One problem, Smith realized, was his appearance. He was a starting offensive lineman who weighed 295 pounds. He wore football sweats to classes. He and his teammates tended to sit in the back rows, because it was hard for them to wedge their big bodies into the more crowded front rows. Other students interpreted that as lazy and unengaged. “Sitting sideways, taking up seats, it looks like you’re just lounging,” he says. The kids would sneer at them and accuse them of taking siestas, saying, “You guys are just lying in back, sleeping.”
“We don’t fit in the front,” Smith tried to explain.
At least he had it easier than his black teammates, he realized. “I’m a big white guy, able to speak directly to power, and I felt pretty confident in that environment,” he said. “Yet at every turn my identity was challenged.”
He added: “An ongoing piece of this — and a lot of people don’t want to have this conversation — is that there are people in positions of power on campuses who are not at ease with these people who are so embodied, or so popular, and they want to say, ‘You don’t know what I know.’ Then you layer on racism, large African American men in positions of power on campus. A lot of racial politics plays out, and so they make it about the inadequacies of young black men instead of about the structural inequities.”
Cal’s Athlete Academic Achievement curriculum has evolved into a permanent master’s program called Cultural Studies of Sport in Education. It looks for solutions to the conflicts between sports and academics through original research. It was Simon’s hope that some of his athlete-students might even see the field as a tool for social justice, and become teachers. Smith, for one, took the bait.
“There is huge leadership potential, to strengthen the educational system,” he said. “It’s about finding ways to strengthen the outcomes. It’s not just about adding some compensation for a few kids after they’ve played some games.”
By comparison, NCAA reforms don’t amount to much. Rule changes that give players a pittance of a stipend, or that force-march players into easy majors by increasing the difficulty of staying eligible, hardly solve anything. All they do is denigrate athletes in a backhanded way, and compound their problems.
If NCAA leaders are serious about change, they should try to close the discrepancy between athletes’ athletic ambitions and their academic ones, as opposed to just wallpapering over it with reputation or superficial “reforms.” That would be a real Grand Experiment.