When will college sports address its own systemic racism?

Updated: Jun 9

I am truly hopeful that our country will begin to heal, then grow, and eventually thrive in the wake of the ongoing racial unrest following the deaths of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and George Floyd. In the world of college sports there are some positive narratives that are unfolding in the aftermath of the homicides. On one hand, there have been some significant gestures and what seems like a handful of authentic ideas that will contribute to opportunities for change. Then there are some efforts that are well-intended, but poorly thought-out. Lastly, there some responses that have come about just because they provide good optics for athletic departments and then there are those responses that further demonstrate why we are in this state of disarray.

In terms of the not so well “thought-out” ideas… Texas A&M started “Unify Aggies to Create Change” a petition-based movement to educate, engage, and provide growth opportunities in light of racial injustice. Does Texas A&M have a plan to make sure everyone who signs the petition will follow through with the three commitments? Then, there is the University of Texas at Austin where the football team marched to the state Capital and the University of Missouri who had its football team take a knee. Did the athletic administrators consider the trauma these acts might trigger or how the athletes future employment might be jeopardized? Now, all of a sudden, its ok to take a knee, but when Kaepernick initiated his protest in 2016 many college athletic departments were forbidding college athletes from taking a knee. Then, there are the “good optics” endeavors… like the statements denouncing racism. Several athletic departments and head coaches have released statements including Barry Alverez (Wisconsin), the MAC Council of Presidents, lobbying firm LEAD1, Minnesota head football coach PJ Fleck and Michigan State head coach football Mel Tucker. Are these statements the beginning of an effort or the end?

Then there are endeavors that have the potential for meaningful change. Big Ten Commissioner 10 Kevin Warren is creating an Anti-Hate and Anti-Racism Coalition and hopes that “it is the most powerful thing” that he does in his career. Further, Oklahoma University and Kansas State University partnered to produce Humanity Talks which provided over 500 college athletes with a space to discuss the current racial unrest. Likewise, Louisville’s men’s basketball Director of Operations was arrested during a protest, but head coach Chris Mack expressed his full support for Kahil Fenel. The best idea to date is that at least five athletic departments and/or teams are calling on the NCAA to make Election Day a mandatory off-day to support college athlete civic participation.

Truth be told it is unfair to criticize any efforts during these remarkably tense times. We (I) should be thankful for everything athletic departments are doing to contribute to improving race relations and social inequalities. However, the question is what will the NCAA do to change the systemic racism that permeates every level of the association?

NCAA president Mark Emmert recently acknowledged the inequality and social injustice in America, but then proclaimed sports as a catalyst for social change. Surely Emmert was not referring to the NCAA because it has oppressed minorities at every level:

· 6% of Division I baseball players are Black.

· 6% of Division I women’s soccer players are Black (2016).

· 10% of Division I football coaches are Black (53% of players are Black).

· 18% of Power Five conference athletic directors are Black.

· 22%. of Division I men’s basketball Black coaches are Black (54% of players are Black).

· 25% of Division I women’s basketball coaches are Black.

· 77% of mental health practitioners in Power 5 conference schools are White.

Not to mention the senior/executive administration in most Power 5 conference athletic departments are typically 80 to 90 percent White. These are indicators of systemic racism, but it’s the individual-level racism Black college athletes experience is truly concerning (in light of their magnificent contribution to college sports).

College athletes of color habitually experience micro-aggressions, micro-assaults, and racism at the hands of teammates, coaches, fellow students, fans, and donors and we do not hear more about it because they fear retaliation. Racist statements, gestures, and acts by Whites college athletes towards Black athletes are commonplace. White female athletes who ask Black female athletes “if I can touch your hair” because I have never touched “hair like that”. Or there is Jake Fromm, the former Georgia QB who, in a 2019 text conversation, expressed only White elite people should be able to buy guns. What is even less acceptable are college coaches who allow these micro- aggressions and assaults to continue even after Black athletes complain. Further, and with respect to college coaches, I cannot understand why a coach recruits someone’s son or daughter and then mistreats them – that is just a challenging pill to swallow. “You need to work harder or you will be back in the hood working at McDonald’s” – is one example an athlete recently shared. In terms of racism by fans – I do not think former OSU basketball player Marcus Smart was lying when he charged into the stands during a game because of a racial slur by a fan (he later recanted his story). Then there is the University of Southern California (USC) booster who believes protesters should be shot. In 2007, I sat courtside for a Rutgers versus UConn women’s basketball game in Storrs, CT and I have never heard such racist language aimed at a group of Black females during my lifetime. That night, I sat with some of the parents of these young women while we listened their daughters being talked to like dogs – something they probably learned from the late Don Imus.

I want to reiterate that a lot of good will come to college sports in the aftermath of the George Floyd homicide – however most of it will not address the systemic and individual level racism that unfolds at every level of college sports. This reality is even more disappointing because NCAA sports are an integral part of how our country develops and socializes White and Black young men and women, but It’s the same system that has used the term student-athlete to make the NCAA, conferences, member institutions, athletic directors, and coaches trillions while claiming that a Swahili degree is a functional degree. So, one challenge with the efforts noted above is that they are being created by the same people who are a part of, and benefit from, the systemic racism that prevails in the NCAA.

I just wish the system, created by NCAA and its member institutions, would address its own systemic racism during these times of unrest (and moving forward). Truth be told, if they did, then they would unleash their unique ability to help authentically change the Black community by insuring Black athletes do not experience racism, that they are fairly compensated for their true value, that they receive a constructive and functional education, that they receive a fair shot a coaching positions upon graduation, that the percentage of Black athletic department employees is higher than the percentage of Black players on the football team, that they can dream of being an athletic director, and that maybe one day a Black man will lead the NCAA.

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