Today, we usher in a new academic year after a summer best defined by public conversations about the social issues facing the U.S. today — from Trayvon Martin to the fall of DOMA and Wendy Davis’ filibuster, America seemingly talked more openly than ever about persistent issues bubbling to the surface.
As always, sports news is a good barometer for the cultural issues drawing the most public interest, and the sports world was not immune from its own racial problems. In late July, Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver Riley Cooper received a hefty fine from his team and an order to seek sensitivity counseling after amateur video surfaced of Cooper using a racial slur to refer to African-American bouncers at a Kenny Chesney concert. Just a few days later, Deadspin reported on an incident between two ESPN commentators during a journalism convention. Hugh Douglas and Michael Smith, best known for their work on ESPN’s Numbers Never Lie program, exchanged words when Smith prevented an inebriated Douglas from climbing on stage during the event. Douglas, who is black, reportedly called Smith an “Uncle Tom” and used a number of other racial slurs. He was dismissed from the company a week after the report emerged.
But I was most disturbed by reports from Columbia in early May, just as we were finishing exams and scattering across the world to begin our summers. A Columbia football player was charged with a hate crime — aggravated harassment — when he allegedly heckled an Asian student with racial slurs and then shoved the victim against a wall. After the incident, Columbia’s student radio station, WKCR, explored the football player’s Twitter account and found a shocking pattern of offensive tweets posted by other teammates. The tweets were outwardly homophobic, anti-Semitic and disparaging toward minorities including blacks and Asians. Those identifying as LGBTQ were called “disgusting.” One player lamented that he was almost escorted out of his SAT testing room for “calling a kid a homo when he was wearing capri jeans.” He asks, “[W]hat is wrong with our society[?]” Blacks were called unclean; the Jewish were typecast as stingy. (Honestly, most of the offensive tweets were predictably uncreative, and I’m always fascinated by how those that use racial or antigay slurs can’t seem to spell them correctly.)
Apologies were hastily posted, athletes wrote op-eds defending the tolerant nature of the majority of their teammates, and Columbia Spectator comment sections raged with debates and calls for the end of athletic programs at Columbia. It was your standard fallout and textbook PR response. The incident made some national outlets, but within Ivy League circles, the debate was apparently buried under final papers and library books.
It is deeply distressing to see this behavior continue within athletic circles, especially at so-called “elite” universities. Even if only a small fraction of Columbia athletes were involved, the events have done serious damage to the connection the general student body felt toward its athletes. (The alleged attacker in the Columbia hate crime wrote an op-ed just two months earlier asking for more respect toward student-athletes. Nice job with that.) I admit I thought a lot about afterward about the state of athletic admissions to Ivy League schools. Some of the offensive tweets had been posted before the athletes entered Columbia and I could not help wondering how they had been admitted to the university. As I have made clear in previous columns, I am all for placing high-level athletic achievements on a similar plane as prestigious academic honors when it comes to the admissions process. But this issue does little to dispel the commonly held belief that character is scrutinized less strongly for athletic recruits than it is for a mostly academic admit. Even as an athletics supporter, it is tough to see how an Intel research competition finalist would still gain admission if these tweets were uncovered. The most likely answer is that coaches and admissions officers didn’t check these accounts beforehand — but in the aftermath, the response from officials and administrators has been lackluster at best. While the alleged hate crime is shrouded under an ongoing investigation, the authors of the captured tweets cannot easily rescind what has already been said.
But enough about the topic of athletic admissions. The real point here is that even deeply open and accepting Ivy League campuses still struggle with the issues that affect the sports world and America at large. One genuinely apologetic Columbia player pleaded with the campus community to understand that the actions of a few football players should not color the character of all Columbia athletes. He was right — an Ivy League football roster has nearly 100 members on its own, and only about 10 players were represented in WKCR’s sampling of tweets. And football players are by nature under more media scrutiny — if I searched the Twitter and Facebook accounts of every Yale and Columbia student, I’m sure I’d find some unsavory comments from non-athletes. In fact, I’ve already seen them. So take this as a friendly reminder that while Yale prides itself on its community of mutual acceptance and respect, that commitment doesn’t mean we’ve eradicated these problems from campus. Athletes, non-athletes, freshmen and seniors alike should use the beginning of the year to ensure that our actions reflect our stated beliefs and desires for a strong campus community.