Sports, Athletics

Like Her Mentors Before Her, Jocelyn Gates Seeks To Be A Champion for Students

Jocelyn Gates’ phone bill has probably never been higher than it was for the four years she worked at the University of South Florida. 

Call after call and text after text went out to athletics administrators across the country trying—begging—to schedule football games. On the receiving end of most of those countless calls and text messages? Martin Jarmond, who at the time worked for Ohio State University. 

After Jarmond turned Gates and USF down once, she resolved to text him at least once a month until he agreed. 

“He needed to know I was serious about getting this game,” Gates said.

It was a tall task, seeing as USF wasn’t—and still isn’t—a Power Five program, while Ohio State certainly was. Every text she sent elicited the same response: no. To this day, USF still hasn’t played Ohio State in football. But it wasn’t for a lack of trying on Gates’ part. 

“She almost wore me down,” Jarmond said. “That is a real talent and skill of hers: that she can connect. And you see it as an administrator because she can talk to student-athletes, she can talk to staff and administrators on campus—she connects well with people. And that’s a gift that she has. She’s always had that.”

Though she never secured a game against Ohio State, with those constant texts, Gates laid the foundation for her ascent into the highest ranks of athletics administration. Jarmond took note of her persistence, and as a result, extended a hand when he found himself in a position to help her. 

Gates graduated from Howard University with a degree in biology and a plan to be a dental researcher, but not long after graduation, her career took a sharp turn. After deciding not to show up to her scheduled MCAT twice, she realized that another path lay in front of her. 

Gates, who was a four-year player on Howard’s soccer team, soon understood that she wanted to pursue a career in sports without giving up the chance to help people. After Gates made a few stops at the NCAA headquarters and universities across the country, Jarmond hired her to serve as the senior associate athletics director and senior woman administrator at Boston College. She is also BC’s deputy Title IX coordinator.

“I always told him ‘when you become an athletic director I’m gonna work for you,’” Gates said of Jarmond.

He knew her, of course, from the countless texts she had sent him and the handful of in-person meetings they had, but it was a conversation with Kevin White, the athletics director at Duke University, that convinced him she was the right hire. 

“He said ‘I don’t care what you’re looking for. Jocelyn is the person,’” Jarmond said, recalling a conversation he had with White in 2017. “And that was it. I mean, I remember that was probably the strongest indication [to hire her]. … It starts and ends with Jocelyn.”

White and Gates worked together at Duke for four years prior to her role at South Florida. He was, and still is, the head honcho for the Blue Devils, and she, despite having a master’s degree, was just his assistant at the time.  

“He had a vision for this role to help somebody grow, and he wanted to help a minority specifically grow,” Gates said of White. “I knew that this was where I was supposed to be, and that if I had not taken the job, I would not be where I am in my career right now. He has propelled me in ways that I can’t even imagine.”

White is one of a select group of people in Gates’ life who she calls “champions”—those mentors with whom she has a deeper connection and who will have her back without her even asking. So though her title said she was an “assistant,” she was at the table for every big meeting and every major decision.

Over a decade later, Gates now champions for BC student-athletes just like White did for her over a decade ago. As a former student-athlete herself, Gates has an intimate understanding of the challenges which many of the people she works with face every day. But she doesn’t limit her scope to student-athletes of color, or even just to student-athletes.

“It’s important for our students—not just for student-athletes—for our students on campus to know that there are people in leadership that look like them,” Gates said. “And because I have people in leadership that look like me that allowed me to know that I can get there as well.”

Her identity as a Black woman is central to her work in a way that not only builds rapport with students, but goes a step further to prove to them that she is acutely aware of the struggles and hardships that they face, particularly for minority students at a predominantly white institution. 

“Being a Black woman is everything to me,” Gates said. “It’s so important, and my passion is helping Black people and Black students feel great about themselves and understand that they have a place in any room they want to be in. They have a voice to stand strong. To know that and then also to know that people have their backs, and it’s so important for me in particular to know that I want all students on campus to know like I have your back.”

After Jarmond’s departure to UCLA last summer, Gates is now the highest-ranking person of color, and also the highest-ranking female, in BC’s athletics department. But being alone at the top is not an unfamiliar feeling to Gates. 

“She’s a trailblazer, seriously, at every school that she’s at she just continues to rise and be mentors to other people,” Heather Burris, one of Gates’ best friends, said. “And I think that she is definitely a champion for inclusion and diversity, especially related to women’s sports and higher athletics.”

Gates and Burris met at Howard as freshmen, and the two have been inseparable since. Burris would spend weekends and holidays with Gates’ family, who lived nearby, and though Gates’ soccer schedule kept her busy—Burris admitted to having never attended one of her games—they always found a way to unwind at the end of the day. 

To her friends, Gates is the life of the party, and Burris said having her at any event infuses boundless energy and joy into the room. 

“She wants to be a good dancer,” Burris said. “She’s not great. She’s not horrible, but she loves a good routine.”

Dancing skills—or lack thereof—aside, Gates is unabashedly enthusiastic in her friendships and in her family life. 

“She just wants to make sure that everyone has a good time that everyone feels good about themselves,” Shannon Perry, another one of Gates’ best friends, said. “Whenever I get around her, it’s like I get to break out of being who I am—I get to the fun side of me.”

Growing up, Gates said she had her mom to look up to, and when she went off to college, she had her professors. But only about 6 percent of BC faculty is Black, and though 39 percent of new hires this year identify as AHANA, BC students of color have to work harder to find role models who look like them, Gates said. 

As a result, whether it was intentional or not, Gates has evolved into the same sort of figures she used to admire. She strives to be someone her son Duke and her step-daughter, or “bonus daughter,” Avery can look up to, and she gives Black students at BC a role model in the administration who looks like them.

“You know, a lot of times, you need to see what you can be,” Jarmond said. “And to see is to believe it, and Jocelyn, being a female, being a minority, and being a former student-athlete, she embodies some of the some of the traits and values and characteristics that we want our young people to have or aspire to be.”

What Gates took from her experience at Howard, in addition to lifelong friendships and a top-tier education, was the knowledge that as a Black woman, she would have to work twice as hard as the majority of people in her field to get half as far. 

But she doesn’t seem to carry that attitude with a sense of bitterness. Instead, her voice exuded gratitude as she spoke about all of the hard work she has put in to earn her plentiful career opportunities. 

“We just have to be that much better than everybody else, because nobody’s gonna hand us anything,” Gates said. “We do not have the silver spoon. We have to network. … I had to advocate for myself. I had to put my name out there. I had to get out there and meet people, even if it’s uncomfortable to do so, because no one is sitting here and doing that for me.”

For some people, such an attitude is bound to create a chip on the shoulder. Gates, however, navigates her career, friendships, and life with the utmost sense of humility. 

“It’s never about her. It never has been in any capacity that I have known her,” Perry said.

Gates and Perry overlapped briefly at Duke, where Perry was the assistant coach for Duke women’s basketball. Their interaction was brief, and they met by chance after discovering they attended the same church, but they developed their friendship from afar over the last decade. Gates was even a bridesmaid at Perry’s wedding.

“I have this picture of me … and my [other] best friend who’s holding my hands, talking to me right before, like moments before I’m about to go down the aisle,” Perry said. “And you see Jocelyn in the view from the mirror in the picture, looking on, just admiring the moment, not worrying about a moment for her.”

Gates’ work doesn’t end when she’s off the Heights. In fact, it doesn’t end ever, because she views her role as one of constant compassion. When Perry ran into a seemingly unsolvable problem with one of the student-athletes she coaches at UCLA, Gates was her first outlet. 

Perry turned to Gates for her perspective on the situation, which Gates readily offered. 

“She didn’t have to give that information and talk to me or my student-athlete about, you know, ‘This is what I recommend,’” Perry said. “… And so I think she cares about just the athletes in general, not just her own.”

The persistence she showed in trying desperately to schedule a game against Ohio State all those years ago wasn’t the catalyst of her career—we may never know what truly sparked her unwavering desire for progress—but it was certainly indicative of a larger pattern. 

At each stop in her career, Gates has turned heads for the caliber of work she produces and for the smile plastered across her face as she does it. 

“You know, I’ve loved seeing her become more confident because I think sometimes she would doubt herself, just like all of us do,” Jarmond said. “But she is, she is supremely talented.”

She’s earned national recognition, as well, earning the title of FBS Administrator of the Year in September 2020. 

“I almost cried,” Gates said about earning the honor. “I had no idea. I mean, it’s such an amazing accolade to receive, because, you know, it’s not like you’re out there boasting about yourself, but then you’re realizing that others see the hard work you do and then they appreciate you.”

Though to her friends and coworkers, she handles her work with an effortless grace, much of the work Gates puts in often goes unnoticed. The simple act of checking in on one student-athlete during finals or recommending another for a job seems small, but it’s the small things which set Gates apart.

“I think part of the reason why I’m able to be in a role like this, I guess in a leadership role, is because I just bust my tail,” Gates said. “I’m working really hard, and I’m not looking at the job ahead of me. I’m looking at the job I’m in and how I can do awesome at what I’m doing.”

Featured Image Courtesy of Jocelyn Gates

Other Images Courtesy of Martin Jarmond and Shannon Perry

March 15, 2021