This was the question a student posed to me recently when I gave a Skype lecture to a Sports Ethics class at the University of Washington’s Center for Leadership in Athletics
I am going to take a wild guess (and I may be wrong), and assume that most readers of the FAR blog don’t know much about the NCAA investigation of the UNC football program. I have outed myself on this blog before—I am more than just a feminist theologian; I am also a football coach’s wife. Lots of people wonder how I manage to pull that off and still look at myself in the mirror. That’s a complicated question. I am finding that the challenges presented by our experience at UNC are creating more and more space for the feminist and the coach’s wife to find a common purpose. Which brings us back to the question at hand—race and privilege and how it played into the football investigation at UNC.
You may want to investigate the many details of this investigation, but I would like to invite this feminist community to see what you think about this question of privilege in particular. I will provide just a few factual statements for you all. You tell me if you can think of ways that race and privilege may have been at work to the detriment of certain groups in this situation.
- Every athlete who was suspected of wrongdoing (when all was said and done I believe the final number was 18 young men) was a person of color, more specifically, every single player suspected of wrongdoing was black.
- Every college administrator who had a power wielding position in this situation was white.
- Several of the players were punished before they had been proven guilty. And some of them were found to have done nothing wrong only after they had already been punished. Some of their punishments were life changing and they will not recover from them (as far as opportunity cost , financial loss, damage to their reputations, etc.). Devon Ramsay’s story is just one example.
- Almost all of the players went through the entire investigation without legal representation. Some were told that it is an NCAA violation to receive pro bono law services. And some college administrators told some of the players that they would look more guilty if they got a lawyer. They were told that if they did not do anything wrong that they didn’t need a lawyer. This did not prove to be the case for just about all of them.
- One academic department at the university received punishment and that was the African American studies department, and the director was forced to resign.
- One coach was accused by UNC of wrongdoing and he is also African-American.
- The conversation at UNC since the investigation has focused on tightening academic standards and increased regulation of players, there has been little to no attention given to what the investigation revealed about the lack of rights that student athletes have or what it’s like to be a athlete who is a person of color at UNC (In the 400+ page NCAA rule book there is not one page about student athlete rights. When they sign a letter of intent to play college sports they unknowingly sign away some of their basic human rights—the right to due process, the right to privacy, etc.).
- The University eventually fired all of the football coaches even though they were not accused of any wrongdoing or involved in any of the allegations. UNC said it needed to clean house and move on. Removing all the coaches who personally knew the players involved erased most of the institutional memory bank about several layers of what really happened.
- The University has continued its practice of making an example of “errant” players with “zero tolerance” policies (that have been things like someone—not even a player, using a player’s picture on a Facebook page to advertise a party).
- The University has also used images of many of the players involved in the investigation to warn the remaining players on the team not to “be like them.”
- The University has focused on firing particular people, not on possible systemic problems or issues.
- I recently attended a panel discussion held at UNC about athletics and academics, now over a year after the house cleaning of the football program. There were no players present as panel members or as invited speakers. There were no coaches present as panel members or as invited speakers. Both of these constituencies were a prominent part of the topic of conversation. This panel and conversation was organized by the Chancellor, who oversaw the handling of the NCAA investigation.
There are more details to be sure, but the question is about privilege and race not about what NCAA rules were violated or not (and the NCAA is another place to take these critical lenses if you are interested).
Now I know it is not the normal activity of feminists to go around speaking up for Division I football players. But it is the feminist in me that has the eyes to see injustice and abuse of power. It is the feminist in me who knows the interdependence of my well-being with the well-being of all others. And it is the feminist in me that knows all too well how quiet, masked violence against particular classes of people feeds a dangerous and brutal human habit of domination and oppression that is detrimental for women and for all people.
In Maggie Potapchuk’s work on defining white privilege she has generated five characteristics of white culture that are instructive here. In my read and interpretation of Potapchuk’s work the traits are as follows:
- First, white culture sets the norms; white culture creates the standards for judging values. This culturally derived normativity leaves little room for the realities of cross-cultural difference.
- Second, white culture focuses on individuals, not groups. Individuals are responsible for their own behavior. There is little room for critical awareness of how systems put certain groups at a disadvantage and compromise individual agency and opportunity.
- Third, white culture creates hierarchies around certain behaviors and labels others as deviant or dangerous. For instance, what it looks like to be polite and respectful with behaviors like the avoidance of conflict in order to create comfortable situations.
- Fourth, those less affected by decisions and rules are the ones who define problems and solutions. That is, those who stand to benefit and not to be disadvantaged by the system are the ones deciding on and enforcing the rules. This often feeds either/or thinking.
- And finally, white culture privileges certain kinds of knowledge and not others. This privileging of rational, quantifiable, provable modes of knowledge is a familiar mark of Western habits of mind that feminist theories have long worked to disrupt.
White male privilege has set the tone here. Individuals participate in maintaining that tone, but a system supports and rewards that tone. While there are individuals who have failed to do the right thing at UNC, the more troubling element at work is the often invisible and always tenacious ethos of white privilege and the space it continues to have to thrive.
This experience has made it more clear to me how a feminist could possibly find her voice in the world of football.
Marcia Mount Shoop is a theologian and Presbyterian Minister who lives in Chapel Hill, NC. Her book Let the Bones Dance: Embodiment and the Body of Christ frames much of her work in churches and beyond. She has a PhD in Religious Studies from Emory University and a MDiv from Vanderbilt Divinity School. At www.marciamountshoop.com Marcia blogs on everything from feminism to family to football. Her blog series “Calling Audibles” is a feminist theological exploration of big-time football.