Calling Audibles Part XXIII: The Anatomy of the Asterisk

“White people are accountable for the ways in which we fail to hear and understand the needs and claims that other communities make upon us… white learning [often] comes at the expense of those already multiply harmed by white interpersonal and structural failures in perception, sensitivity, and justice.” –Aana Marie Vigen, “To Hear and to Be Accountable” in disrupting White Supremacy From Within:  White People on What We Need to Do”

UNC just can’t seem to help itself.

They keep worsting themselves with the football fiasco.  Now Hakeem Nicks, the all time best receiver ever to put on the Carolina blue jersey, will have an asterisk next to all of his records set during the 2008 season.  According to the News and Observer (and I am sure there is more to the story than they are reporting) Hakeem was involved in the “improper benefits” and “academic fraud” that involved a tutor assisting players with papers.   Don’t think for a minute that because you have read the newspaper or even talked to people close to the situation that you know the whole story.  Unless you have talked directly to Hakeem Nicks and Jennifer Wiley about this, you do not know the whole story.

Let’s just say for the sake of argument that Hakeem did receive assistance with a paper from tutor, Jennifer Wiley.  Where does retroactively punishing him get anyone?  For Hakeem, this strategy offers him no opportunity for recourse or for due process.  Had he been held accountable for something of this nature at the time, his whole season would not have an asterisk.  He may have missed a game or two and had to pay for tutoring services.   He may have had the opportunity to go before the Honor Council if the action merited it.  We’ll never know since there was no opportunity for a process of investigation and accountability to play out in any way that is fair.   So what could UNC possibly be getting out of this punishment after the fact?

This public act of chastening seems to fly in the face of claims that the institution is about “restoring its integrity” and “getting to the bottom of what really happened.” So while you are putting an asterisk next to Hakeem’s record setting 2008 season, put an asterisk next to UNC’s statements about integrity and the “Carolina Way.”

And we might want to track down any college student who has ever had someone assist them with writing a paper (come on, you know who you are) and put an asterisk next to their degree.  Heck, put an asterisk next to whatever job they have now or anything they accomplished while in school.  If they received assistance on a paper, it’s all suspect, right?

What I want is for someone at the University of North Carolina to finally come out and say what all this is really about for them.  Institutional abuses of power and public chastenings are exercised to send a message. And the message is coming through loud and clear.

Several days ago while walking down to the street to go to the beach where we are on vacation I passed a large house being rented by a big family.  Several of the cars had UNC stickers on them.  Soon after they arrived they hoisted the rebel flag and it flew proudly above the place they were vacationing for their entire stay.  It is a disturbing message no matter what it means to the people who felt moved to pack it along with their bathing suits and go to the trouble of hanging it up.  No matter how you spin it, it is not a welcome mat for people of color.  That’s the collective, cultural understanding of that symbol whether some people want it to be or not.

We can say the same thing about these punitive measures taken by UNC toward now 18 black young men who came to UNC to be students and play football.  This whole situation embodies a deep ambivalence toward the realities of life in diverse communities.  Sharing power, listening to voices other than the voices of those who hold institutional power, making space for justice that takes into account the complexities of big time football, and just simply having in place standards of due process have all been conspicuously absent in this situation.  So why not put an asterisk next to statements that the University has made about valuing diversity and not discriminating against anyone based on race.

Take Dwight Jones’ case as a way to explore the anatomy of the asterisk when it comes to big time football at an institution who does business like UNC.  Here’s a young man who, along with Hakeem, stands as the best wide receiver ever to play at North Carolina.  He’s a native son of North Carolina.  He worked hard to take care of his business while a student at UNC.  And he is just a few hours from graduating.  He was not involved in the tutor and benefits scandal.  Dwight’s cousin posted a picture on Dwight’s Facebook page this past December to advertise a birthday party for Dwight.  Dwight had not seen the picture until UNC officials showed it to him and told him he was ineligible for the bowl game because of an impermissible use of his image.

Dwight got the cousin to take it down, made a statement and was ruled eligible to play.  And the backstory to that process does not make UNC look like they learned anything about due process.  I know that to be true because my husband, John Shoop, was directly involved in walking along with Dwight through it all.

Dwight played in the bowl game.  Afterward, his time at UNC was over and he was preparing for the draft.  His cousin apparently put the picture back up and had the party.  Dwight did not attend the party.  Just a few days before UNC’s pro day when Dwight would have worked out for pro scouts from all the NFL teams, Bubba Cunningham (AD at UNC) called him to say he was not welcome at the pro-day because the picture had gone back up and the party had gone on.  When Dwight said he didn’t go to the party, that didn’t matter to Mr. Cunningham because of a “zero tolerance policy.”  Zero tolerance of what, I wonder.  Zero tolerance of family members who do things we wish they hadn’t?  Zero tolerance of situations in which no NCAA violation actually occurred?  Zero tolerance of honoring four years of being an important and positive part of the Carolina community and having a shot at an NFL career?  Bubba Cunningham’s message was clear:  “You are not welcome here.”

Dwight went on not to even get drafted.  We’ve heard that there was an asterisk, a red flag next to Dwight for “off the field issues” because of UNC’s actions.   What a needlessly sad turn of events after a great college career.  Dwight’s life so altered because of a picture his cousin put up on Facebook indicates a profoundly distorted institutional will to “make an example” of disobedient players.

My family still is picking up the pieces, still stitching back together what our present and future life looks like in the wake of our time at UNC.  We’ve learned a lot.  We’re still grieving.  And when we hear things like Dwight’s story and Hakeem’s, we feel angry all over again.  Most of all, I am sad.  I am sad for Dwight, for Hakeem, for Devon, for Deunta, for Greg, and for so many others who wonder what it all means for them at this point in their young lives.  For UNC to go from one of the best things that ever happened to them to one of the worst is such a needlessly cruel twist.

And the most tragic part of this on-going fiasco is that those who are the most blind, the most oblivious continue to benefit from the situation.  How about we put an asterisk next to all the money generated from the sale of #88 and #83 jerseys for the beneficiary institutions?  How about we have UNC give back the ticket revenue from those games where those record-setting passes were caught?  Put an asterisk next to the Rams club money, the stadium construction project, and the Loudermilk center.   While you’re at it, put an asterisk next the academic department that hired and trained the tutors and steered players toward certain classes.  And put an asterisk next to the compliance department that oversaw the athletic department for all these years.  And put an asterisk next to the raise and promotion some of them got.

But that’s not the way asterisks work in a system so entrenched in its own repetitive story of what’s right and what’s wrong.  Asterisks like the ones Hakeem is getting next to his accomplishments prop up that distorted story; they don’t disrupt it in ways that make deep cultural shifts and institutional changes possible.

For the asterisk to become an instrument of truth and institutional health, some hard questions would have to take center stage in the clean up project going on right now at UNC.  How about taking a hard look at the fact that the oldest state university in America currently has no black head coach in any sport?  And in the past there have only been two at UNC–one for one season as the interim (Everett Withers, football, 2011) and one for one year (Hubert West, track, 1982-83).  How about taking a stand on behalf of student-athletes as an important take away from this whole experience?  How about taking the lead in this state, indeed in this country, in assuring due process for all student-athletes?  How about asking hard questions of the power brokers at UNC instead of a steady stream of firings, early retirements, and other forms of casting people out of the community who had little say in what happened or in creating the conditions that made the problems possible in the first place?  And finally how about telling the truth about the anatomy of the asterisk? Is it an instrument of reifying power?  Or an instrument of truth telling?

The audible here is for all of us in a culture that has yet to deal with the profoundly entrenched mentalities of racism and how they ripple out into our systems and institutions and norms.  If the privileges that have derived from racism were duly noted and accounted for, most of us white people would have asterisks next to our names, our accomplishments, and our possessions.  Indeed institutions like the University of North Carolina would have several asterisks next to both its historical narrative and its present practices.  If that statement gets under your skin, let it sit there are a while.  Get a feel for it.  The audible we call from there might just be the game changer the world needs.

 



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