Duke athletes lend voices to powerful 'You Don't Say' campaign

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A viral campaign that has gained national attention features Duke student-athletes speaking out against harmful words and phrases they hope to eradicate from the community. (WTVD)

When Kendall Cooper plays basketball, she exudes strength and physicality. Off the court, though, the power of one word can easily defeat her -- "retarded."

"It means so much to me because my brother, growing up he was called it a lot. So I take offense to it, even though it's not me per se," said Cooper, a sophomore on the Duke women's basketball team. "You know when somebody in your family is bullied for a speech impediment that they have, you take it to heart."

For her teammate, Oderah Chidom, trash talk her all you want but don't call her this word -- Oreo.

"I don't feel like I should be able to be characterized as a certain race. So I mean it was a word that stuck to me because ever since I've been growing up, I've been hearing it," the sophomore forward said. "I just wanted to bring it to light and let people know that it's pretty offensive."

Both players revealed said feelings in Duke University's powerful "You Don't Say Campaign". The second phase of the viral project started as a collaboration between two student organizations, Think Before You Talk and Blue Devils United. The first phase launched last spring to great success, but with the second installation, campaign founders hoped to move in a different and potentially more impactful direction.

"At Duke, our athletics culture is really just inherent to the way we do things around here, and it's hard to imagine Duke University without Duke basketball and the Cameron Crazies," said campaign co-founder Daniel Kort. "All the culture that comes with that is this big microphone around our athletics teams. So we felt that by featuring student-athletes in the campaign, we could help the message carry even further."

Pictures of the Duke student-athletes were taken by Shayan Asadi and appear on Facebook and Twitter. Some of the messages portrayed feature the disapproval of offensive words or phrases like, "throw like a girl," "no homo," and "slut" from the student-athletes that chose them.

"Some of them were just feelings that people had, like 'I just really don't like this word, I don't like what it means,' and then other athletes chose to do ones that were a little more personal," said Athlete Ally vice-president and senior Duke rowing team member Tara Dalton. "Some people did things about body image or being an immigrant to this country and what that means to them or mental health."

"With Athlete ally, we normally focus mostly on LGBTQ issues and talk about that kind of stuff, but we wanted to make this project a more individual experience for people because there's so many more marginalized groups than just people in that community," said Dalton's teammate and Athlete Ally executive member Lauren Miranda.

Social media has helped spread the campaign's message to national outlets like Buzzfeed and Huffington Post, but it's the impact close to home that's really made the difference.

"We call ourselves a family, like Duke Athletics is a family, and this sort of really made it feel like that and showed how everyone just kind of came together," Miranda said.

"It sparks it because people see those posters, and they know the people in them, and they can go talk to them about it," said campaign co-founder Jay Sullivan. "I think it helps to create a really healthy dialogue on this campus and create a more inclusive environment."

"You Don't Say" also opened up a new discussion about how we as a society views athletes off the field.

"I feel like I'm a person," Chidom said. "Basketball's something I do, and it doesn't define who I am. I feel like I have a voice, and this campaign's allowed me to project it."

"I think athletes kind of get pushed out of that and get looked down upon because they think, 'Oh they're just here because they can run a mean 400 or throw a football,'" Miranda said. "Really, athletes are just as engaged as other students and care just as much about these issues as other students."

Despite primarily positive feedback, some criticism for the campaign falls on the issue of free speech and limitations. Members of the project insist that they aren't trying to hold anyone's vocal rights hostage.

"We're not trying to outlaw words," Kort said. "Free speech means that you can't be prosecuted for the words that you use, but it doesn't make you exempt from the social consequences that you'll suffer from using language that others don't like."

While flyers and posters of the campaign appear on Duke's campus, moving forward, campaign members hope to have these powerful images shown on video boards before Blue Devils athletic events in order to continue a path towards a tolerant community.

"I think that this campaign can really inspire a more aware bystander culture," Kort said. "When we overhear a teammate or a classmate or another peer using language that could be construed as derogatory towards others, there will be people in the room who have hopefully seen this campaign and our message and will have them be inspired to speak up."

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