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Lafayette College’s First Black Woman Athletic Director Sherryta Freeman Is Making Sure She Won’t Be the Last


Sports Illustrated and Empower Onyx are putting the spotlight on the diverse journeys of Black women across sports—from the veteran athletes, to up-and-coming stars, coaches, executives and more—in the series, Elle-evate: 100 Influential Black Women in Sports.

Sherryta Freeman is used to being the only woman in the room, or the only Black person in the room—and more often than not, both. But it doesn’t scare her at all. In fact, it seems like she always finds a way to turn that adversity into velocity, propelling her onward toward her next milestone. In 2018, Freeman made history as the first Black woman to serve as athletic director at Lafayette College. Now, four years into her tenure at the Easton, Penn., campus, she’s focused on providing that representation for the college athletes around her, embodying and impacting the very future of what she hopes they’ll become.

A native of Hillside, N.J., Freeman recalls an athletic childhood as the only girl with her three brothers, steadied by her father’s consistent coaching. “I did everything. I ran track, played two-on-two basketball, baseball, kickball, soccer, whatever it was that they were doing in that backyard,” she says. “It didn't matter that I was a girl. My brothers never treated me differently, and I've benefited from that a lot.”

It was no different when she got into school and was playing on organized teams, as the only girl, from childhood through high school. “I played with boys, on boys teams, because my dad was also our coach,” she says. “He wanted me and my younger brother to be able to play together. I was always the only girl on the team through ninth grade.”

Following a tremendous (and record-breaking) high school basketball career, Freeman was recruited by Dartmouth and had the opportunity to become a Division I player and take advantage of the access that was afforded to her at a renowned Ivy League university. “I knew I was going to college for academics first,” she says. “I had the best of both worlds, but basketball opened that door for me. I wouldn’t have had all the opportunities I had without sports.”

What was perhaps most influential for her in the recruiting process, however, was an assistant coach—a Black woman—who allowed Freeman to see herself represented, and held, in the predominantly white institution in Hanover, N.H. She says it was one of the main reasons she ended up at Dartmouth.

“To know there was someone on the coaching staff that could look out for me made my parents feel comfortable sending me to the middle of nowhere, where there really aren’t many Black people. It made me feel comfortable,” she says. “You need to be able to see people who look like you that have made it, that have really achieved something and been successful, for you to believe that you can do it, too.”

Her historic appointment as the first Black woman to serve as athletic director at Lafayette College in 2018 was yet another milestone—and another opportunity to provide the same critical representation that motivated her at Dartmouth, to both college athletes and Black women pursuing careers in athletics. “You don’t see very many Black ADs, let alone Black women. Having these different levels of support, it is super important,” Freeman says.

A field study conducted by Global Sport Matters—the multimedia platform of the Global Sport Institute at Arizona State University—examining hiring patterns for NCAA athletic directors, including HBCUs, found only 74 Black hires over a period of 10 years. When breaking down what percentage of those hires were women, the stats are even more dismal. But Freeman finds comfort in the community she’s built amongst other Black athletic directors nationally. “When we see each other, whether we know each other personally or not, we know we have had a similar experience in some way, shape, or form,” she says.

The updated 2021 Diversity, Equity and Inclusion plan at Lafayette reflects Freeman’s desire to empower Black college athletes and Black faculty across the entire athletics department. In the midst of ongoing global protests of police brutality, she’s made sure to prioritize the voices of the most overlooked and the most marginalized.

“We had mandatory diversity education training for everyone,” she says. “We were able to create spaces for conversations for our student-athletes, so that folks could say, This is what it’s like to walk through this world as a Black person. We also provided that space for our staff to say, Yes, I’ve been profiled. Yes, I get pulled over. To be able to articulate that to peers, coaches and coworkers—we need to have these spaces to uplift each other.”

Freeman is also utilizing the university’s updated DEI initiatives to influence and diversify hiring processes, and to address more insidious, institutionalized racism. She says the school is prioritizing education, representation and awareness mechanisms, while also asking questions about what they are doing internally, such as: What are the policies that we need to address that are inherently holding people back? What aspects of what we do, day to day, create barriers to diversity or inclusivity? Are there financial-aid policies that need to be changed?

And by asking her white peers difficult questions about their own implication (and benefits) within these systems, Freeman hopes she’s created lasting policy change in her own institution. “We are increasing understanding, will, vocabulary and historical perspectives. It's not acceptable to just pull out your Rolodex and hire someone you used to work with, or are friends with,” she says. “Get to know people who don't look like you, so that when it's time to hire a coach or a staff member, you have a diverse pool of people that you're comfortable and confident [about].”

When asked what her advice is for the next generation of Black women student-athletes interested in pursuing leadership, coaching and directing roles after the game is over, her answer is simple—just do it.

“Be smart about what you're applying for, but be confident in your abilities. You're not going to know every single aspect of every single thing, when you walk into the door,” she says. “But are you committed to learning? Do you believe you have the leadership capacity to be able to navigate your way through it? Do you have a strong-enough staff around you to support you? And then, are you willing to commit the time to build your knowledge and experience?

“That's what you need to do. So just do it.”

Empower Onyx/Sports Illustrated present Elle-evate: 100 Influential Black Women in Sports

Naya Samuel is a contributor for Empower Onyx, a diverse multichannel platform celebrating the stories and transformative power of sports for Black women and girls.