College football and anti-Blackness

Photo by Kevin Lee Dr. Tracie Canada

College football is perhaps the only American sport where being Black is not fully embraced.  The sport and Major League Baseball for several decades competed in a turtle race on who would integrate last.

It took forever for Black quarterbacks to be field generals, and for Blacks to be head coaches—two of football’s highly treasured positions. Nearly 50% of major college football players are Black, but the majority of decision-makers on and off the field remains predominately White.

Some of us over the years have viewed college football as anti-Black. 

Notre Dame Assistant Anthropology Professor Tracie Canada wrote earlier this summer that “anti-Blackness and racism are woven into the fabric of the current [college football] system.” Its roots were planted in the late 19th Century and consistently watered by White Supremacy, spreading falsehoods about Blacks as not being smart enough to lead a team on the field as QB or coach. 

We contacted Dr. Canada and asked her to further explain her hypothesis. “As an anthropologist,” she stated, “I’ve been thinking about this for about 10 years now, talking to and hanging out with and learning from Black college football players, to understand what their experiences are and how they feel about the environment that they’re in.

“Why they chose to [play football] is really interesting” to her, continued Canada. “Why players in general, but Black players specifically, were still choosing to play football with all of this research that was starting to come out about long-term effects…that were becoming more prominent.”

The research Canada refers to is CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy), a progressive brain condition believed to be caused by repeated blows to the head, more associated with football and boxing. It cannot be accurately diagnosed during the affected person’s life, and there’s no cure. Warning signs usually include short-term memory loss and mood changes.

Asked if her research has drawn any ire, especially at Notre Dame, which to many fans is the cathedral of college football, Canada said not at least publicly. In her published article for the African American Intellectual History Society, she stressed, “Both on and off the field, Black players must navigate this atmospheric anti-Blackness.” 

It’s been a little over a year since America’s so-called racial awakening—the White guilt period that lasted maybe six months after the social unrest over George Floyd and other Blacks who died because of police violence. Institutions small and large, especially leaders of colleges’ and universities’ football teams, stumbled over themselves in their offers of “change” statements.

But as the 2021 football season gets underway, it looks like business as usual. “The deeply rooted anti-Black framework of the college football system cannot be substantially addressed with a pithy hashtag or a new logo or a fairly neutral public statement, said Canada. “College football is an institution dependent upon and implicated by racial capitalism, labor exploitation, and structural violence.”

Canada said she is in the middle of writing a book on college football she described as “the anthological version of ‘Friday Night Lights’.” The 2006 movie inspired an NBC series on a small Texas town where high school football was king and anti-Blackness reigned supreme. “My plan is in the next three years for the book to be a thing based on my dissertation research. 

“When I talk to anyone about football,” she said, “I’m having a conversation to think about things through a different lens… What I’m encouraging people to do is to think a little bit differently about some things [like college football] that they might take for granted and not think twice about.”