Dec. 5, 2016Vol. 47, Issue 3

Language Matters More Than Ever to Student-Athletes

'We Don’t Say' campaign reaches millions; Kendall Hall display runs through December

Student-athlete Haley Kroll got the campaign idea from a similar campaign at Duke University and brought it to Chico State because she was so moved by its powerful message.

Sometimes the strength of your resolve is not revealed until you have the courage to take a stand.

The members of Chico State’s Student-Athlete Advisory Committee, more commonly known as SAAC, recently learned that valuable lesson when they chose to take a stand with the “We Don’t Say” campaign. They produced a series of 20 posters and a video in an effort to spark discussion and communicate to their peers that the language we use matters—and the discussion reached wider than they ever imagined.

The campaign was paid for through a National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) diversity grant. Chico State's Creative Media and Technology department produced a video and posters with images of the University’s student-athlete leaders next to words they “don’t say.” The posters were displayed on the walls of the Strength and Conditioning Center and are featured in Kendall Hall during the month of December.

As the student-athletes tackled phrases such as “man up,” “that’s so gay,” and “just kill me,” giving a rationale behind each stance, they experienced the power of language firsthand in the days following the campaign launch on October 18.

The campaign went viral, with widespread reactions across multiple social media platforms and featured by local and national media via blogs, podcasts, opinion pieces, editorials and news stories. People across the nation were divided in their reactions, expressing emotions ranging from admiration to outrage.

When the comments began pouring into the Facebook posts, the student-athletes experienced a rollercoaster of emotions. They were threatened, called names, and even had their physical appearances mocked. For most of them, anger gave way to sadness and frustration.

“I expected the campaign to get some backlash, but I was still emotionally affected by it,” said SAAC Co-President Haley Kroll. “It showed me why we did this campaign. Even words from complete strangers can have a negative impact on your life.”

The winds of dissent were loud. And though the student-athletes were admittedly shaken and left cold by some of the 23,000-plus comments the Facebook post received, they wound up more committed to the foundational truth they stood for—language matters—than ever.

“If you believe in something enough to commit to taking a stand, no matter the results, you have to stand by what you believe in,” said men’s soccer player Dylan Wakefield. “You have to ride out the storm.”

When the clouds broke, the success of the campaign is what shone through. It may have received some loud, negative response. But the positive response was larger—and louder. 

Students in the new Strength and Conditioning Center take a break to read the posters' messages.

Students in the new Strength and Conditioning Center take a break to read the posters' messages.

The Facebook post has been liked more than 30,000 times and shared more than 8,400 times. The press release is the most widely read post in the history of the Chico State Athletics website. And the Twitter post has more engagements (2,500-plus) than any other in the history of the athletics department’s feed.

Faced with the question of whether to carry on, each student-athlete chose to stay the course. Their resolve allowed the administrators who had spent days discussing how to protect and defend them to turn their focus to the positive response the campaign was getting.

Educators were writing in and asking for permission to hang the posters in their classrooms. Coaches asked for permission to do a similar campaign with their teams. Thoughtful conversations were taking place online and in the community. And some professors were using the opportunity to have discussions about language in their classrooms.

“A lot of people on campus approached me to talk about it,” said men’s basketball player Jalen McFerren. “I even had some conversations with people in my family about the way we use language.”

Positive encouragement from members of the University’s faculty, staff, and administration, including President Gayle Hutchinson, helped the student-athletes to feel supported.

“Having the administration’s backing really helped,” said Kroll.

Praise also poured in from across the landscape of collegiate athletics. Matt Jones, the senior associate director of athletics at Delta State in Cleveland, Mississippi, wrote to say: “Your department’s campaign is bold, thought-provoking, and timely. I shared it with our coaches, staff, and student-athletes today.”

David McCoy, an assistant professor in the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders at Chico State, discussed the campaign in his classroom, asking his students to consider whether language does matter and what are the implications for the language we use, among other points. He also asked his students to write down any actions they would take as a result of the campaign.

Some students pledged to attempt changes in the way they communicate.

For at least one member of the campaign—baseball player Clayton Gelfand—that makes the campaign worthwhile.

“Keep it going. If this helps or changes one person, our campaign made a difference,” Gelfand expressed via email when the negative responses were rolling in.

The effects of the campaign will be hard to quantify moving forward. But the student-athlete leaders can be sure that they made a difference. Maybe greater than they’ll ever know.

After all, it was two summers ago when Kroll came across a Buzzfeed article about the original “We Don’t Say” campaign, launched by students at Duke University.

The campaign was so powerful to her that Kroll set out to see if Chico State’s student-athletes could do something similar. What Kroll did not notice were the mocking, threatening, and hateful comments underneath those powerful images that compelled her to make a positive difference.

“I found the campaign itself to be so powerful that I honestly didn’t even notice any of the comments on there,” said Kroll. “I hope that the same can be said about our campaign. Regardless of who says what, we’re confident that we are taking a powerful stand for inclusive language and the importance of paying attention to what you are saying. And we are proud of that, now more than ever.”

The posters from the “We Don’t Say” campaign are now on display in Kendall Hall. 

DingXin Cheng, Civil Engineering, was awarded the O’Connell Endowed Faculty Chair.


Civil engineering professor DingXin Cheng was awarded the O’Connell Endowed Faculty Chair. Read more.

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