This time of year, so-called “bracketologists” and other sports soothsayers babble endlessly about the teams and players currently in contention as March Madness begins. But many other issues equally important to the sport rarely if ever get discussed in sports media. Another View’s “unconventional” coverage this month will leave the usual chatter to others and instead explore “The Shadow Side of March Madness.”
Being a Black student-athlete in college often brings with it a perceived “wedge” between them and their fellow Black non-athlete students, which sometimes can seem like a virtual Berlin Wall depending on the sport, the individual player’s status (star, key reserve or benchwarmer), and the Black player themselves.
Are Black student-athletes today asked to turn in their racial IDs once on campus because “they’re special”? Does an athlete scholarship serve as a temporary forfeiture of one’s identity to appease school officials, as well as other students? Is their athletic identity such that when a racial matter pops up, the Black player is caught in a quagmire?
Black students on predominately White campuses are faced with identity conflicts almost from the minute they arrive. “It is going to be different at different schools,” declared Johari Shuck, who has studied this as part of her doctoral research at Indiana University.
She and six other current and former Black student-athletes last month discussed identity conflicts and other topics at Northwestern University. “All institutions are slow in addressing our needs,” noted Shuck in a pre-panel discussion phone interview with the MSR. The two-hour discussion on the Northwestern campus February 17 sponsored by the school’s Multi Cultural Student Affairs, in which Shuck was a featured participant, focused on the role of Black athletes within the campus and Black community.
Too often White colleges and universities use a “one shoe fit all” approach with Black athletes. “All athletes and all students are different,” continued Shuck. “You can’t have one program without taking into account the different needs of the students.”
Shuck referred to an ESPN.com article from last year that defined “wedges.” “Wedges exist because Black students don’t understand the experiences of Black athletes, and vice versa,” she recalled. “So they can’t come together because of these misconceptions they have of each other.”
Sometimes these wedges are conveniently created by the school’s athletic culture in a divide-and-conquer fashion, sometimes by the coaches themselves. This dates back to when they started recruiting the Black athlete as early as middle school, putting them on faux pedestals, fitting them in BMOC (big man on campus) clothing and telling them they are better than the average Black student.
As a result, “They [Black student-athletes] can’t always relate to the [non-athlete] Black student,” notes Shuck.
All of us have an identity, sometimes multiple ones, that defines us daily, she observed. “Whatever identity we closely identify with is going to guide our behavior. A lot of times for Black athletes, people tend to associate that with their identity, but that is not always the reality.
“What being a Black person is to you might be different for what it is for me,” said Shuck. “There are differences, and there’s reasons for these differences.”
“Playing sports sometimes hinders Black identity development because you are not necessarily seen from the same viewpoint as someone who doesn’t have that buffer,” she pointed out. “Having a strong Black identity is important” for the player and hopefully is already in place long before they come to campus, said Shuck. “Research shows that when [Black] people have a strong Black identity and they understand what it means to be Black, they know how to deal with challenging situations.”
And they know how to eliminate any wedges between them and “regular” Blacks.
Next week: Former Black student-athletes discuss the local Black experience.
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Charles Hallman is a contributing reporter and award-winning sports columnist at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder.