[guest post by JVW]
Last week, two academics from the College of Education and Human Ecology at Ohio State University — sorry, The Ohio State University — addressed the national crisis of an autumn which thus far has been deprived of college football in the Big 10 and Pac 12 conferences. Professor Matthew J. Mayhew and PhD candidate Musbah Shaheen, writing in Inside Higher Ed, welcomed the recently-announced return of tOSU Football by arguing that “college football may be an essential element of our functioning democracy,” suggesting that love of one’s Dear Old Alma Mater was a force that unified Americans across racial and political lines. While acknowledging that “it pains us to admit that college football may play a starring role in the political theater of American life,” the authors managed to insist that athletic departments provide the student-athletes both the highest level of safety possible as well as a platform to peacefully protest all of the unjustness which bedevils our society at every turn. The essay was a bit overblown and trite, but the arguments seemed pretty mainstream.
And then apparently all hell broke loose.
First, various social justice “experts” took to Twitter to bemoan the “privilege,” the “center[ing] of whiteness,” the benefit to “the owning class,” the whiff of “white racial authority,” and the lack of emphasis on “empowering minoritized [sic] communities” by “individuals and organizations in positions of power who do not value their lives or actively seek to limit their rights.” Goodness me! What also really set these 280-character warriors alight is that the authors apparently ignored contrary conclusions from research done by academics at some of our nation’s premier third- and fourth-tier institutions. (Yep, that’s very churlish of me to write, but for fun note how many of these pseudo-intellectuals describe themselves as Democratic Socialists or experts in Marxist theory.)
This led to a long-winded (and believe me, I’m an expert on long-winded) letter to the editor from a history professor at Dallas College taking great umbrage with the idea that anyone with a keycard to the faculty restroom would promote the idea of college athletics, especially that middlebrow (his word, not mine) sport of football, as a positive force. He bemoans the fact that alumni will give generously to athletic programs while playing cheap with academic departments (here’s a hint, professor: perhaps it begins with faculty members not haughtily insulting the interests of donors). Contrary to the Mayhew/Shaheen thesis of football being a unifying presence, our dissenting history professor in Dallas sees the game as — stop me if you’ve heard this one — an exploitation of black bodies for the amusement of white audiences. This message has unfortunately thus far failed to make its way to the exploited athletes themselves, who spent much of the end of summer begging their conferences to resume play.
So in a sane world, Professor Mayhew and Doctor-to-be Shaheen might have replied to the letter (and, by extension, to the tweets) with a defense of their article. They could have pointed out — I will reiterate it — that college athletes overwhelmingly wanted to play this fall, undercutting the Sandersian rubbish that these youngsters are “indentured servants” or “Roman gladiators.” They could have outlined the economic impact to the athletic department and the university of playing versus not playing, and how the potential cancellation of the season was already wreaking havoc in athletic departments, even if some of that havoc was mere pretext. They could have doubled-down on the idea of sports being a unifying force which allows us to rally around something other than our ethnic/racial/tribal/political instincts.
But no, Professor Matthew J. Mayhew of The Ohio State University chose to capitulate, and did so in such a disgraceful and contemptible manner as to beggar belief. In a follow-up piece in Inside Higher Ed, he describes himself as “uninformed, ignorant and harm inducing,” before stooping to grovel:
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.
I can hardly bear to share any more of his Maoist self-criticism except to let you know that he makes an impressive attempt to shoehorn in every single buzzphrase from Critical Race Theory:
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, [blah, blah, blah] positions student athletes as white property. [blah blah, blah] I placed the onus of responsibility for democratic healing on Black communities whose very lives are in danger every single day [blah, blah, blah] the Black community can’t benefit from ideals they can’t access. [blah, blah, blah] words like “distraction” and “cheer” erase the present painful moments within the nation and especially the Black community.
[blah, blah, blah] my love for Black athletes on the field doesn’t translate into love within the larger community [blah, blah, blah] I have taken pleasure in events that ask Black athletes to put their bodies on the line and take physical risks. [blah, blah, blah] Black men who often are conditioned by society and structural racism in ways that lure them into athletics [blah, blah, blah].
[blah, blah, blah] I have harmed communities of color with my words. [blah, blah, blah] — my uninformed, careless words — often express an ideology wrought in whiteness and privilege. [blah, blah, blah] my commitment to diversity has been performative, ignoring the pain the Black community and other communities of color have endured in this country. [blah, blah, blah]
[blah, blah, blah] another burden of a white person haunted by his ignorance. [blah, blah, blah] the scores of others whose pain I didn’t fully see, [blah, blah, blah] the tears and emotions I’ve experienced being caught in an ignorant racist moment.
I’ll hold out faint hope that this was in itself a performative act, with the professor gamely trying to tweak the academic grievance community by mindlessly repeating their banalities back to them, but I am guessing that these are the legitimate thoughts of Professor Mayhew, now that his mind has been reoriented to Goodthink. I wish him the best, though I don’t think his professional (or for that matter personal) life is going to get any better from here.