In the heat of the NCAA football investigation at UNC when I was writing my Calling Audibles blog series, I met a lot of people and learned a lot of things about big-time sports. In fact, it would be safe to say that what my husband, John, and I experienced during his coaching tenure at UNC has radically changed our lives.
When I heard a few weeks ago about the story brewing at ESPN about Rashad McCants and dummy classes at UNC I was not surprised. I was not surprised for reasons that may surprise you.
While John coached at UNC we did not know players who were taking these dummy classes. And John and the other football coaches on Butch Davis’ staff were serious about making sure players were working hard in their classes. So, my lack of surprise is not because I knew a lot of players who share Rashad’s story. I didn’t.
While John coached at UNC and after he was dismissed we learned more and more from players about how they were sometimes encouraged to take certain classes that conformed to what tutoring services UNC had for athletes. This frustrated players and coaches during John’s tenure at UNC. But, my lack of surprise is not because I knew there were some misguided habits in the academic advising in UNC athletics.
Scratch the surface on many big-time athletic programs and you are going to find players who can tell stories like Rashad’s. Every school says they are doing it the right way. Every school wants to keep their players eligible. And so every school is walking the line between stories like Rashad’s and the stories of most other athletes who take legitimate classes and do legitimate work as a student at their institution.
But my lack of surprise is not because of this well-worn thin line in big-time sports. The strategy of cutting corners when the stakes are high is a well-worn path in human history. This fact of human frailty is not news to any of us. But even this knowledge is not the whence of my lack of surprise.
My lack of surprise about Rashad’s story comes from a much deeper and hopeful place than any of these realities I have listed. My lack of surprise comes from my knowledge of the raw strength of the current that is flowing and will not be stopped toward truth and justice around issues of race, revenue, and equity in sports.
Rashad’s story needs to be heard. Just like Gio Bernard’s does. Gio came out yesterday and expressed his frustration about Rashad’s story being assumed to be that of all athletes who played at UNC. Gio is right, not all players share Rashad’s experience. And Rashad is right, not all players share Gio’s experience.
These contradictory spaces created by very different stories of their experiences from players who have participated in revenue sports in big-time programs like UNC’s need to be heard simultaneously. And not just heard, but truly engaged. These stories need to be a part of the discussion, a part of the discernment of how we address the ills that afflict big-time sports.
People will want to discredit Rashad just like people wanted to discredit Mary Willingham. And maybe their stories do not reflect the experiences of all athletes, but dismissing them out of hand is a missed opportunity. People tend to reject information that does not cohere with our own way of seeing and understanding the world. Blaming individuals is a release valve when the pressure builds like it has been for some time at UNC. And then you throw institutional loyalty, sports fanaticism, and really big money on top of these dynamics and you’ve got a full-fledged vision problem. What is happening at UNC is heartbreaking for many, life-altering for some (and we include our family in both of those categories), but it is a healing opportunity for us all.
The Audible here for all of us is to find the courage to give space to contradictions—and to make space in our soul and in our mind for the fact that these contradictions can both have truth. As a person of faith, I firmly believe that God meets us in the contradictions with a chance to really see anew.
Rashad’s story and Gio’s story give us that contradictory space. They give us a way to kick the habit of trying to search for the next individual to blame and the next head to roll. They give us a way to look beneath the surface into systems and cultures and things we have a hard time seeing. These contradictions tell us there is more to these stories than meets the eye.
And if the outrage we feel is about integrity or about truth or about trust—then its time to get to work on those deep roots of what forms communities and cultures. All of us who love sports need to talk about things like race, equity, and abuse of power along with our conversations about regulation, standards, and community values.
My book, Touchdowns for Jesus and Other Signs of Apocalypse: Lifting the Veil on Big-Time Sports, will be released in just a few weeks through Cascade Books. These contradictory spaces are where this book spends time listening and sharing,revealing and inviting. The conversation unveiled by the contradictory stories and experiences sports give us is getting richer and richer. I hope you will join in if you have not already.
Truth and contradictions just might be the winning combination we need.