It didn’t take long after the emergence of a video showing members of a University of Oklahoma fraternity singing racist chants for it to have an effect on the school’s most successful athletic program.
By Monday, two days after the video of Sigma Alpha Epsilon members chanting that there’d “never be a n***** in SAE” first surfaced, Oklahoma’s football team had held a silent protest, walked out of practice, and joined an on-campus demonstration. Head coach Bob Stoops was there; so too were other athletes and head basketball coach Lon Kruger. Few of the reactions on social media drew as much attention as those from athletes, football players like linebacker Eric Striker in particular, and then four-star recruit Jean Delance backed out of his commitment to the Sooners program.
By Thursday, even after Oklahoma president David Boren had banished SAE from campus and expelled two students, the team still hadn’t returned to spring practice and issued a statement announcing that it wouldn’t until after spring break next week. Even then, they’ve promised to continue silent protests by wearing black to practice and during media interviews, all in an attempt to use their visibility to draw attention to issues of racism on campus and elsewhere.
It’s not surprising that black athletes — and yes, some of those who have spoken out and joined in the demonstrations are white — would in some ways drive responses to the video and discussions about racism on college campuses. And that’s not just because the Oklahoma football players now join a growing list of athletes who have used their platform to challenge different forms of racism over the past year.
Rather, it’s unsurprising because the athletes’ involvement in the response to the video highlights the role that athletics play in shaping the racial climate of college campuses, and how they do so: both because athletes make up a disproportionate share of black student bodies and because their status as athletes, and thus as students who exist separate from the normal student body, can affect the way black students as a whole are viewed.
Consider this: when a 2013 study from the University of Pennsylvania examined the racial make-up of undergraduate enrollments at the biggest NCAA schools, it found that black males made up just 2.7 percent of Oklahoma’s student body from 2007 to 2010 (overall, black students make up 5 percent, according to Forbes). At the same time, black men accounted for more than 61 percent of the scholarship roster spots in the school’s two biggest sports, basketball and football. In 2008, Inside Higher Education found that 25 percent of the black male students at Oklahoma were athletes. There isn’t school-specific data on women’s sports in that report, but it found much of the same writ large: black women account for 3.7 percent of undergraduate enrollments at those schools, but 59.4 percent of women’s basketball team.
Naturally, then, the fact that black athletes make up such a large portion of the black student base makes it incredibly likely that they will also contribute to, if not lead, the response to incidents like the SAE video.
But the role of athletics doesn’t begin with protests. To the contrary, sports, and the disproportionate number of black students who are athletes, helps shape the type of overall racial environment that contributes to attitudes that undergird incidents like these. That a disproportionate number of black students are athletes doesn’t cause drunk frat boys to engage in racist chants, but it does contribute to a perception that black students exist outside the “normal” campus life in a way that can make these types of incidents — or more subtle and structural incidents of racism — more likely.
The history of the acceptance of black students on campus is tied largely to two factors: affirmative action policies and the integration of collegiate athletics, both of which began in the early 1960s. Access to exclusive schools either through affirmative action or athletic talent, both of which are seen as “special treatment” of sorts, contributes to the idea that black students don’t belong as their white peers do.
“I think what happens is, whether it’s a black athlete or a black general student, they’re not looked at as belonging there,” said Louis Moore, a Grand Valley State University history professor who specializes in African-American history and sports. “Affirmative action on the one hand, or athletic access at the other, came at the same time. So you see a mass trickle of black students coming in and a large number of black athletes coming in, and they’re not seen as belonging there as the ‘normal’ white student who is seen as belonging there based on his grades.”
That black students are disproportionately athletes can exacerbate those views, especially because of the stereotypes that accompany college athletes. Those stereotypes are no secret: they are dumb jocks with little concern for their educations, a perception that can be even worse for black athletes. As Penn researcher Shaun Harper wrote of black college athletes in 2009, “One could easily summarize their status as Niggers with balls who enroll to advance their sports careers and generate considerable revenue for the institution without learning much or seriously endeavoring to earn their college degrees.”
As a result both of that perception and a bit of reality — the fact that athletes are in many ways disconnected from the main student body — athletes exist almost in a separate class on campus. They are, in a sense, “others,” and when a such a large portion of the black students on campus are athletes — or when the majority of black students other students might see are black athletes — it adds to the idea that all black students belong to this “other” class, altering the racial climate of campuses like Oklahoma’s.
“I don’t think any black student in general is looked at as a regular student — everyone just assumes they’re an athlete,” Moore said. “And that gives you the sense that automatically, you just don’t belong. If you’re an athlete, you’re solely here for my entertainment. I think that changes the perception of black males on campus, and it changes how they’re treated too.”
This isn’t just an issue at Oklahoma. The Penn study found that overall, black men comprised 2.8 percent of student bodies at schools in the biggest six NCAA conferences, but made up 57 percent of athletes on football rosters and 64 percent of those on basketball rosters. The Inside Higher Education investigation found that athletes made up at least 20 percent of the black male student population at 96 Division I NCAA schools and at least a third of the black male student population at 46 of them. The lack of black students — and the number of those students who are athletes — has been increasingly viewed as a higher education problem in recent years, and black students have highlighted the disparities too. A video from black students at UCLA released last year challenged the school’s administration over the fact that the school had more national championships than black men in its freshman class:
None of this is to excuse the students involved in the SAE video or the fraternity itself, which has a particularly sordid history of racism. And fraternity culture, rife as it is with an exclusionary nature that makes it prone to these sorts of incidents (and others), isn’t off the hook either. Athletics is merely a contributing factor, not a cause. But it is illustrative of the fact that booting SAE or the involved students off campus won’t immediately fix larger racial problems, because they are in many ways a microcosm of the broader university culture in which black students and especially black men are not seen as real students but as affirmative action cases or, perhaps worse, as dumb jocks whose primary purpose is to contribute entertainment value to the campus culture and brand of the university.
The SAE video may be an extreme incident. But when the majority of black students on campus are “others,” it’s hard to be surprised that the campus culture and many of its students treats them just the same.