Calling Audibles Part XX: White Out

“If we say that we have no sin,
we deceive ourselves,
and the truth is not in us”

~1 John 1:8

Living a lie is a well-worn habit for human kind.   We human beings tend to avoid hard truths especially when they might mean we have to change.  The tenacity of our denial tends to increase the more there is to lose.

I will confess my own shortcoming in the face of all of this football mess here at UNC—anger.

There have been several angry moments during this situation for me.  Many have told me that my anger is justified.  And I know many, too, who are angry right along with me.  Even righteous anger, however, is not from whence I want to speak.

Anger, in and of itself, is not a problem.  It is an emotion that can give us some helpful information and lead us to needed change.  At the same time anger can become an affliction, a toxic emotion that can diminish our lives if it has too much power.  If we give in too much to anger it can distort our vision instead of leading us to life giving change.

Since the Taylor Branch, Bill Friday panel on February 28 at UNC I have struggled anew to find a place that is not angry from which to write.

For days I have prayed, talked, and reflected on the panel.  Even while I have attempted to do some writing about this event, I have resisted posting on my blog until now because I sought a more generous space than anger gave me.

With God’s help and with the wisdom of a good friend, Emmett Gill, I have gotten to a place from which to write that is not simply about anger.  I have gotten there not because the causes and conditions that gave rise to my anger have changed, but because I feel God’s generosity in the Divine call in all of our lives to speak truth.  Emmett suggested that I start with my struggle with anger.  Because of that I can see that within the framework of God’s call to tell the truth my anger can be what prods for me to take the risk and speak again, instead of diminishing the opportunity in all of this for new life, new wisdom.

Yes, I am angry.  And I also care.  And I write from a place of love and respect for many good people involved in the football family at UNC—and from a firm belief that the world can be a better place if we find the courage to speak the truth.   It is love and faith then, not simply anger that takes the white of an empty page and fills it in with the testimony my experience.

My writing here is my own personal resistance to the excessive use of WHITE OUT that characterizes the dominant narrative in the world of athletics in Chapel Hill these days.  

White Out is, of course, the handy dandy stuff you can buy at Staples that literally replaces your ugly mistakes with a lovely white veneer that is ready and waiting for you to rewrite history in a way that feels better to you.  Whiting Out is literally the erasure of a narrative to be replaced with another.

And it just so happens that in this particular situation in Chapel Hill, the White Out of rewriting history also involves the Whiting Out habits of white mentalities.  This Whiting Out is the veneer that the mentalities of white privilege, paternalism, and exclusion create.  Whiting Out is the hushing of truth that comes from the margins in favor of the norms and narratives of a privileged Whited-Out worldview.

Since it’s basketball season and the Tar Heels are a number one seed, lots of people in the Tar Heel world really don’t want to hear about anything but Carolina blue.  But those powdered blue lenses can deceive even the most well-meaning of us to over look the White Out, and see blue skies instead of the gray areas that truth may lead us into.

If you weren’t there at the Taylor Branch panel you missed a telling example of how this University is attempting to deal with what happened with the football program.  From where I sat, the event embodied the deep crisis of conscience that has so many of us in its grip right now.  We all know that something is very wrong about what happened at UNC with the NCAA and the football program during these last two years.   And people of good faith and good intention want to understand and do better.   Many want to make changes and live into brighter days.  The problem is that there is no official expression of an institutional will to hear and include the diverse voices of those who were most intimately affected by what happened.

The demographic of the panel itself embodies this lack of official institutional will. Three aging white male academics, even with keen insights and stellar experience and expertise, do not an adequate panel on the problems of big time college athletics make.  While I appreciate the perspective of each of these accomplished gentlemen, especially the courageous work of Taylor Branch, the true story of what happened at UNC cannot be told without players, coaches, and other involved administrators (like Holden Thorp) at the table.

Maybe Holden Thorp was in the audience, but I didn’t see him anywhere.  And I was disappointed not to see him since he was one of the main power brokers in this situation.   I was saddened to look up on that stage and see a completely white panel discussing the apparent problems of a phenomenon in our culture that is largely composed of people of color.  And it hurt again to hear another official conversation of which so little corresponds with what my family and I and the players we love experienced.  I don’t understand why an institution of higher learning that boasts a free exchange of ideas cannot have a more inclusive conversation on these issues?

For integrity to be robust it much be procedural and not simply rhetorical in any institution.  UNC has compromised its integrity through its own exclusionary and demeaning procedures ironically set in motion to protect the integrity of the institution.  When abuses of power and denial of rights are ignored while rhetoric about the Carolina Way is supposed to make us all feel like the integrity of this place is in tact, the White Out is in full force.  What integrity has been preserved when members of this community are simply sacrificed as collateral damage to protect the institution?

The White Out wasn’t just at work in the panel’s racial make-up.  Rhetoric from Dr. Bill Friday blaming the football program, the boosters, and the players for threatening the academic integrity of UNC was chilling in its obliviousness.  I do not attribute any ill will to Dr. Friday or the faculty who support his viewpoint, but the story they are telling is not reflective of the complicated reality of what actually happened at UNC.

For instance, when my husband, Coach John Shoop, asked a question about how UNC could have better advocated for the players who were involved in the investigation, he received a startlingly confused response from Dr. Friday.   Dr. Friday explained that he was not aware of any problems in the way the young men were treated by UNC during the investigation and he wasn’t clear on what the question was.  When John rose again to clarify that players had been told not to get attorneys and that they had no advocates in the process, Dr. Friday had no response.  Taylor Branch attempted a reply from a more global and anti-NCAA perspective, but with an obviously limited knowledge about what transpired at UNC during the investigation.

There is a growing realization by more and more people that there is an institutional will to White Out major chapters of the story of the last two years of football.   A few faculty members have approached John and me, and we have been able to engage in constructive conversations.  People tell us over and over that they did not realize all the layers of what was happening.  Players who did nothing wrong were punished.  They were guilty until proven innocent.  Coaches were denied information about what was really going on and were denied opportunities to advocate for players.  And, of course, in the end, the coaches who could speak to some of the most disturbing realities of these last two years were fired.

The Whited Out reality is replaced with a narrative that says UNC is “moving on” and the problems have been solved now that the community is rid of the troublemakers.   John and I appreciate the many people who have wanted to talk and learn more.  We have learned more from them, too.  These conversations are a blessed coloring in of a more vivid picture of what happened.

Until white privilege is dealt with in a fearless way on an institutional level there will be more Whiting Out than coloring in.  And the destructive and hurtful mentalities of whiteness will persist.  And the resulting caricatures of young black men and the football program as interlopers, free-loaders, and trouble makers are also going to continue to find traction in this community.

Until power is shared and the table of conversation is expanded, the false dichotomies between academic integrity and athletic excellence are going to persistently block the strong growth of diverse and transformative communities here.

Until the secrecy and problematic modes of leadership that fueled the way UNC dealt with the NCAA investigation are truly revealed and examined out in the open, the same habits will persist even if new faces and names are put into positions of power.

Individuals do not reform cultures, inclusive communities do.

What could have been a model and revolutionary approach to dealing with the oppressive and destructive patterns in Big Time College Sports instead continues to unfold as an all too familiar story.  People with too much to lose don’t often seek the clarity that colors bring.  The Whited Out, smaller world works for them.  And the rest of us are left believing there will come a day when a Whited Out world gives way to our true colors.

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