By Aaron Leibowitz
(This piece is also published at Medium: https://medium.com/the-cauldron/in-wake-of-racist-ou-frat-video-reconsidering-college-sports-fandom-ee13168cbc22)
What does it mean to be a college sports fan? Is it setting up a tent and waiting in line for days to cop season tickets? Is it painting your chest and losing your voice heckling a rival at the free-throw line? Is it taking a caravan cross-country to support your team at a bowl game?
Should there be any more to it than that?
On Sunday, a video surfaced of members of the University of Oklahoma’s Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity singing a stomach-turning, brutally racist chant on a bus. The words: “There will never be a n***** SAE. There will never be a n***** SAE. You can hang him from a tree but he can never sign with me, there will never be a n***** SAE.”
University President David Boren took swift action by shutting down OU’s SAE chapter and giving its members until the end of the day Monday to leave campus. Meanwhile, the student body protested. Athletes, including members of a Sooners football program that has won seven NCAA Division I National Championships, were among them.
On social media, those athletes expressed their anger at an institution and a student body that worships them for their performance on the field, but does not accept them as full human beings off it.
“Crazy cause after the games they welcome us through their doors with open arms,” tweeted linebacker Ogbonnia Okoronkwo.
“[These] are the same motherf—ers shaking our hands, giving us hugs, telling us how you really love us,” said linebacker Eric Striker in a Snapchat video that went viral. In an interview at a protest Monday morning, Striker spoke of an “institutional breakdown when it comes to minority relations here at the university.”
— Danielle Dunn (@DanielleDunnOKC) March 9, 2015
“It hurts and many other frats have been saying racial things… And we truly have [sat] back and just had to take it,” defensive end Charles Tapper tweeted. “[W]e appreciate everybody apologizing…But we need people to come stick up for us.”
Students at big-time sports schools pay tens if not hundreds of thousands of dollars to live in an environment where they can both receive a first-rate education and indulge in a super-intense, super-fun fan culture. They pay extra for their season tickets. Typically, they operate in an entirely separate universe from the football and basketball players — except, of course, on gameday.
At Oklahoma and elsewhere, it’s easy to see why many athletes feel like they exist on campus solely for the entertainment of the student body. That feeling can only be exacerbated 100-fold if you’re a black athlete on a predominantly black team at a predominantly white institution where racist chants are sung and Confederate flags are flown.
In December, this frustration was voiced perfectly by University of Maryland wide receiver Deon Long, who held a sign at a Black Lives Matter protest that read: “Are we still thugs when you pay to watch us play sports?
To some degree, this power dynamic between fans and athletes is inevitable in an NCAA system dependent on the exploitation of black labor. But that doesn’t mean its supporters — the students, the fans — cannot be more responsible in their fandom. Part of what’s both dangerous and powerful about sports-crazed campuses is the atmosphere of family and community centered around sports. When 82,000 people pack into Oklahoma Memorial Stadium to rally around a common goal, that’s a powerful thing. In those moments, Sooners fans care deeply about the players on the field.
Imagine if the same level of support showered on Sooners football players after a big win were being showered on them now in a moment of deep anger and pain. Or imagine if 82,000 people banded together to demand that athletes be treated like campus employees and get paid what their labor is worth. Or imagine if the explosive energy felt inside a college basketball arena were harnessed to fight for college athletes’ right to unionize. The NCAA would disintegrate before our very eyes.
Monday’s protests at OU, organized by a black student alliance called Unheard, offered a beautiful example of students showing solidarity with black athletes, students and faculty. There, and on other campuses across the country, the connections between toxic racism in academic institutions and toxic racism in college sports must not be forgotten. True college sports fans must go beyond painting their chests. True fans stand up for their favorite players when they are being dehumanized.
— Durron Neal (@RealDNeal) March 9, 2015