While legendary basketball coach John Wooden was respected and revered for his 10 NCAA championships, his true legacy lies elsewhere.
He was a mentor and loved by his players. He not only guided them on the court, but off it.
“Sport does not build character; it reveals it,” Wooden once said.
For Meredith Whitley, an assistant professor in Adelphi University's physical education, health studies and sports management department, Wooden's words could not ring more true.
With her research focused on sport-based youth development, sport for development and peace, and global sport and development, Whitley has made a career out of giving back to and teaching those who haven't had the opportunities she's had.
This past summer, Whitley, a 30-year-old who now lives in Manhattan, put her research into practice. She and colleague Alicia Johnson traveled to Uganda after receiving a faculty grant from Adelphi. With a goal of bringing sports to women, they spent most of July in Lira, a city of approximately 109,000 people in northern Uganda.
“I would hope that the approach that we took was empowering to those women in believing in their own ability to change the lives of women around them,” Whitley said.
Sport since the beginning
Whitley knows firsthand the benefits sports can have, particularly in women’s lives.
A pioneer in her hometown of Gloucester in southeastern Virginia, she played on the boys’ soccer team from age 9 to 13. She later found her niche in basketball, which brought her to New York University. A member of the women’s basketball team for two seasons, she majored in history with a minor in computer applications but secured five sports-related internships as an undergraduate.
“I knew what I wanted to do long-term,” she recalled.
Having been heavily involved in sports since her youth, pursuing a sports-related career was a logical conclusion for Whitley. When injuries ended her playing days, she refocused her efforts to give back to a sport that had opened doors for her.
After graduation, she worked as the assistant women's basketball coach at Hamilton College for one year. Although she enjoyed “getting to know the athletes, helping them out and mentoring [them],” the experience wasn't what she expected.
“The job wasn't the right fit for me,” she said.
Whitley found her way to Boston University and graduated with a master's degree in counseling with a specialization in sports psychology in 2008. While she recognized the process “wasn't as thoughtful as it could’ve been,” it was there that she found her calling.
She returned to a mentoring position at a high school in a low-income area of Boston and began to recognize, just as Wooden did, how sport could be used as a tool to help student-athletes succeed off the court: in academics, in society and in life.
“It was exciting and fun to work with that population of students,” she said.
Invigorated by the experience, Whitley wanted to learn more. This curiosity led her to the doctoral program in kinesiology at Michigan State University, where she studied under Daniel Gould, the director of MSU’s Institute for the Study of Youth Sports. Whitley journeyed with him to South Africa and learned how sport is used for development in underserved communities there.
Stateside, Whitley enlisted other students and developed the Refugee Sport Club, a non-profit organization in Lansing, Mich., that serves refugees in local communities. Although the experience was part of her doctoral studies, Whitley saw it as more than just research. She enjoyed engaging the youth and assisting them with their transition to American culture.
From Long Island to Uganda
After earning her Ph.D., Whitley arrived at Adelphi in fall 2012 and realized the opportunity was available to combine her wealth of experience and further advance her fieldwork through the faculty grant.
Johnson, whose research at the University of Tennessee is focused on sport and gender equity, had spent time in Uganda and Whitley reached out to her shortly after arriving in Garden City.
The two met through the Association for Applied Sport Psychology, as Whitley was a regional representative at Johnson's first conference. Johnson called Whitley “incredibly welcoming” and “one of the major reasons” why she got involved in the association. They kept in touch through their mutual interest in sport for development.
“She reached out to me indicating that she was interested in doing a research project abroad and was wondering if I would be interested in collaborating with her in Uganda,” Johnson said. “I, of course, said yes and the rest is history!”
Ultimately, the duo set out on a project entitled “On the ground in Uganda: Exploring the role of sport and physical activity in promoting gender equality and female empowerment.” Whitley and Johnson worked in tandem with a group of local women to determine the needs of women in the community and how they could be fulfilled.
“We were looking at ways that this group could empower other women in their community,” Whitley said. “Our idea coming in was that it could be through sport and physical activity.”
From there, the group's vision took on a life of its own. The group felt that while bringing sport to women in the community was important, they also wanted to focus on empowering them in a variety of ways. These included advancing education, health and spirituality.
Although they came to Uganda expecting to implement a set of ideas, Whitley and Johnson took a backseat and allowed the group to dictate the process. They helped set up meetings and held basketball clinics with a group of young women in the community. While they left Uganda having a completely different experience than they expected to, their journey was still a success.
“We not only were able to accomplish some of our goals even with all of the challenges we faced, but we also gained an even stronger relationship out of the trip,” Johnson said. “Not many people, let alone colleagues, could share a room for three weeks. But Dr. Whitley and I were able to and we are still friends and colleagues after the fact!”
For Whitley, the journey to Uganda was just another opportunity for her to pay it forward.
“I'm always learning and I think it was an incredible learning experience for me,” she said. “I think I learned a lot that I can take back to the classroom and share with students. I can get them thinking, and I really like that.”