In the 2019-2020 school year there are a reported 164 African American identifying students currently enrolled at the University of Maine. This represents about 2% of campus, while Black students represent a clear majority of the student athlete community at UMaine. At an institution like UMaine where the only class offered that highlights Black identities is an introduction to African American history course, we are left to wonder if there is a lack of cohesion between obligation towards students and the responsibilities of the university.
It’s an election year, and we are experiencing a racial awakening in our country. We have seen institutions that benefit from diversity rally behind the fight against racial injustices. Sports leagues like the NFL, MLB and NASCAR have publicly denounced police brutality and an end white supremacy to take a stand with the Black Lives Matter movement. In that time we have seen the ugly truths of modern day inequality and systemic racism in America exposed. But in a state like Maine, the truth has been a hard pill to swallow.
UMaine is predominantly white, with many students being in-state from rural Maine. Though the student body lacks cultural and ethnic diversity, the athletics department brings in about 13% of the diversity through out-of-state recruitments, with the majority being African Americans and foreign exchange students. A common pattern seen here, compared to other universities, is the under utilization of marginalized groups within athletics to create a platform based on their identity and to incorporate that within regular student life.
In the past, on-campus groups focused on minority students like the Black Student Union (BSU) and Carribean and Latinx Student Alliance (CALSA) have not been able to breach the athletic barrier when it comes to building community based on common interests and culture. The systemic approach in the athletics department at UMaine has fostered the idea that Black and brown student athletes separate their identity from the rest of student life. Most student athletes at UMaine will tell you that they’re an athlete first. Most coaches and administrators will say that “They are a student first, athletics comes second, they are here to earn a degree,” which raises the question of which identity takes precedence.
Two years ago Fox News commentator Laura Inagraham held a segment called “Jocks on Politics” where she played a clip of NBA All-Star and U.S. Olympian Lebron James expressing his thoughts in an interview regarding living with President Trump as our new head “coach” of America. Ingraham proceed to go on a rant undermining his personal anecdote about living as a Black man in America and his lack of First Amendment rights by calling him a “dumb jock” and saying that he should just “shut up and dribble.”
This is not a new phrase we as Black athletes have heard. Within the student athlete community, and especially among Black student athletes, the fear of being othered or tokenized if they acknowledge their race and issues in our community about race to shape their awareness at a predominantly white institution. It goes back to the long history of prominent Black athletes being told to stick to sports with little to no room to deviate outside of that. No matter how close to home it hits, commenting on political issues in our community is not what we are here to do. Take for example how the nation reacted in 2016 when NFL quarterback Collin Kaepernick respectfully knelt in silent protest during the playing of the national anthem at a nationally televised game. For many of us, the fear of being black-listed or losing the scholarship given to us is just as common as being racially profiled.
It’s been close to a decade since UMaine has taken intentional steps towards combating cultural disparities on campus. With the recent murder of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor due to police brutality, higher instiutions nationwide have released statements condemning racism and committing to making an effort to combat discrimination.
But what does that look like? Recently, student athletes took to the streets or “trails” of UMaine to walk for unity and respect. With practices postponed due to Election Day, the event, planned for Nov. 3, made for an excellent opportunity for the most diverse group of students on campus to use their platforms to call for political action on an important day. It would make for a great opportunity for unspoken campus leaders, the ones we would cheer on from the stands every weekend, before the pandemic, and buy mock jerseys of, to address the problems that this country and university needs to answer for, like voter suppression in marginalized communities, racial discrimination in predominatly white areas, and most notably, police brutality.
Unfortunately, that was not the intention of the walk. The ways in which the University of Maine System has operated has been to move as close to the edge as possible without tipping over. Instead opting for a more photo-friendly approach, athletics and administration strategically chose to omit this march for Black lives as they didn’t want to create any controversy.
We have to ask whether Black lives really matter here in Maine. If coaches and staff that work with predominantly Black students cannot denounce institutional racism, what accountability on their end are they trying to avoid? It is self-serving and harmful to offer Black student athletes and the small percentage of Black, Indigenous and Person of Color studen body lip-service just so the administration can pat themselves on the back because they feel like they’ve accomplished something. Giving Black students permission to walk, without the autonomy to march for themselves is emotionally draining. To perpetuate the self-serving interests of white institutions that dismiss the experiences of the Black students that institutions need to fill diversity quotas while failing to aid in the healing of Black and brown students that offer up our emotional labor is erroneous. To offer us a chance to advocate for vague causes that deviates from the real issues is tactless.
Black Student Union