It is difficult to imagine two more different university towns in the United States than Madison, Wisconsin, and Norman, Oklahoma.
Madison has a reputation stretching back decades as liberal ― even radical ― territory. That ain’t Norman.
In recent days, however, both communities were connected by the resistance of Black students ― and supporters ― against racism.
Madison and Norman are bringing together different aspects of the #BlackLivesMatter movement. It demonstrates how this struggle is firmly implanted among the young ― including young athletes.
In Madison, several thousand high school students marched and sat in the streets demanding answers and justice after Tony Robinson, an unarmed 19-year-old, was killed by Madison police.
High school basketball fans, players and even coaches also arrived at several games wearing either all black or shirts that read #JusticeForTony or #BlackLivesMatter.
At Oklahoma, the campus has been roiled by a leaked video of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity, caught on camera chanting racist slurs. The school immediately cut all ties with the frat and university president David Boren pledged immediately that the school would become “an example to the entire country of how to deal with this issue”.
That was not enough for the Oklahoma Sooners football team, who canceled their practice and, wearing all black, walked off the field to join demonstrations. Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops joined his team and marched.
The players also held an impromptu press conference saying they wanted to use this opportunity to speak of their own grievances about how they are treated on campus.
On March 12, Sooners quarterback Trevor Knight issued a statement on behalf of the team. The money quote in my mind is: “As a team, our goal first and foremost is to raise awareness of racism and discrimination on college campuses nationwide …
“But before we can change the nation, we make it our mission to change our campus. We seek to accomplish this goal by stepping out of the spotlight and integrating the student-athlete experience and the student experience.
“As student athletes of all races, classes and creeds, we hope to show the university and the community that we are defined by more than the numbers on our jerseys, and that we are human beings that desire to get to know our classmates as we all attempt to end the culture of exclusivity on this campus.”
These simultaneous demonstrations for #BlackLivesMatter in these two seemingly polar opposite places speak glaringly to what they have in common.
Both are state schools with small percentages of Black students. Madison, with more than 40,000 students, has a Black population of 2.3%. Oklahoma, with an enrollment of about 30,000, has a Black population of about 5%.
Both schools field football teams that are financially lucrative and highly dependent on Black talent. This also means that on both campuses, sports might be the most integrated public space.
Several players at Oklahoma have taken to social media to spell out the ways so-called “student athletes” can be deified on campus while being disrespected when the uniform comes off.
The stories out of Madison and Norman brought to mind a sign held up by University of Maryland wide receiver Deon Long when attending a #BlackLivesMatter rally on campus that read: “Are we still thugs when you pay to watch us play sports?” The answer for too many seems to be yes.
[Abridged from Dave Zirin's website, Edge of Sports]