The embarrassment I have felt during UNC’s NCAA investigation hit its peak last fall when accusations of academic fraud started coming out. The offense of cheating has always hit a nerve with me, but the prospect that people cheated was not what left me the most horrified.
I have been a part of several stellar academic communities in my life—from the college campus I grew up on, Centre College, to Oxford University to Vanderbilt and Emory and others in between. I was always disturbed by the number of people who seem to have no qualms about cheating on their schoolwork. I’ve been a student on campuses with honor codes and seen and heard about the serial abuse of the code that occurs in these situations. People cheat when they have the opportunity. Not everyone does. I don’t. But, I am not naïve about how rampant cheating is. So, the fact that the honor system at UNC has some weak spots doesn’t shock me. I am troubled by it, but that is not the part of this investigation that has troubled me in the deepest places in my soul.
What hit me in the gut and horrified me the most is the disturbing and destructive ways that race has functioned in this situation. When I opened the Daily Tar Heel one day last fall and saw the mug shot-like pictures of every player who may have done something academically unacceptable right there in black and white, my embarrassment and shame hit its peak.
It hit me then that the players were being treated with the utmost unfairness—guilty until proven innocent. And then it hit me that there was a deeper pathology at work here because every single one of the players pictured was a person of color. Or more specifically in our hyper-racialized American culture, every player pictured was black.
The unconsciousness with which white people live with the ravages of racism is a deeply diseased part of our culture. I have heard several white people during this NCAA saga say, “this has nothing to do with race.” I have heard other comments about how “they” shouldn’t have ever been admitted as students if “they” can’t do the work. I have also heard white people say how disturbed they are with how “they” can’t seem to play by the rules. Nowhere in these accusations and in these racialized stereotypes do white people ever look in the mirror and reflect on how white people benefit from the imprinting a racist mentalities in this country.
Nowhere have I heard the question asked about why it has been so easy for the UNC community and local media to jump to the worst possible conclusions about these players. And I have yet to hear anyone in power own up to the fact that there is an inherent elitism in suggesting that what we need is more and more oversight and more power to punish football players. How can white people collectively miss the racial overtones of all this rhetoric about looking for more ways to make sure we keep young black men in their place?
What’s going on in big time football these days is much, much more complicated than lawless players doing things that are illegal. It’s not so black and white. The problems and disparities are deep and complicated and, yet, we lay as much blame as we can at the feet of the young men who make the football wheels turn in the first place. I don’t think Taylor Branch’s article in “The Atlantic” was overstating the case to use plantation language when it comes to some of the dynamics at work in college football these days. And how can we deal with that disturbing reality if we don’t know how to talk about race in any substantive way as white people.
In the situation at UNC race has been an unspoken elephant in the room. White people in power have tried to soften the overtly racial nature of it all by appealing to things like “academic integrity” and “not lowering our standards.” They have never given any communal energy to what this scandal may be bringing up race-wise for a big state university in the south.
Media outlets repeatedly include lines in their articles about the UNC investigation with language about how many players had to sit out games last season because of the investigation. I have yet to see an article where anyone in power pointed out that some of those players were found to have done nothing wrong. In other words, they missed games and were punished for no reason. And their names and pictures were out for all to see when they were presumed guilty, but you haven’t seen the same spread now that some are cleared of any wrongdoing.
Why was it so easy for everyone to assume the worst and punish these players before we knew all the facts? If you are white and you want to say that race had nothing to do with that, then I want to call your bluff. There is no way to extract race from this situation and say it was simply about other community values that we hold dear. Racism is a part of our every day lives in this country. And our unconscious assumptions profoundly shape how we function.
There were and are deeply embedded assumptions and fears at work in this investigation and its aftermath. It could be a wake up call for all of us if we let it be.
The assumptions are about black students not being able to do the work at a place like UNC. The assumptions have to do with the fact that there is a part of the collective white psyche that says “we” are doing “them” a favor to let them be here in the first place. The assumptions have to do with white mentalities about being right about everything. The assumptions have to do with white attitudes that everything would be and will be fine in our society if “they” just learn how to act like “us.”
And the fear comes in when we realize our world may be changing. What had seemed like black and white is becoming grey. The realities and statistics about black athletes are a conviction of white privilege to be sure. Branch’s article in “The Atlantic” is a must read for all white people. The recent Drexel University study about how many Division I football players live under the poverty line should be more required reading. The imbalance of power and the unfairness are offensive. The unconscious ways that we all enjoy football with little to no critical awareness of whose backs it is built on is disturbing. And the defensive, penal posture of universities and the NCAA around the power dynamics of big time football is looking more and more sinister to me.
In so many ways, sports have been a place where interracial relationships have had a chance to form and be genuine. Sports have been some of the trailblazing spaces for racial integration in this country. But white power structures have failed to attend to the ways that white privilege has fed and formed the way business is conducted in big time football (and I would suggest big time basketball is the same).
The audible here must be complex—no quick fix, no big play that will change the game. The audible here for big time football must be a commitment to the run game—the long-run game.
How can we all work together to tell the truth about the inequalities that have made football so lucrative for universities and the NCAA? How can we be intentional about unearthing the racialized assumptions that exist about the abilities and rights of the mostly black players who play big time college football?
As the wife of an offensive coordinator, I am keenly aware of how much people prefer an exciting passing attack to a gritty, grinding run game. The passing is much more dynamic and pleasing. The run game is slow, deliberate, and incremental. We like instant gratification, not the step-by-step building of a strong foundation.
This long-run audible would be an unselfish play to call: some who have so very much would have to be willing to give some of that up. Like a successful run game, everyone would have to do their part to block, to create running room, to have the backs of those who are doing the work.
What if big time football made a commitment to less glitz, more justice? Less big money for institutions, more fair treatment of players? A less punitive approach to the young men who play the game, and more substantive attention to their real lives and abilities? That sounds like a game plan worth our very best team effort.