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Former coach J. Webb Horton leads college discussion on race

Brian Ormiston | October 19, 2020

Throughout the summer and fall, USTA Collegiate Pathway Committee member J. Webb Horton has volunteered his time to sit down with individual college tennis teams for informative one-hour discussions on race and equality. These sessions have taken place with programs at all levels of college sports.


Horton is currently the director of community outreach at Florida Gulf Coast University, where he previously served as head men’s and women’s tennis coach, as well as assistant athletic director. caught up with Horton after he led sessions with Binghamton University and Southeast Missouri State University.


Q: How did you get your start in working with college students?


J. Webb Horton: My first time working with students was when I was in college at Edinboro State College in Pennsylvania, where I played tennis and basketball and also ran track. I was involved in student politics in the late 1960s and I had friends of mine who had become teachers in inner cities in Cleveland and Pittsburgh. So they asked me to talk to their students about the college experience. After graduating, I was working for the City of Erie’s Human Relations Commission and was invited to talk to high schools about the civil rights movement.


Q: How did this idea to speak with tennis teams come about?


Horton: After the death of George Floyd, and really all of the heartbreaking situations we’re seeing, I just kept saying, ‘What is going on in this world right now and why does this mistreatment keep happening?’ A couple of friends reached out and asked me how am I addressing this issue with college students, and how can we help athletes deal with this. 


NC State women’s tennis head coach Simon Earnshaw called me and asked the same question of how do we navigate this issue for teams, especially those that aren’t football and basketball. It hit me that we, in the tennis community, need to have this conversation—because we have a wide-ranging mix of players on college rosters from all over the world. We needed to find a way to have these discussions, while also making tennis programs more relevant on campuses.

Q: What schools have you sat down with so far?


Horton: I have already had the pleasure to speak with the NC State women, Presbyterian men, Claremont-Mudd-Scripps men, Colorado State women, Luther men and women, Swarthmore men and women, Southeast Missouri State women, Louisville men and Binghamton men. And I am still working with several more to get these sessions scheduled.


Q: What is some of the dialogue that takes place between you and the teams?


Horton: You must always support your teammates because they are family. So I ask each person to write down their own family resume, and they read it to the team. That way they really get to know who each person is. Then we talk about what they can do as a team to be a part of the discussion on campus. Things like checking with their multicultural office and Hispanic student organization to see if they are having events. It would be nice to have tennis players show up and join the conversation. You can also reach out to your administration and president of the college and let them know that the tennis team wants to be involved, such as by holding tennis clinics in inner-city areas or areas where students aren’t exposed to tennis. Give back to those who need it.


One student asked me, ‘How do you handle peer pressure and how do you take a stand?’ So we talk about how you can’t let people make racist, sexist or homophobic statements. Stand as one with your teammates, your family.

Q: What do you think the teams are learning the most from these sessions?


Horton: I have them look at the book “The 15 Commitments of Conscious Leadership.”  In the book they draw a straight line; above that line is conscious leadership, below the line is unconscious leadership. To be a conscious leader, you are engaged, you listen and you want to make the people around you better. So when you look at it from a team perspective, a conscious leader or teammate doesn’t whine about where they play in the lineup. They approach a coach and ask, ‘How do I become a better teammate.’ If you’re an unconscious leader, you make excuses and it’s never your fault. So you should want to be a conscious leader because that is how you make a positive impact to those around you.


I also provide them with some historical knowledge of being black in sports, things that aren’t as well known. I let them know that the ATA (American Tennis Association) was started in 1916 because black tennis players were not allowed to compete in USTA events back then. We talk about Bob Ryland, who competed in the NCAA Championships and was the first black pro tennis player, who also won the ATA title and played in the US Open. And that 13 of the first 15 jockeys who won the Kentucky Derby were black, but white jockeys got upset and formed a union to block black jockeys.


Q: What have you learned from these sessions?


Horton: One of the things I’ve learned is… I’m impressed with the statements about social justice and Black Lives Matter that colleges—not on just the academic side, but also from athletic department—are making to take a stand on social justice. If you look at the statements from Student-Athlete Advisory Committees (SAAC), they are very powerful. I’ve learned a lot about how many colleges are trying to diversify their campuses. And that these coaches and teams I’ve talked with really want to be a positive force for social justice.


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