The Only One goes in search of Black college football fans

In this latest installment in our “Only One” series, we go in search of Black fans at college football games. This week the Only One takes the search to the U of M and Augsburg season openers.

The typical college football experience: Arrive early; eat outside the stadium like you’re breaking fast while wearing your school colors, then head inside for the game itself. But this experience is also segregated in the same way that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. observed of churches in America at 11 am on Sundays, only it’s Whites at their college games and Blacks at theirs.

Is this segregation by choice? Last weekend kicked off our month-long quest to seek answers to this question.

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“You won’t see a lot of people who look like us in a setting like this.”

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One longtime football fan told me he’ll watch college games on television but won’t go in person because he “don’t feel welcome,” since he isn’t an alumnus and doesn’t have a connection of some kind with the school or schools.

Minnesota Athletics Director Mark Coyle said last week that based on fan feedback, “We made the changes you’ll see on game days” at Gopher home football games this season. The Only One last Thursday arrived at the stadium a couple of hours before kickoff to check out these new changes.

We found Nella’s Barbecue food truck parked outside the new “Gopher Garden” in front of Mariucci Arena. The truck, whose proprietor is Michael Esaw, a 1979 Minneapolis North graduate, is among the new food and beverage options offered outside and inside the school’s football stadium.

Michael Esaw beside his food truck (Charles Hallman/MSR News)

“We got a full-service kitchen and an 800-pound smoker. We got State-approved, and the Minneapolis [Health Department’s approval] right away,” explained Esaw as he handed me a sample of his barbecue jerk chicken. “It’s a great Golden Gopher atmosphere,” he said.

“These are small but very positive steps toward building a better fan experience,” said Coyle on the game-day changes.

But some things we’re afraid haven’t changed, such as finding Black fans. As we strolled through the tailgating area — an on-campus parking lot otherwise — the “Why are you here?” stares from some White fans came our way before we finally ran into Brenda Williams. She told us that a co-worker got her tickets.

“Today we’re having buffalo meat because they [Minnesota] are playing Buffalo,” noted Williams, an experienced tailgater, though not usually at college games. “I am a big football fan, but pro football,” she admitted. “Food tastes better when you’re tailgating.”

“You won’t see a lot of people who look like us in a setting like this,” reported LaTia James, whose son plays for the Gophers. “Our network is Gopher parents…that look like me.”

LaTia James (Charles Hallman/MSR News)

Two days later, the Only One stood out like a sore thumb in the park across the street from Edor Nelson Field, the home of the Augsburg University Auggies. The mostly White gathering was there celebrating prior to the Northwestern-St. Paul contest.

Robert Harper (l) and Forrest Lloyd (Charles Hallman/MSR News)

Robert Harper, a 2016 Auggie graduate, told us that “a gap” exists between the school’s athletic events and most Black students and other students of color. They don’t attend, he noted.

“If there were a lot of people of color here,” they would be here due to a connection with the Black player or players, added Forrest Lloyd, who attended Augsburg 2009-13.  As a result, finding Black fans without such connections didn’t happen that night.

One Saturday down, three to go as our search for Black college football fans continues.

 

Next week: The Only One travels eastward to St. Paul. For more tales of the Only One, go to MSR News Online.

Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to challman@spokesman-recorder.com.