Why America Needs College Football -- Part 2

Matthew J. Mayhew apologizes for an article that he recently wrote for Inside Higher Ed and describes beginning a long process of antiracist learning.

September 29, 2020
 
 

It doesn’t. I was wrong. And even worse, I was uninformed, ignorant and harm inducing.

I recently led a piece in Inside Higher Ed titled “Why America Needs College Football.” I am sorry for the hurt, sadness, frustration, fatigue, exhaustion and pain this article has caused anyone, but specifically Black students in the higher education community and beyond.

I am struggling to find the words to communicate the deep ache for the damage I have done. I don’t want to write anything that further deepens the pain experienced by my ignorance related to Black male athletes and the Black community at any time, but especially in light of the national racial unrest. I also don’t want to write anything that suggests that antiracist learning is quick or easy. This is the beginning of a very long process, one that started with learning about the empirical work related to Black college football athletes.

Rather than make excuses, I should talk about which facets of the article that I have recently learned are harmful -- through my students, wider social media community and distinguished academics like Donna Ford, Joy Gaston Gayles and Gilman Whiting.

I learned that I could have titled the piece “Why America Needs Black Athletes.” I learned that Black men putting their bodies on the line for my enjoyment is inspired and maintained by my uninformed and disconnected whiteness and, as written in my previous article, positions student athletes as white property. I have learned that I placed the onus of responsibility for democratic healing on Black communities whose very lives are in danger every single day and that this notion of “democratic healing” is especially problematic since the Black community can’t benefit from ideals they can’t access. I have learned that words like “distraction” and “cheer” erase the present painful moments within the nation and especially the Black community.

Upon such beginnings of reflection, I have also learned that my love for Black athletes on the field doesn’t translate into love within the larger community -- that I have been dismissive of Black lives in moments not athletically celebrated. I have learned that I have taken pleasure in events that ask Black athletes to put their bodies on the line and take physical risks. I have been entertained by Black men who often are conditioned by society and structural racism in ways that lure them into athletics where the odds of making it are slim to none.

I am just beginning to understand how I have harmed communities of color with my words. I am learning that my words -- my uninformed, careless words -- often express an ideology wrought in whiteness and privilege. I am learning that my commitment to diversity has been performative, ignoring the pain the Black community and other communities of color have endured in this country. I am learning that I am not as knowledgeable as I thought I was, not as antiracist as I thought I was, not as careful as I thought I was. For all of these, I sincerely apologize.

I know it’s not anyone’s job to forgive me, but I ask for it -- another burden of a white person haunted by his ignorance. To consider the possible hurt I have played a role in, the scores of others whose pain I didn’t fully see, aches inside me -- a feeling different and deeper than the tears and emotions I’ve experienced being caught in an ignorant racist moment.

To all communities of color and especially the Black community, I am sorry for causing pain by ignoring yours. I really hate the idea of hurting anyone. I hate that I have done this: if I had not ignored the pain of so many, this article would have never been written. I hate that my students have to carry my ignorant racist energy with them at all times. I hate that I brought a graduate student into this space with me as a co-author: Musbah Shaheen, I am sorry. I hate the fact that I have hurt my colleagues at Ohio State and the field of higher education, especially Black scholars whose careers have been spent studying Black lives. I am sorry for ignoring your scholarship. I hate that I have let down my Black friends and friends of color, whom I love.

I am immeasurably grateful to the grace extended by Donna, Joy and Gilman and for their willingness to work with me on these issues. I know they are taking a risk by partnering with me on this pathway. I know that they are carrying a burden by even taking any time with me. I want to thank them.

To really begin the long process of antiracist learning, I am designing a plan for change, for turning the “I am sorry” to “I will change” -- for moving Black Lives Matter from a motto to a pathway from ignorance and toward authentic advocacy. To do this, a colleague of mine asked me to center the question: What can I do to unlearn patterns that hurt and harm Black communities and other communities of color? My center is as a learner, so movement for me will involve unlearning and relearning by listening, reading, dialoguing, reflecting and writing as a means for increasing my awareness and knowledge about systemic racism and the experiences of people of color and people who hold marginalized identities different from my own. I need time to reflect on the specifics of this plan, which includes accountability measures, and I am hoping news media like Inside Higher Ed will consider working with me and others on pieces that come from its enaction.

To be clear, no one should ever put their bodies on the line for entertainment. To be clear, football -- like COVID-19 -- places Black bodies at disproportional risk. To be clear, experts are not immune to ignorance. To be clear, no one can be antiracist and ignore Black pain and that of other communities of color.

Bio

Matthew J. Mayhew is the William Ray and Marie Adamson Flesher Professor of Higher Education at Ohio State University.

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