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Virginia AD Carla Williams reflects on year of pandemic, racial reckoning and student-athletes

‘We got to see student-athletes from different teams come together across teams, across race’

OMAHA, Neb. — When Carla Williams was hired by the University of Virginia to become the first Black woman to lead an athletic department at a Power 5 conference, the actual college town the school was created in was coming off one of its worst moments in modern history.

The violent Unite The Right rally in 2017 ended in tragedy with Heather Heyer, 32, losing her life – a moment that reminded the nation that the ACC school was in fact created by the nation’s third president, Thomas Jefferson, a man who owned slaves, and that Charlottesville itself had a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee standing outside of its courthouse until the city voted to remove it just two weeks ago.

But all that aside, this week at the College World Series, Williams enjoyed her first trip to the Greatest Show on Dirt, taking in the sights and experiences — including visiting the old Johnny Rosenblatt Stadium site — and cheering on the Cavaliers, who were making their first appearance there since they won it all in 2015.

While UVA’s season came to a close after an improbable run to the College World Series with an 8-5 loss to Texas Thursday night, the school’s got a winner leading the way off the field and in life.

We caught up with the former UGA basketball standout at TD Ameritrade Park earlier this week.

How are you doing? 2020, the whole thing. All sorts of nonsense. Charlottesville has its own place in that discussion in a lot of different ways. How are you, just as an American, as a Black woman?

I’m doing great. I really am. This year was hard, but it was hard for everyone. And I felt like I learned a lot, experienced a lot, grew a lot. It was difficult because of all of the racial injustice, social justice, it was just really hard. It was hard for our student-athletes. It was hard for our staff. It was hard for our coaches. And so, it’s easy for me to not take care of myself and take care of everyone else.

But, we took time. My husband and I, and our children, we had a lot of conversations about what was happening. And that was really good. And our student-athletes, we had a lot more meetings. You would think with the pandemic, you’d have less. But, actually, Zoom helped us have a lot more contact. It’s good.

Athletic director Carla Williams of the Virginia Cavaliers watches from the stands in the first half during a game against the Abilene Christian Wildcats at Scott Stadium on Nov. 21, 2020, in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Ryan M. Kelly/Getty Images

Your student-athletes in a situation like that, they look to you in a different way than they might look to somebody else to lean on. How do you think that affected their ability to open up, as well?

Quite frankly, I felt like everyone looked to me in this [past] year. And that wasn’t easy. But, I do think the student-athletes were very open. We had a lot of very candid conversations, and I felt like I was able to share my experiences with them. And I think it’s good for them to see that, hey, you can go through challenging times and still reach your goals and your dreams. You just got to fight through it. So, it’s funny because this year probably created an opportunity for us to talk more than we would have normally, for sure.

That’s kind of the weird, I don’t want to say, blessing, but, that’s what we’ve all sort of done. We’ve reckoned with each other, as much as we’ve reckoned with ourselves.

But they were conversations that needed to happen. And it’s not like this year was when everything happened. It’s been culminating. And so, they had an opportunity, a platform to talk, which was really good, because they needed it. And I didn’t realize how much they needed it until we actually started talking. And I realized, wow, this is a heavy burden.

I know you’re obviously referring to everybody, but there’s a very big difference between, frankly, the Black folks on campus, specifically in Charlottesville, and other athletes. I’m sure it was more than the Black folks that were coming to you, in terms of what to do.

Yeah. Because you know what, they’re teammates. And oftentimes, the locker room is different. And they wanted everyone. Their white teammates wanted to learn more. They wanted to know more. They wanted to understand. So, we were involved in a lot of conversations, not just with the Black student-athletes, but with their allies, as well. And that was great, too, because we got to see student-athletes from different teams come together across teams, across race.

So, that was good to see. But, yeah, the Black student-athletes struggled. It was a difficult year, and they wrestled with a lot, and wanted to figure out how to help, how to make a difference.

The Charlottesville factor, though, is very real. In terms of what the eyeballs have seen in that city, never mind it’s on that campus. How has that grown for you, positively or otherwise, in your time in town?

I’ve said it before. I was not at UVA when that happened in August of ’17. And then, I got the job in October of ’17, and a lot of my family members and friends were like, ‘Are you sure?’ And I said, ‘You know what? I am.’

But, when I looked at it, most people. … I looked at those folks who came to Charlottesville for that. I mean, the goal was to intimidate, to scare people, to terrorize people. And I’ve worked too hard to get to where I am, to let that be a deterrent for me.

It was a motivation to come and be a part of something special. So, it didn’t bother me. And I feel the same. … I think our student-athletes, our coaches, our staff, they have the same feeling as I do, is that I’ve worked too hard to let someone else intimidate me out of an opportunity.

What have you most learned about yourself? Not just over the course of this last year, but you know, first Black woman to lead a school in a Power 5 conference, etc. People keep repeating that. And it becomes just like, ‘Well, listen, I’m a person, too.’

What I learned about myself is that I have a lot of influence from my position. So, before growing up in the industry, I knew I was a role model and that was great. But, being in this position, I realized, you know what? This is a different level of influence and impact.

And so, I love the fact that our Black student-athletes look at me as a role model. Quite frankly, all of our student-athletes look at me as a role model. And so, it’s good to be able to be an example. … For them to see me and see that they can do this, I’m hearing from more and more.

I do mentor calls from young, aspiring Black female administrators, primarily. We do Zoom calls. And that’s one of the most satisfying things that I do, are those mentor calls. I mentor. I am an individual, but we are a group. And so, that didn’t happen before I was athletic director.

So, you brought that to the table?

Mm-hmm [affirmative]. And so, I’ve learned that I can make a bigger difference than I thought.

Clinton Yates is a tastemaker at Andscape. He likes rap, rock, reggae, R&B and remixes — in that order.