The cultural disconnect black football players often encounter at predominantly white universities exists not only across racial groups but also within them.
Several black players who spoke to ESPN.com about their experiences with race and racism on campus described gaps with the black student population. Despite shared challenges and common causes, the two groups often struggle to come together.
The tension at Northwestern built to a point that, in the spring of 2013, former Wildcats player Jarrell Williams orchestrated a meeting between black athletes (mostly football players) and black students. Williams called the meeting One Greater Community.
The black students, who showed up en masse for football games, felt little to no support from athletes for their initiatives. The football players countered that they simply didn’t have time.
“Athletes, we’re in one area of the school for most of our four years,” Williams said. “Rarely have we gone out to join a movement and feel involved. That’s probably why you’d get those results. Non-athletes spend more time on campus. Their exposure to racism is higher. We’re at the stadium a lot of the time.
“It was frustrating for both sides. As much as we wanted to be there for them, we couldn’t.”
Shaun Harper, an associate professor at University of Pennsylvania who founded the school’s Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education, said it’s a common issue among black student populations. Harper conducted a single-site study focused on student-athletes and found that black athletes “were not connected with other blacks and students of color on campus with larger racial justice issues because they didn’t have time.”
“The black students don’t really understand what the athlete is about, and there’s an impasse between them,” said Harry Edwards, professor emeritus of sociology at the University of California Berkeley. “They don’t understand why the athletes don’t join them in speaking out about a lack of black professors. They don’t understand why these athletes don’t stand up and say, ‘Hey, we’re with you.’”
Former Florida State safety Myron Rolle said he saw the same chasms develop on FSU’s campus. The Seminoles safety had a life consumed mostly by football and his teammates. He only branched out during his junior year, when he joined Kappa Alpha Psi, a black fraternity.
“I wanted to find other like-minded black men, who weren’t associated with my life as a football player,” said Rolle, who became a Rhodes Scholar at FSU. “Having people like that to bounce ideas off of and having people like that to challenge you really made me round out into a very holistic, strong-minded and ready-to-take-on-the-world person when I graduated from FSU. It was big for me to meet other guys and other girls of color around campus.”
Vanderbilt defensive tackle Jay Woods felt a similar distance with the black student population, so last year he joined a panel with the school’s NAACP chapter to better discuss the black experience on campus. Other black players said they would try to at least greet other black students when they saw them on campus.
Experts say perceived privilege is a primary cause of the tension between black students and black athletes. Dr. Charles K. Ross, an associate history professor at Ole Miss and director of the school’s African-American studies program, said the dramatically different living, academic and social resources football players have enabled the divide.
It causes some black students to feel as though athletes’ on-campus experiences don’t necessarily compare to theirs.
“That is extremely problematic,” Ross said. “Just because you’re on scholarship, that doesn’t take away your opinion and, more importantly, it doesn’t mean that you’re no longer an African-American in this society.”
While there are major social differences, these groups are culturally bound and Ross said it’s important that they unify. Ross thinks that relations between the two are mostly cordial, but understands that interactions can be awkward without constant, productive communication, like what Williams initiated at Northwestern.
“It was open to anybody, and we sat in these circles and hashed it out,” Northwestern defensive lineman C.J. Robbins said. “It went back and forth. Did it work? I don’t know. But the people that were there now say hi to me a lot more. It’s a lot more friendly than just walking past us on the street like we’re not there.”