#BlackWomenAthletesLivesMatter: A Professor Reflects on Her Regrets

by Nicole Anderson-Cobb, Ph.D.

On July 1st, David Mercer of the Associated Press reported that “[s]even former University of Illinois women's basketball players sued the university on Wednesday [July 1st, 2015], accusing coach Matt Bollant and a former assistant Mike Divilbiss of violating their civil rights by using race to divide the team and try to force some players out.”

The July 1st, 2015 complaint filed in the US District Court of Central Illinois accused Bollant and Divilbiss of the following conduct that created a racially hostile environment and discrimination based upon race:
  • Segregated practices singling out black players Smith, Oden, and Tuck as “crabs.”
  • Referred to Smith, Oden and Tuck as “toxic.”
  • Referred to segregated practices as “the dog pound” indirectly labeling Smith, Oden & Tuck “dogs.”
  • Appointed a white player captain (with no vote) to a majority black team.
  • Threatened white players who associated with and supported black players against racially hostile environment and labeled the white players in the segregated practices “mascots.”
  • Instituted segregated travel and room assignments prohibiting white players from rooming with black players.
  • Sought black player expertise only when playing predominantly black teams and not when playing predominantly white teams implying that Black players thought differently than whites.
  • Referred to opposing black teams as “undisciplined” and “unintelligent” while referring to opposing predominantly white teams as “disciplined” and “intelligent.”
  • Labeled Black U of I players as “undisciplined”, “unintelligent,” and “west-side ghetto street-ball players” on account of their race and community of origin.
  • Leveled more severe discipline against black players than white players for the same or similar conduct.
  • Recruited and signed white players over black players increasing the numbers of white players over black players and decreasing the number of black players each year since 2012.
According to the News Gazette—the newspaper of record for Champaign-Urbana—the parents of three players brought these allegations to the attention of the UIUC officials in April 2015. An internal review of the matter found no violations of laws, NCAA rules, or University policy. Seven parents then reported their displeasure with the investigation. On May 14, Divilbiss “parted ways with the University” and in late May the University hired several outside firms to look into the allegations again. (You can also read additional charges documented in the complaint from the News Gazette.)

One of the seven former (now eight) plaintiffs now suing the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign (referred to often as “UIUC”) Board of Trustees, athletic director and basketball coaching staff for civil rights violations was a student of mine during the fall 2013 semester. I knew her. And yet, I didn’t know her at all.

She was a bubbly, enthusiastic young woman who came to me at the end of the first day of class to explain her status as a UIUC basketball player and gave me her travel documents informing me of her excused absences.

“Dr. Anderson Cobb, I REALLY want to do well in this class. So please let me know what I need to do to stay on top of the work, even when we travel for away games.”

I laughed to myself and thought, “OK, we’ll see.” In my 17 years as a grader, teaching assistant, intergroup facilitator, co-professor, and professor of my own courses at five different institutions, I had many encounters with student athletes who often bore what my advisor would refer to as “the golden noose,” a status or opportunity that came with as many blessings as headaches for the one who possessed it.

In this context, a sport was the reason these students were in college… and in most cases, the sport never let them forget it. Thus, they were always juggling academic survival and athletic excellence ferociously.

And yet, this student lived up to her word. When she wasn’t traveling with the team, she sat right in the middle of our classroom in auditorium-style seating , hunkered down dead center, relaxed, drinking in every comment and assertion of her colleagues. She sat listening intently, always thinking… and then routinely shooting her hand into the air to offer her own observation about our course theme: diversity, discrimination, body image, appearance, stereotypes, and the origins of hate and bias in American life. Furthermore, she usually related these issues to her own struggles: fighting for respect on the women’s basketball team (as they were too often in the shadows of the male team), all while simultaneously negotiating her relationship to white women on her own team.

Overzealous at times when a subject hit home, she would blurt out, “That’s just like on the basketball team,” whether we discussed homophobia, racial bias against Black women’s bodies, or her “home training” as it related to race relations. The more she shared, the more questions I had. However, I never had enough time for follow-up. There was always a lot of material to cover and there were many other students to serve. And besides, I had my own work-life balance issues to consider as I darted out the door to retrieve my toddler from daycare directly after class.

The deeper issue was that as an adjunct instructor I convinced myself privately that I didn’t have time to follow-up, probe, and care any more than I did. I told myself that deeper investment in students was above my pay-grade and that student issues needed to be addressed by faculty MUCH MORE senior and well compensated than me.

Nonetheless, when I could get beyond my own internal dissonance, I appreciated her contributions to the class. To the extent that most student athletes were often cloistered, distracted, entitled and disengaged, she was refreshing, brutally honest at times and her contributions gave us an opportunity to hear about the experiences of Division I student athletes that few (myself included) would have a chance to learn about otherwise.

Like clockwork, each time she needed to travel, she would faithfully saunter up to the desk and remind me: “Dr. Anderson Coooooooooobb (her emphasis), remember, I’ll be away this week, but I promise I will be doing the readings for class,” as if offering her own form of a “scout’s honor.” I’d wish her victory and success on the upcoming trip. She’d wink, crack that wry smile, thank me, and disappear out the door.

Our class was a short, intense, eight-week course that flew by. After the course ended, she and I lost touch—as is the case with most students on a campus of 44,000+ students. However, I was comforted by the fact that she was one of “the lucky ones.” I just assumed she would be taken care of in athletics. I convinced myself that she occupied an elite status on campus for a student of color. I told myself that she would avoid the bias, isolation, suspicion, denigration, exoticization, tokenism, surveillance, and misunderstanding that informed the life of most Black women attending (as well as teaching at) predominantly white research institutions like mine.

So when I heard of the allegations leveled against the UIUC Women’s Basketball coaches earlier this summer, I was shocked and saddened, but I also felt guilty.

Why didn’t I know all this was occurring? Is it possible that “elite” athletes could be treated like this at UIUC? And the main question that haunted me: How could I have been a better resource for this student?

But the reality is that you can’t save anyone when you yourself are perched on the edge of a cliff. As a tenure track professor early in my career, I had learned well that REALLY CARING for students was an occupational hazard that would only hinder my path to tenure. This became even truer as an adjunct instructor with no status, far less income than my colleagues, and ever-expanding classes sizes with no incentives to care about the student experience beyond their class time with me.

And yet, I can’t help being reminded of my own mother—a 33 year veteran teacher of the Chicago Public Schools—who often said: “ I worked hard to care for THE WHOLE STUDENT and to treat the children in my care with respect and compassion, because I knew that you were in someone’s classroom at that very moment and I was praying that you were being treated with the same level of respect and compassion.” So, as the mother of an African-American daughter, I can’t shake the feeling that I failed at least one of the African-American daughters in my charge.

Sadly, I was too busy trying to protect myself to realize that this student’s Blackness remained an obstacle and made her a target as well—even in the hallowed cloister of Big Ten athletics. Consequently, the list of indignities that comprise the players’ UIUC lawsuit unearthed for me all of Don Imus’ deeply painful “nappy-headed hoes” rhetoric inflicted against the Rutgers Women’s Basketball team nearly a decade ago.

In this moment of #BlackLivesMatter, #BringBackOurGirls, and #SayHerName, I feel compelled to address these unfortunate circumstances out loud. Sadly, as a fairly expendable, low-ranking employee, I was not accessible enough or available enough to be a resource, an ally, a safe space for this student to discuss what was really happening to the young women on this team.

In higher education, parents and communities entrust thousands of students to our care annually, never expecting to hear of treatment like these young women experienced—who were playing for and serving as ambassadors for UIUC. For this, I am sorry. Consequently, this lawsuit has been a profound wake-up call for me.

According to David Mercer’s July 1st article:
UIUC Chancellor Phyllis Wise said she was disappointed the players sued before the law firm's investigation is finished. She continued: ‘I cannot stress enough that any time we learn that a student feels the experience at Illinois isn't excellent, we take those concerns seriously,’ Wise said. ‘We intended that through the external review process the student-athletes and their families would help us better understand their concerns and perceptions.’ She also noted Thomas has recently added staff and made policy changes intended to prevent future problems.
And yet the silence from other quarters of the UIUC campus and beyond is deafening. As an educator at UIUC and as a three-time UIUC alum, I hope that this lawsuit is a wake-up call for many of us at the university.

I hope this painful and infuriating episode alerts campus units like the UIUC Department of African-American Studies, the Bruce D. Nesbitt African-American Cultural Center at UIUC, the UIUC Black Alumni Network, and the UIUC Department of Gender & Women’s Studies (among other units) that they too must pay closer attention and find ways to be better resources and advocates to female student athletes of color on our campus (among other vulnerable student populations).

With the recent abysmal numbers of African-American students attending UIUC—lower than they were when I arrived as a UIUC freshman 25 years ago—the indignities suffered by these African-American scholar-athletes do little to improve African-American recruitment, retention, or persistence at UIUC.

Finally, I hope this situation signals to our institutions that faculty, staff, administrators, alumni associations, parent associations and other stakeholders MUST ADDRESS INJUSTICE WITHIN THE ACADEMY ITSELF. If we don’t address racism, sexism, classism, chauvinism, and patriarchy within the academy, we guarantee that our students will reproduce these behaviors in the broader society.

They learn them from watching us.

Photo: University of Illinois, Urbana-Campaign

Nicole Anderson-Cobb, Ph.D. is a Chicago native who grew up in the Calumet Heights community. Dr. Anderson-Cobb earned a Bachelor’s degree in Political Science from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign (1995), a Master’s degree in History (1998) and Doctorate of Philosophy in History (Concentrations on Africa, Comparative Islam, Gender, & Media) from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign (2007). Since then, Dr. Anderson Cobb has returned to the classroom as a visiting lecturer at the Department of African-American Studies at the University of Illinois, Urbana Champaign, where she teaches a course on hate crimes. She is currently publishing her second play, “Campus Jihad,” that examines the impacts of racism, Islamophobia, and a mass shooting on a college campus. Dr. Anderson Cobb can be reached on Twitter: sandals60617.

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