I’ll admit it, during the last several weeks I lost my stinger about speaking out about the problems of big-time football. I felt like “what’s the point.” I felt silenced by the situation—by our discernment of what we should do next, by the way UNC took John and me and the other coaches’ families out of the conversation, by the fact that I am female and there are those who feel that because of that I should be quiet about football. Truth is, I was enforcing my own silence on these topics.
On Wednesday I participated in the panel discussion at NCCU Law School on Student-Athlete Human Rights moderated by Dr. Emmett Gill, a leader in the movement to secure due process for college student-athletes.
At the panel we talked a lot about silence.
We talked about the disturbing silence from UNC officials about these injustices. As Justice Bob Orr said, “no one in leadership from UNC has stood up and said what happened was wrong.”
We talked about the imposed silence on the players and coaches during the investigation that allowed injustice and untruths to flourish. Former player Deunta Williams talked about how he was told not to talk to anyone and that he was told that he didn’t need a lawyer if he’d done nothing wrong. He talked about how he was never told about the seriousness of what was actually happening.
We talked about the silence imposed on the coaches and the outward threats to his job John received if he spoke out about what was happening. We talked about the secrecy and how no one really knew what was happening. By the time it was clear that power was being abused and rights were being violated, it was too late.
Attorney Noah Huffstetler, who represents Michael McAdoo, talked about the legally capricious procedures of the NCAA. He pointed out that the hyped up language we hear on commercials for the NCAA about how they are there to promote and support student-athletes is the absolute opposite of their practices. When investigations are underway support and advocacy for players is non-existent. Where there was feel good hyperbole about student-athletes, there is only silence.
We talked about the silence of the media on the true stories about so many of these players who did nothing wrong. Radio personality Bomani Jones shared his frustration about the easy caricatures that are portrayed in the news about NCAA investigations all around the country. Media outlets of all stripes remain silent on what really happened here at UNC.
We talked about the silence of white mentalities around the complexities and ambiguities of race in the UNC case. With nothing to go on, it was an easy step for many white people in power to take to believe that a football team of largely young black men was full of cheaters and criminals. Believing someone is guilty until proven innocent allows silence to take the truth captive. And some white people continue to look for ways to deny that race had anything to do with what happened at UNC. So far there is largely silence around the issue of race in this situation.
And we heard about the silence of the NCAA on the rights of players. In the 400+ page NCAA manual there is NOT ONE page that talks about players’ rights.
The sound of silence can be deafening.
The panel was a blessed breaking of so many layers of silence. As Deunta pointed out during the panel, “it feels good to hear others talk about this and get to tell my story.” Hearing that from him gave me a renewed sense of the gift of testimony—even when it is risky to say what you need to say, what you should say out loud. The sound of truth is powerful, liberating, healing.
At the same time, this call to testify is a challenge because being a truth teller doesn’t often win you lots of friends. Jesus showed us that pretty clearly time and time again.
At the end of the panel Dr. Gill asked us “so what can we do?” All of us talked about systemic change, about multi-layered approaches to reform that included the legal system, universities, media, and cultural awareness. And we all agreed to keep talking, to keep telling our stories, to keep telling the truth.
The audible here for me is that the sound of silence that I feel imposed from the outside cannot be what I allow to prevail inside myself. I will continue to speak out about student-athlete human rights even with the risks that doing so involves.
I am thankful that my voice is not the only one speaking out—but I am a part of a growing chorus of people who aren’t afraid to make the sound of silence loud enough to be heard.