The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Black college football and basketball players are the most powerful people of color on campus

The protests at the University of Missouri show what can happen when they wield it.

University of Missouri students sang and danced in celebration of President Tim Wolfe's resignation on Nov. 9, after days of campus protests and strikes. (Video: Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post)
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A research team from the center I direct at the University of Pennsylvania is spending three days this week assessing the campus climate at a predominantly white university in the Midwest, not far from the University of Missouri. Based on our findings and experiences elsewhere, I am certain they have heard students, faculty members and staff members of color tell horrifying stories of encounters with racism. By now, one of our researchers has probably heard a black student describe the pain she experienced when someone called her the N-word on campus. Others have probably reflected on how they felt when racial epithets were spray-painted on their dorm-room doors or the numerous times their white peers and professors presumed they were admitted only because of affirmative action, not academic talent. Depending on what the fraternity scene is like at this particular university, some students of color my colleagues interview may recap the insults they felt when photos emerged from a recent party with a blackface theme. When the team gets back at the end of this week, I predict they will say very little that shocks me. I fully expect to hear that tears were shed in interviews they conducted, which happens every place we do racial-climate research.

Each year, administrators at several predominantly white colleges and universities across the nation hire us to spend a few days on their campuses assessing the racial climate. People of color not only supply numerous examples of racial harm that has been inflicted on them at the institutions we study but also convey frustration and disappointment with the lack of response from campus administrators. They often tell us that their institutions do not care about people of color, despite the diversity-related values expressed via mission statements, in admissions materials and on Web sites. “The president doesn’t listen to us,” is a common complaint. In fact, many participants in our studies meet us quite skeptically. They wonder whether they are, once again, about to waste their time unpacking and reliving painful encounters with racism for the mere sake of institutional window dressing. Most ask us, “Are administrators really going to do something this time?” Sometimes, administrators do. But too often, they don’t. Jonathan Butler, a graduate student at Missouri, and others there were tired of waiting for their campus leaders to do something about the institution’s long-standing racial problems.

I have been engaged in racial-climate research for more than a decade, including an assessment of the University of Missouri at Kansas City eight years ago. I am repeatedly saddened by the powerlessness that people of color often feel on predominantly white campuses. Having spent my career as an administrator and professor at universities where my people are in the numerical minority, I know firsthand the feelings participants of color in my research routinely express. It is a familiar, lived experience of mine. Those feelings correspond with a racially stratified workforce in higher education. At many institutions, blacks and Latinos are overrepresented in food-service, secretarial, custodial and landscaping roles. Conversely, we are almost always terribly underrepresented among college presidents, vice presidents, deans, tenured professors and trustees — roles at the power epicenter of the institutions. So we often find ourselves at the mercy of our white colleagues to do more to engender among us a sense of belonging, or respond to our reports of encounters with racism and unfair treatment on campus. Too few of us are powerful enough to make senior administrators take racism seriously and respond in ways that demonstrate authentic commitment to our humanity.

There is one group of blacks on university campuses that has tremendous power, though: student-athletes who play on revenue-generating sports teams.

Washington Post sports columnist Kevin Blackistone discusseshow the spotlight of sports can illuminate critical social issues. (Video: Thomas Johnson/The Washington Post)

[How racial tensions at Mizzou exposed the power of its athletes]

In our 2013 report “Black Male Student-Athletes and Racial Inequities in NCAA Division I College Sports,” two center researchers and I provide data that show the overrepresentation of black male student-athletes relative to their enrollment in the general student body at institutions in six major NCAA Division I athletic conferences. We found that black men were 2.8 percent of undergraduate students but 57.1 percent of football players and 64.3 percent of men’s basketball players across the 77 major sports programs in our study. Data the NCAA released last Wednesday shows that black men constituted 3.3 percent of undergraduates at Missouri, but they were 65.3 percent of the football team and 72.7 percent of the men’s basketball team there during the 2014-2015 academic school year. Across institutions in the Southeastern Conference, of which Missouri is a member, nearly 70 percent of football players are black. There were 830 black football players across the 14 SEC campuses last year.

By threatening not to play against Brigham Young University, black football players at Missouri flexed their collective muscle and exercised their power. Their courageous efforts helped me realize that they and other black male student-athletes at institutions similar to theirs are the most powerful people of color on campus. Despite constituting less than 0.2 percent of undergraduates at Mizzou, black football players were able to get significant attention from the national media more quickly than the original leaders of the protest were. Faced with the prospect of losing $1 million if they did not play BYU this weekend, university officials had no choice but to finally listen to what black students had long been telling them. For Tim Wolfe, the president of the University of Missouri System, and R. Bowen Loftin, the chancellor of the flagship Columbia campus, it was too late.

Football and men’s basketball players are able to get things done that the rest of us cannot because they have unique reputational and economic powers. Their absence on the football field or basketball court puts millions of dollars at stake; no president can afford that. I hope black male student-athletes at universities across the country now realize how much power they have to ignite institutional change in defense of themselves and other powerless people of color on predominantly white campuses.