definitely improving, but it still has a ways to go. I have definitely experienced that as a female minority first hand. This is important because we can do better and we can improve on how we have handled social justice, in wrestling, in our communities, and in this country. As wrestlers, many of us have experienced a match that we have lost, but we have learned a great deal from that loss. As wrestlers, we have been thought to persevere, and learn from our mistakes and come back to win and be better for future matches. Wrestling teaches many lessons that we can apply to our everyday lives."

Victoria Diaz, Media and Communications Manager for Wrestle Like A Girl

Diaz is a former Division III soccer player at Johnson and Wales and a social media expert who dual majored with a B.A. in media and communications and B.S. in sports, entertainment, event management, and gender equality and equity advocate. She was promoted to the Media and Communications Manager for Wrestle Like A Girl (WLAG), a nonprofit organization that empowers girls and women using the sport of wrestling to become leaders in life, after completing her dual internship with both Wrestle Like A Girl and USA Wrestling’s Media and Communications teams.

"WLAG’s motive is to create an increasingly more diverse and inclusive sport for all. The majority of athletes play their sport because they love and enjoy it. Simple. Athletes must feel welcomed to encourage and motivate their drive to continue wrestling. They must feel their voice is heard and they matter. We are their platform to amplify their voice. We encourage other entities such as USA Wrestling and other related organizations to do the same.

“Education is the key to change. Regardless of your personal views or opinions, the goal is to unite all for the greater good. The one thing the entire wrestling community has in common; we all love wrestling. Period. Using the mat as a space of peace, and common ground where all feel respected and welcomed will be the driving force.”

Wrestling can make an impact by:

  • Providing resources at the local and national level.
  • Encouraging the audience to reach out and have the willingness to learn via film, books, websites, social media pages.
  • Encouraging local clubs and rec coaching staff and management to recognize how their organization can improve, including diversity and inclusive training (People of Color, Minorities, Abilities, LGBTQI+)

“People must be willing to have uncomfortable conversations to grow and learn,” says Diaz. “The overarching theme is Education. Education sparks inspiration. Inspiration leads to activation. Activation leads to change.”

Some examples WLAG introduced:

  • Conversations of Hope Series — a space where athletes and leaders in wrestling share stories and experiences to help amplify voices and create a more diverse and inclusive space for all in wrestling.
  • WLAG is currently working on are Advocacy Groups that will be run by athletes, coaches and administrators alike: Black Wrestling Association, Hispanic/Latino, LGBTQI+, Asian Pacific Islander, and so on.

Without awareness, there is no diversity and inclusion. Without diversity and inclusion, there are barriers to entry in the sport of wrestling. Through this, opportunities to achieve and succeed in life through wrestling become limited and damaging both for the individual, organization, and wrestling entirely. This goes for all sports.

As Nelson Mandela states, “Sport has the power to change the world. It has the power to inspire. It has the power to unite people in a way that little else does. It speaks to youth in a language they understand.”

Wrestling is the catalyst for change within itself. Wrestling must be a place of peace, understanding and camaraderie. The only way to achieve it is when organizations, executives, leadership, athletes, and coaches are willing to educate themselves and others to inspire to take action for change.

Kemp, who has spent his lifetime facing challenges that are now at the forefront of social justice reform is continuing to advocate for social justice. But even now doing so, has been called a racist for fighting for racial equality. But none of this is new to Kemp. It's just new to other people who have avoided these topics/conversations in the past.

"Education is the key," says Kemp. "Learn about history. Take the time to understand the issues affecting this country, now, and in the past. People don't want to be uncomfortable so they avoid these topics. They don't have to be uncomfortable, these conversations can be educational."

Tanelli left that Zoom call inspired to make a difference, also calling it "a personal opportunity for me to learn," he said. "I have athletes of color on my team and staff and I have a responsibility to each of them to be better. To listen. To hear. To learn. I never want to stop working on myself to be the best version of myself that I can possibly be. Lee's words helped give me more perspective which will only help me in all aspects of my life and the role I play in the lives of others."

There is nothing more important than this topic right now, says Tanelli.

"It has nothing to do with wrestling and I say that with no hidden agenda. This is about my son and the type of man I want him to grow up to be. The type of community I want him to be a part of. And the type of leader I want him to be within that community. It's about his generation and the generations that follow him. That's where the change will be seen and the impact of this education will be made. We are all here to lift people up, not pull them down. Empathy and vulnerability are characteristics of the strongest, most respected people in my life. Those characteristics are often viewed negatively in this sport, but we have to do the work to change this."


USA Wrestling Statement on Social Justice