Mario Morris: The Feeling of Juneteenth is in Our DNA

By Mario Morris

Mario Morris is the Deputy Athletics Director for Business Operations. He has been at the University of Notre Dame since March of 2019.


Growing up in Alabama, we were taught a lot about the Civil War.

We were taught that it was a war about Northern aggression, about Northern states dictating to the Southern states how to run their economy. Although we were taught this, every Black person knew this was a war about slavery.

We were taught many things about the Civil War, but never about the history of Juneteenth.

I’m embarrassed to say it, but it wasn’t until much later in life, in my 30s, that I learned about Juneteenth. As I started to research it, I found the incredible story about slaves in Texas who learned after the Civil War ended that they had actually been free for over two years because of the Emancipation Proclamation.  

And although I didn’t know about Juneteenth, I think part of me always knew a semblance of the feeling of Juneteenth. 

How celebratory an event that must have been — to finally be free. But that’s not where the story of equality begins. While Juneteenth commemorated the official end to slavery, vestiges of racism and hate continued with the enactment of the Jim Crow Laws, false imprisonment of former slaves after the Civil War and the pervasive discrimination that continues today. 

We always knew that we had to fight and struggle to have a better life. We knew that as Black people, we had to overcome. That Juneteenth feeling of celebration, of overcoming, is a part of our ancestry and DNA. 

My mother was a teenager when she gave birth to me. My parents didn’t go to college and we grew up in poverty. If you would have looked at my life early on, you would have said, “No, he is not going to make it.” 

My family thought differently, they willed me to succeed and encouraged me to use my God-given ability to make a better life. If it were not for them and the collective will of the Black community that I grew up in, I would not be here today, not sitting here as Deputy Athletic Director for Notre Dame.

I’ve had many successes in my life — graduating high school, earning a scholarship to play football at Alabama, becoming a national champion at Alabama, graduating with my finance degree, earning my law degree from Wisconsin — all of which became collective successes for my family, for the Black culture.

It is the spirit that drives us to want a better life, to overcome our significant disadvantages. When I had success, it was success for all of us, and it was an opportunity for celebration.

But no matter what our successes are, no matter what we attain in life, as Black people, we are always brought back to cold, hard reality. We are reminded things are still very difficult for people of color.

Over the past few weeks as we have learned and witnessed the horrific murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and Rayshard Brooks, we are reminded that there is still pervasive discrimination and hate in this world. We are still looked at differently. We are still seen as a threat and a menace by many. We are treated with indifference, we are hated, we are being murdered because of the color of our skin. 

It took a few days for me to be prepared to watch the video of George Floyd’s murder. Maybe it was my subconscious or maybe not. It was so painful. I cried, I was angry, I was sad, but most importantly, I was determined!

Afterward, I immediately reached out to our Athletic Director, Jack Swarbrick, and said, “We have got to move now!” 

I said our student-athletes, our staff and our community need us to step up now. Although I knew that this was not Jack’s world and he might not feel the pain like I did, I knew he was going to be an ally in this fight. He knew I was serious and he asked me to send him my thoughts on how to move forward. Simultaneously, he was reaching out to learn more about how our staff and student-athletes were doing and how they were feeling. We began with a few small steps and we are continuing to build momentum, buoyed by the spirit, character and passion of our student-athletes. 

Notre Dame has the opportunity and, dare I say, the responsibility to lead the collegiate space with regards to diversity and inclusion. We all have to take ownership, we all have to contribute to making things better.

We have a responsibility to lead and to stand with our student-athletes, staff and community to make that change.

We have a responsibility to empower our student-athletes, help them deliver their messages, and ensure those messages will be heard.

As a former student-athlete, this promise is personal. You’re brought into a system where everybody is told that they are equal. But we know that is not true. We see this every day, whether it is overt or subtle. We are often treated differently. 

Our student-athletes are resilient, but I think there are a lot of things they internalize and compartmentalize. They’re expected to focus on what’s in front of them, focus on academics, focus on athletics. There doesn’t seem to be enough time for personal reflection and personal growth. We have to make time.  

At Alabama, we had a diverse team, a diverse campus and we were always engaged in conversation. But so many issues were unspoken. The same is true today — overt discrimination or the lack of cultural competency permeate the landscape. Many people don’t care if it doesn’t seem to affect them directly.

This must change.

It’s a diverse world, so teaching our student-athletes how to engage in these conversations and not internalize them is part of our obligation.

I believe that our student-athletes must be empowered to speak up and to engage.

But it doesn’t stop there. We also must engage with our other students and staff who may not have that cultural competency and look at having bias training and cultural competency training for everyone.  

We didn’t have that when I was a student-athlete and we owe it to this generation to put that in place. 

When I began working at Wisconsin, I was proud of our efforts in creating the athletic department’s Diversity and Inclusion office in 2016. We truly were able to impact our student-athletes’ lives and Sheridan Blanford, the current Director of Diversity and Inclusion, continues that work today.

As I began at Notre Dame, that was a focus of mine. We’ve been talking about it and working through it for the past year. We haven’t moved fast enough. That’s on me. 

These times remind me that we have to accelerate these efforts. We have to support our student-athletes and staff in dealing with these societal injustices.

But what happens after the headlines fade? 

I committed to our student-athletes and staff that we will accelerate these efforts for equality. We will dedicate resources and our time in this effort. We will hold ourselves accountable.

We must engage with university leadership, athletic leadership and leaders in the community to create permanent positive change in our society. 

We must support our student-athletes by listening to them and providing them with whatever they need. We will work with our communities and make a connection. 

Diversity, inclusion and engagement efforts are not easy. It can be emotionally draining but it is our responsibility. It is time for us to ante up and kick in. 

Throughout my life I have thought of myself as a bridge-builder, bridging the cultural divide. This is the work we all must take on, that we all must stay committed to.

Although I didn’t know of Juneteenth for so many years, my ancestors’ spirit was with me all the time. 

The feeling of overcoming all the obstacles placed in front of you, fighting through the struggle and celebrating those successes as a collective community is who we are.

It’s the feeling of celebrating and of overcoming. It’s inherent in our nature. 

When one of us succeeds, we all succeed.


– Mario Morris

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