This is on purpose, a means of keeping
him away from the real students
and to keep him from challenging
himself academically — and to keep
him focused on his job of playing
football. In this way, my student was
acknowledging a racism particular to
the Black student athlete. Some Black
athletes are worshipped as heroes in
certain settings; ridiculed and resented
regarding their educational engagement
in other spaces; and alienated by
a system that puts them under
surveillance as a means to keep them
compliant and that largely controls
their time, relationships, and outputs.
Graduate assistants patrol halls to
conduct classroom checks, tracking and
reporting athlete attendance (largely
only football players). Journalists peruse
the police dockets daily to see if any
athletes have made the list of arrestees.
And football players are strongly
discouraged from joining organizations
away from athletics, like #CS1950 and
fraternities. They don’t have time for
the extracurricular activities that are
the benefits of attending a prestigious
college and university. Their time is
accounted for — their home, family,
and job are their sport.
In addition to joining a student
movement that highlighted the
shared phenomenon of living while Black, our Black male college athletes have
contemporary sports heroes and models to emulate. Black male athlete activism
is not new. One could begin with Tom Molineaux and his aspiration to be a
prizefighter to purchase his freedom from slavery. Many have written about or
studied Jack Johnson, another prizefighter who bucked the status quo and battled
desegregating the heavyweight world championship. Of course, there’s Muhammad
Ali and his refusal to fight in the Vietnam War. And Ali’s activism leads right into
the Olympic Project for Human Rights and the broader statement by Black athletes
including Jim Brown, Bill Russell, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and others.
A few more recent and relevant moments:
• March 2012: LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and members of the 2012 Miami
Heat post a photo on Twitter with hoodies and heads lowered in mourning for
• 2013: College football players around the country wrote “APU” — All Players
United — on their gear in protest of collegiate amateurism.
• April 2014: Los Angeles Clippers’ players wear their warm-up shirts inside out
and put their shirts on the middle of the floor to cover the team logo after owner
Donald Sterling’s hate-filled rant.
• November 2014: Some players of the St. Louis Rams run out for introductions
with their hands raised, in the “hands up, don’t shoot” pose in solidarity with
#BlackLivesMatter after Michael Brown’s shooting death in nearby Ferguson, Missouri.
Thus, the action of Black members of Mizzou’s football team is in step with
the current climate of Black athlete protests. “Let this be a testament to all of the
athletes across the country that you do have power,” pronounced Tigers defensive
end Charles Harris (Nov. 11, 2015, espn.com). Harris and others considered their
action a rallying cry. The impact goes beyond sports: Students in support and against
were motivated to speak more openly; universities have renewed support for diversity
in hiring, admissions, and treatment of students; several university presidents have
restated their positions on freedom of speech and civility; and sports scholars have
pronounced the Black football protest a part of history to be taught in courses.
This is the blessing and the curse of the collegiate arms race. The fight to find and
secure the best talent in order to win football games makes each big-time sports
school vulnerable to the actions of their star athletes, who together can shut down an
Some Black athletes are worshipped as heroes in certain settings; ridiculed and resented
regarding their educational engagement in other spaces; and alienated by a system that
puts them under surveillance as a means to keep them compliant ... .