Florida gymnastics to bring Equality Night messages into national spotlight against Alabama

This Sunday’s Florida Gators gymnastics meeting against Alabama is special for the Gators — and for many reasons.

Initially, the meeting will air at 2:45 p.m. Eastern on ABC and will be the first regular-season NCAA gymnastics meet to be aired on a major network in the history of the sport. Second, this is an opportunity for Florida to take on the defending SEC champion and one of the premier programs in collegiate gymnastics.

And third, and perhaps most important to the Gators themselves, this gathering is Florida’s Equality Night.

What does equality night mean? For senior Savannah Schönherr, it’s about showing that this “is something much bigger than just a sport (and) fighting for equality of all kinds”.

This Florida list is dedicated to using their platforms and voices to raise awareness about issues that matter to them.

Nya Reed said a lot of this started last season when the team started talking a lot more about racial equality. She said the team held panels on “As Seen and Misconstrued Racial Discrimination.”

She said this team “knows what [they] what we stand for and what we don’t allow in the team.”

For these alligators, it was about more than speaking up. Last season, the entire Florida team was inducted into the 2021 SEC Community Service Team for their work on a variety of initiatives including Black Lives Matter, Pride, voter registration and breast cancer awareness.

And personal activism and support for causes they’re passionate about seems like something Gators – and Gators to come – are likely to continue doing.

Even before she joined the Gators roster, newcomer Morgan Hurd had consistently spoken out about anti-Asian sentiment when she once spoke at an anti-AAPI violent rally in New York City. She even used her spot in her Gators media guide bio to highlight her desire to “use her platform to spread awareness for change.”

Several Gators have already used their platforms to show anti-racist acts by kneeling during the national anthem before Florida’s first meeting. Alex Magee, Ellie Lazzari, Sloane Blakely, Savannah Schoenherr, Nya Reed and Chloi Clark were seen kneeling when they first met.

Schönherr shared her thoughts on the action on social media, explicitly linking her decision to kneel to a decision to “use my privilege to fight for the rights of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and Colored)” — something that she said Florida’s athletics and marketing teams have been incredibly supportive. Per Schoenherr, as soon as Florida’s marketing staff decided to post a statement, they “were totally on board and got (her) a graphic right away.” She felt “super supported and (grateful) for the staff (around her) through all of this.”

Lazzari and Clark also shared their support for the social justice movement on social media last season.

This isn’t the first equality gathering in Florida. Last season, the Gators gave that designation to a meeting against Missouri where Schoenherr — who is openly gay — ran to the ground with a Pride flag and both teams wore rainbow ribbons in their hair.

But Reed did mention that while the Gators had that equality gathering, they’re going to have even more this year. This season, the gathering will focus on a variety of causes supporting athletes – and it will take place through the lens of a broadcast TV show.

These Gators are clearly using their voices for something bigger than themselves, and that impressed trainer Jenny Rowland. “They don’t have to do anything to make me proud of them,” Rowland said earlier this week. “However, I am always proud that they are willing to raise their voice and use their platform for the good of all.”

Rowland is “also grateful that UF is allowing (them) to help us raise the voice(s) of student-athletes.” Personally, I am proud and fortunate that the Florida athletics program supports these athletes as much as they do.

Gators’ various plans for this meetup include Reed walking out with a Black Lives Matter flag, Schoenherr walking out with a black-fisted Pride flag, and the team wearing rainbow ribbons from Megan Skagg’s Tiny Bows Project um to support LGBTQ+ equality, with some also mixing in black ribbons.

If you haven’t heard of Skagg’s project, she has a bond that accompanies each meeting that supports a different cause she cares about. A portion of the proceeds from the tapes will be shared between the various charities. This week’s Pride ribbons support The Trevor Project, the world’s largest suicide prevention and crisis intervention organization for LGBTQ+ youth.

Skaggs has said this project is about using her extra year of eligibility – granted due to COVID erasing the end of the 2020-21 season – to give back to the community.

This week Reed and Schoenherr spoke about what they think this means for young athletes who will be watching on a main network on Sunday.

Reed said, “Growing up, it meant so much to me to see African-American gymnasts like Kytra (Hunter) and Dominique Dawes.” She thinks about “what we can do to open up those minds of little girls — because ultimately.” if it starts with young children, you change something and make a difference.”

Schoenherr said she wished there had been something like this when she was younger and that she thinks “it’s really great[for]the younger generation to see that and to see that it’s okay to be yourself and that it’s okay to be different and so okay to embrace your differences and support others who aren’t like you.”

Through this gathering, Schoenherr said, the Gators will use their platform “to show that we support each other and that we have the support in our differences as human beings.”

Reed was more succinct: For her, the message is “be true to yourself and love everyone.”

Perhaps the Gators will emerge and top Alabama with at least hundreds of thousands watching one of the most significant collegiate gymnastics meets of all time. Maybe they won’t, since Alabama has many talented gymnasts on its own roster.

But regardless of the outcome, these athletes will use their platforms — and the brightest spotlight they know as Gators — to support all kinds of causes they believe in. And I couldn’t be prouder of that.

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