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Sunday, April 21, 2024

‘A Band-Aid isn't gonna heal a broken arm’: The history and role of race in UW athletics

On Jan. 18, 2022, a Badger fan made an anti-Asian gesture toward the Northwestern student section during a basketball game. Two days later, Chancellor Rebecca Blank and Athletic Director Chris McIntosh released a statement condemning the actions, including banning the fan from all future Wisconsin sporting events.

Chancellor Rebecca Blank even spoke beyond this incident, adding, “We also want to acknowledge that hateful behavior like this still happens far too often, on and off campus — towards members of our Asian, Pacific Islander and Desi American community as well as other marginalized communities. It inflicts pain and fear and causes students, staff and faculty to feel unwelcome and unsafe.”

This incident was far from isolated. Throughout the history of Wisconsin athletics, the university has both observed and partaken in plenty of racially insensitive demonstrations.

One of the more notorious incidents to ever occur at a Wisconsin sporting event took place at a home football game in October 2016. Two fans arrived at the game, one wearing a Donald Trump mask and holding a noose that was being worn by the other fan, who was also switching between wearing Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama masks. The pair were holding up a sign objecting to Clinton’s “What difference, at this point, does it make?” comment during congressional hearings on Benghazi in 2013. 

It didn’t take long for this behavior to be noticed and reported. Yet when confronted by the University of Wisconsin Police Department, the pair were only asked to take the noose off. They weren’t removed from the event, and none of their props were taken. Officials from the Wisconsin football program as well as the university police immediately cited “free speech” as cause for not taking any real action against the controversial fans. 

Outrage over this event was widespread; fans, politicians, and even Wisconsin’s own athletes took little time to voice their rage. Nigel Hayes, a member of the basketball team from 2013 to 2017, released a Twitter statement condemning the fans’ actions upon reflecting on personal racist experiences throughout his time in Madison and implored the university to take real action and not just sweep the event under the proverbial rug.

Hayes’s perspective shed light on some consequential factors to this disturbing trend. He first acknowledges that the issues of racism he’s experienced “are in no way localized to UW…”, but still believes that the university deserves to be held accountable. He continued, “... many universities across the nation need to start addressing how students of color are treated, and here at Wisconsin it starts at Bascom. Wisconsin can not only rely on statements, cultural competency emails and a few surveys to try and mediate this problem.”

I wondered the extent to which Hayes’s sentiment was shared among other students of color. So I spoke to Nile Lansana, a UW-Madison alumni and former sportswriter and editor-in-chief of The Black Voice, the university’s Black student newspaper. Lansana vehemently agreed with Hayes’ criticism, adding, “What normally happens is that something will go down — a racist incident, a hate crime — and UW’s response is a diversity statement. Maybe some sort of proctored statement, a little something else, and then it’s ‘just keep it moving’.” Lansana stressed, “A band-aid is not gonna heal a broken arm.”

Hayes and Lansana echoed a general suspicion shared by some students of color: Wisconsin’s efforts to combat racism are largely performative. Indications of these thoughts are peppered throughout the school’s history. 

An example of such suspicion coincides with one of the athletic program’s first significant “progressive” moments. In 1956, the Wisconsin football team canceled two of their scheduled games against Louisiana State University, set for 1957 and 1958, after the state of Louisiana formally outlawed social events and athletic contests that mixed white and Black people. This created an obvious conflict with the presence of numerous Black players on Wisconsin’s team at the time.

The swift decision to publicly cancel both games bolstered UW-Madison’s reputation as a progressive university, although there were flaws in that image. Wisconsin replaced the 1958 LSU cancellation for a game in Miami. The crowd in that Orange Bowl stadium was racially segregated. Even worse, a letter from a University of Miami student sent to The Daily Cardinal described the game’s racist environment: “The popular chant in my section of the game was ‘Get that n——,’ or ‘Kill that n——,’” the student wrote.

That article also included commentary on the game’s outcome, which finished 20-0 in favor of Wisconsin, stating, “The university in that game served to humiliate the southern bigots — and we’re proud of it for that. After all, that is all part of the University of Wisconsin Idea.” 

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This quote was symbolic of a pattern in which Wisconsinites were more concerned with establishing superiority over the South than creating actual change for their Black players. It was as if Wisconsin’s efforts regarding equity were mostly performative — the same sentiment echoed by Nigel Hayes nearly 60 years later. 

I could point to instances of racism at sporting events from universities all over the country. What makes Wisconsin any different? One factor could be that Wisconsin’s reputation and image as an institution are especially associated with white people, reflected in its ranking as 10th in diversity out of the 14 Big Ten schools. Thus, it is human nature for white racists to feel more comfortable expressing racism in an environment they perceive as white.

Wisconsin’s student body includes a staggering 65.1% white population. Of the 14 universities in the Big Ten, only four had a greater proportion of white students than Wisconsin: Indiana (65.6%), Michigan State (66%), Iowa (71.5%) and Nebraska (73%) [all as of 2019].

The university has actually done a successful job in increasing diversity, as the percentage of undergraduates who are racial or ethnic minorities has doubled within the past twenty years. UW-Madison proudly reported this past fall that it had admitted its largest — and most ethnically and racially diverse — class in the university’s history. Approximately 25.2% of the class of 2025 are students of color.

Yet, somehow, the Black student demographic has actually shrunk from 2.18% in 2002 to 2.03% in 2021. 

The white image follows the university elsewhere, including in sports. When the men’s basketball team reached the Final Four in 2000 for the first time since 1941, there was only one Black starter, the rest white. Wisconsin’s 2014 team that reached the Final Four and their squad in 2015 that made it to the National Championship only sported one Black player in the starting lineup. 

Furthermore, when you reminisce over the history of Wisconsin football, you may think of iconic Black players like Ron Dayne, Russell Wilson and Jonathan Taylor. Yet, when you look closer at Wisconsin’s NFL output, white players dominate. Within the previous ten NFL Drafts, Wisconsin has had 37 Badgers drafted. Of that group, 25 players were white — close to 70%. This is in a league with only 25% white players.

It can be argued that Wisconsin’s white image is partially self-perpetrated. During the 2019-20 academic year, just days before Homecoming Week, the student homecoming committee was tasked with producing a short video. The result showed a sunny campus, students cheering at a football game, and aimed to simply showcase student life. “Home is where we grow together,” a voice narrated. 

The problem: virtually every student in the video was white. Whether consciously or subconsciously, the (soon-deleted) video completely dismissed a considerable portion of the school’s population. Payton Wade, a former UW student and member of Alpha Kappa Alpha, commented on the video shortly after it was released, “We were tagged on Facebook when they said a ‘thank you’ to all of the organizations who participated in the video. And I watched the video and I realized that we weren’t in it.” 

Students of color were simply ignored. This sort of dismissive attitude bleeds through to the rest of the university, saturating athletics. 

The university’s efforts within the past few years to combat racism culminated in a July 2020 blog post from Chancellor Rebecca Blank titled “Addressing racial inequalities on campus.” This post laid out the university’s plans to deal with Wisconsin’s past and continuing racism and racial injustice issues. Examples of her propositions included creating a new Office of Inclusive Education, devoting millions of dollars to implementing a more diverse student body, faculty and staff and requiring that search committees take specific classes in race and implicit bias.

Did the blog post adequately address the needs of students of color? Referring back to the Nigel Hayes statement, Hayes expressed his desires for Chancellor Blank and the rest of the administration to “... create real programs, initiate meaningful change and understand that students of color deserve to thrive in this institution just like our peers.” 

When asked about the perceived nature of the blog post, Lansana expressed doubt, “It felt like it was more trying to protect an image. In the same way there are students filling a diversity quota for the university. In the same way that when these incidents happen, a statement is put out, then we just keep it moving. It felt like that.” 

We see what the university does in the aftermath of a racist incident, but what are they doing to ensure that fewer of those incidents happen at all? A phrase Lansana used more than once when describing the university’s responses to racism and injustice was “reactive and not proactive.”

Yet, sometimes the university can’t even get the “reactive” part right. Months after the blog post, in October 2020, Chancellor Blank hosted a Zoom meeting with editors from The Black Voice newspaper, including Lansana. The goal of the meeting was to address communication between Black students and the university administration. 

Ultimately, the students walked away unimpressed. Lansana recalled, “We were talking to her about the responsibility that she has to make sure that she’s communicating with students about issues, and she basically said that’s not her job, that’s not her responsibility, she has people for that.” 

The students were justifiably upset. “You are supposed to be representing us. If we cannot communicate with you and we can not express how our experiences are here, directly to you, how do we know you’re here for us? How do we know that you are genuinely prioritizing our needs and not checking a box?” Lansana questioned.

The university must understand what is in its control. Isolated racist incidents that occur anywhere on campus may be out of their power at that moment. But those perpetuated in our stadiums, arenas and gyms — where university and athletics officials have the most oversight — shouldn’t befall the same fate. The UW-Madison administration cannot approach each of these issues as if they are singular; they must recognize their own responsibilities, in addition to their predecessors. 

At the very least, Chancellor Blank and the rest of Bascom Hall owe it to the student-athletes of color to care.

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Donnie Slusher

Donnie Slusher is the sports editor for the Daily Cardinal. He has written multiple breaking news stories, sports columns and an in-depth examination of race in Wisconsin football. Follow Donnie on Twitter at @DonnieSlusher_

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