Mark Riley: Inspiring the Next Generation
Throughout Black History Month, USTA.com will feature a series of first-person essays from prominent Black voices in the tennis world. Our final installment comes from Mark Riley, the 14-year head men’s tennis coach at Kalamazoo College. Riley is also the tournament director of the USTA Boys’ 18 & 16 National Championships, traditionally held at the college, and has previously led the tennis programs at Penn, Kansas, and Drake University.
In his essay, Riley discusses the importance of activism in young people and the tremendous value of Black and brown role models in positions of power.
My whole coaching career, whether it’s men or women, Division I or Division III, I coach them all the same. I talk to my players.
I try to inspire my student-athletes to get involved by having important conversations with them. We can talk about Black Lives Matter; we can talk about underprivileged and underserved populations, about social injustice and using our platform to address some of these challenges.
I like to believe my players look up to me, and I try to make sure that we’re talking about things that are happening in the world, that way they can talk about it amongst themselves.
We’ve had talks in the team van. I vividly remember a particular discussion regarding healthcare. Two guys—one’s a dentist now, and one’s a medical doctor—they went head-to-head about what healthcare should look like and how everybody should or shouldn’t have it. It’s one of those conversations; a big idea that you are for or against.
I think the key is to have a safe, non-judgmental environment where my group can have candid dialogue and grow from the experience. If you have a group of people that you get to see every day, and they trust you, it’s the perfect environment to discuss these important topics.
I had plenty of players calling me this summer. There were protests happening in the streets of Kalamazoo. I know if it’s happening in my little town, it’s happening everywhere. Some of my former players, who I never thought would be at protests, were at protests. They wanted to talk about it. It’s really important to let your players speak up.
Sometimes you’re not going to understand how some of the players think. I’ll have players on my team that never thought outside of their own “box.” For example, I have a player who's grown up since 14 without parents. He happens to be African-American, from the north side of Kalamazoo. His understanding and how he views life is very different than his teammate from a certain neighborhood in Ann Arbor. But we all come together and learn from each other’s perspectives.
This is Black History Month, a time where many may think of their heroes and of challenges in our world. But this can’t be a one-month thing—we have to work together year-round to make the world a better place for others.
To get this to happen, I hope that we can get more of our young people to step up, and this summer was good in that respect. Unfortunately, a lot of negative things were happening. But in some way, it could be a positive because you have young people getting out of their comfort zone; they're taking the torch, protesting, peacefully taking to the streets. Having the youth involved is a big plus. If it’s only the older generation, like me, it’s like, “Mark and the old people are complaining again…”
At the US Open, Naomi Osaka was able to tell the world her story and share what she thought about all the different people of color that are being shot and killed. As the US Open champion, she used that platform and came from a place of power to talk about the injustices of the world. I really admired it. As a young woman of color, she stepped up and said, “This can get better.”
Frances Tiafoe shared his voice on social media. For being a young black man early in his career, I give him a lot of credit for voicing his opinion on how the world can be a better place for people of color.
And for some time now, Madison Keys has talked about how people should just treat each other better and be kind to each other, with FearlesslyGiRL. Do you know how much grief she takes for saying such things? People are hard on change.
There are other athletes that step up, too. I look to the NBA and Kyle Korver, somebody that I admire, who played in the NBA a long time. His mentor was Allen Iverson. Kyle has used his platform as a as a white person, a white male, to speak up. Sometimes, if a person of color puts it out there, people think they’re being over the top regarding racism. Sometimes a person that looks different than me can be a super helpful advocate for change.
I am fortunate to have my own platform and the opportunity to spend time talking to my college students and younger kids. My mother, rest her soul, always taught that we were allowed to dream. “Dreaming’s free,” she would say. Never tell somebody they can’t reach their dreams, whether that’s personally, or their dreams to make the world and society a better place.
I saw somebody of color become the president of the United States. I thought that was completely impossible. When I met President Obama at a dinner, I told him that story. When I was a kid growing up in the mid-70s as a teenager, I thought there was no way that somebody that looked like me could be president. You could be anything that you wanted, but you could never be president of the United States. I put that as a guarantee—and now I know there’s no such thing as a guarantee.
People of color, young women of all colors, they can see the number two person in leadership in the world, Kamala Harris. That’s a big deal. That enables our young girls and young women to wake up and say, “I can do that.”
I think it's really important to be a good example, so young people of color have role models to aspire to be like. If you can see it, you can do it. When I was a little kid, my twin brother Eric and I saw Arthur Ashe play Pancho Gonzales in an exhibition match in Philadelphia. So here's two brown guys playing, and we thought, “Wow, we can do that.”
That’s why, in my position as head coach and tournament director, I don’t look at it as a job. I look at it as a huge responsibility every time I walk out the door. I want to be outstanding at what I do and help pave the way, because there are not enough people of color in tennis or in other leadership roles.
Opportunity comes down to hiring decisions, and that’s where I try to open the minds of my players—of all races—before they go on to do great things and hopefully hold positions of power themselves. I think we could help each other, especially young people. When they get a chance to hire folks for their own staffs, maybe they could have a chance to hire some people that, earlier in their lives, they wouldn't be that comfortable hiring.
PHOTOS: Mark Riley at Kalamazoo College (photos taken prior to COVID-19 pandemic)
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When I was hired at Kalamazoo College, the president of the college—an African-American female, Dr. Eileen Wilson-Oyelaran—hired me. She made me feel so wanted. I was coaching at Penn at the time, at home in Philadelphia. We had won two Ivy League championships in a row and two ECACs—the first time in 40 years we were winning championships there.
Dr. Wilson-Oyelaran helped me make the decision to move to Kalamazoo, and 14 years later and many MIAA Championships earned, I’m still here. It was the first and only time in my career that I had an African-American boss. To be able to have a relationship with Dr Wilson- Oyelaran, someone in power that looked like me, was so special. She helped me become a better person, a better coach and a better executive in running the USTA Boys’ National Championships.
It was a big boost for me to be able to work for her. She’s retired now, but we still have a relationship and she’s still a mentor to me.
As I look back at the hiring process, she told me that I could do the job. She hired me to do the job, and got me to “come home” to work at my alma mater and manage two of the great legacy programs in tennis. Those are the kind of things that normally don’t happen for someone who looks like me.
That was a rarity then. Hopefully it’s not a rarity any longer.