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.”
This week: How student-athletes are kept cloistered in a world apart from other students.
The University of Minnesota’s athletic culture doesn’t promote a “normal campus life” for most student-athletes, especially for Blacks, says a former track athlete.
The U’s athletic department, for all practical purpose, is the world [for student-athletes], said St. Paul native Natasha Moore during a March 2 panel discussion at Hallie Q. Brown Community Center in St. Paul.
On the panel were Leo Lewis, a former senior athletics administrator at the University of Minnesota and now the Minneapolis North High School athletic director; broadcast analyst Lea B. Olsen; Frank White, a former basketball official who works with youth sports; and Minnesota senior Moore, a St. Paul Johnson graduate who until last year ran track for the Gophers.
“It was divisive by design,” explained Moore, who quit track last year but expects to graduate in December. Moore also is involved in campus protests on the “commodification of diversity” at the school.
Moore pointed out, “You have everything you needed at the athletic department. If you were studying, you were studying there. If you were showering, you were showering there. You didn’t get a chance to go and hang out on the other side of campus, away from your practice and away from everything.
“You really didn’t get a chance to meet anyone either,” continued Moore, a St. Paul Johnson graduate. “You have to take really odd-timed classes, either really early or really late, because they block out between 2 and 6 pm [when] you can’t have classes. You didn’t get a chance to meet people or you don’t go out and do different things.
“You don’t get to go to a play during Black History Month because you’re busy,” said Moore. “A couple of my teammates asked if they could join a Black sorority. The coach [said], ‘No, you need to focus on track, because you’re good and it is going to be too much.”
Then there’s the volunteer work — Moore recalled a U of M employee who organized the Black players. “We would go out to elementary schools and just be there. Just show up. Just showed our faces. It was really generic. It was fake. We didn’t do any real community connection building.”
Is this then a reason why Minnesota Black athletes often don’t connect off campus with the local Black community?
“It is very difficult to be involved in the community if you participate in sports,” said Olsen, who played Gopher women’s basketball (1988-90). “Your day is booked from 8 am until really when you go to bed at night.”
She noted that because of NCAA rules, “People [in the community] can’t help you connect to the community” such as by providing transportation to church or other off-campus locations, or providing a home cooked meal, for example.
“Because I am from Minnesota, my community was already here,’ added Olsen. “But when players come from out of town, they have to work to find how they can connect to this community. It’s tough, and because of NCAA rules, it makes it even tougher.”
“They [student-athletes] lose that connection to community, to elders — maybe their faith” after they are brought to campus, stated White. “We need to figure out how to address that.”
He pointed out that young people in college, whether they are in athletics or not, “for those four or five years” need that time to grow. “They may grow in their involvement in athletics, but they come to a standstill in some of the other things that are needed in order for them to grow up in community.”
As a result, he surmised that Blacks and other student-athletes of color “get used up” while in college.
Finally, Lewis said that intercollegiate athletics often hinder Black athletes not only from connecting with the so-called outside world, but also in allowing them to develop an identity away from their sport.
“Sports and the classroom is your life. [But] it is also a time to figure out who you are,” he said.
Visit the MSR website for Richard Lapchick and The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport (TIDES) with the latest on graduation rates for men’s and women’s teams participating in the NCAA tournaments.
Next week: A new 21st century college sport model?
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to email@example.com.
Charles Hallman is a contributing reporter and award-winning sports columnist at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder.