Former athletes share experiences of being black in Boulder

Contact CU Independent News Staff Writer Jake Mauff at jacob.mauff@colorado.edu

The University of Colorado held a number of events throughout the day as part of its Diversity Summit on Feb. 18. One of these events was the discussion panel “College Sports as an Agent of Change.”

On a day in which students might be getting outside and enjoying a pleasantly warm February day, a group of former athletes from CU sat down to answer questions about diversity at the university.

The event started with the moderator, Professor Roger Pielke, giving an overview of the racial composition of Boulder and CU.

According to the him, one in ten black students are scholarship athletes at the university. In addition to this, the CU population is responsible for the number of minorities in Boulder’s general population.

Pielke went on to cite an instance regarding the University of Missouri football team as a rare example of a university implementing changes to help create a more inclusive campus. Amid much racial tension and student unrest in 2015, the Missouri football team protested, saying it would not play unless the president of the university resigned. Shortly thereafter, he did.

This was just the beginning of an event characterized by stories of personal experience with racial issues. The discussion panel at CU was part of the second diversity summit of the school year; the first summit was held in the aftermath of the Missouri incident.

This event comes on the heels of the results of the social climate survey that the university conducted in 2014. In the survey, black students consistently answered that they felt unwelcome and less valued than the other ethnic groups polled. Only 38 percent of black students felt welcome on campus, while eight percent felt that CU was a diverse campus.

This isn’t the first time this issue has been brought up. The issue of diversity has been on the university’s agenda since June, and the diversity summit has been an annual tradition for 20 years.

On Thursday, the panel discussed issues of race that had arisen during students’ time as athletes for the university, as well as the current status of racial issues on campus. The panel consisted of former students, ranging from Bill Harris, who graduated in 1964, to Chidera Uzo-Diribe, who graduated two years ago.

Joining them were Estes Banks, Medford Moorer, who is the assistant director for academics, and Lance Carl, the associate athletic director.

Though sports aren’t always the first thing people talk about when discussing diversity, the athletic side of things plays a major part in helping achieve inclusivity. According to the moderator, the most diverse program in the university is athletics.

“Athletics don’t exist in a bubble,” Pielke said. “A lot of social issues get brought to the public and to politicians through athletics, like the Missouri football situation.”

During the panel, many stories were told about the former players’ experiences as black student athletes. Carl told a story about a woman who came up to him at a party and assumed he was part of the football team. In response, Carl told the woman he was on the swim team.

About a month later, the woman saw Carl on the sideline of a football game and yelled at him for lying to her. He told her he didn’t want to be known as a football player — he wanted her to know him as a person. Carl said that the two remain friends today.

That was one of the lighthearted stories. Many of the stories took a very serious route. Just about everyone in the panel agreed that they had experienced a culture shock upon coming to Boulder for the first time. Carl offered another story in which he was the only black student in a large lecture hall. This wasn’t an isolated incident.

The panel agreed that when they showed up for class, there was a stigma surrounding their presence. They felt that the people around them immediately assumed they were athletes. Though it was true that they were athletes, they wanted to take their classes seriously and not have automatic assumptions made about them.

Harris repeated multiple times that he was one of five black athletes on the football team. He faced a lot of persecution during his playing career on campus. This led to the most scathing story.

According to Harris, during the 1961-62 season, the CU football team was chosen to appear in the Orange Bowl. The team was celebrating in the locker room after a game when the team captain came into the room with the president and the athletic director. They announced that the team would not play in the bowl game.

The reason? The hotel wouldn’t accept CU’s five black players. Word also spread that Louisiana State University, the other team in the Orange Bowl, would stay out of the game because of CU’s black players. The rest of the CU teammates refused to play in the bowl if it meant excluding the black players.

This is all according to Harris, and the story made him visibly emotional. The game ended up happening, and the black athletes were allowed to play, but Harris was frustrated that story wasn’t brought to public attention until the 2000s.

Harris has been out of the game the longest, giving him a lot of time to ruminate on the issues. He said that a lot of the problems he hears from the campus today were problems that were happening when he was a student. He also said that there have been a lot of improvements since he left, but there are still a lot of issues being experienced on campus.

Even though he seemed somewhat skeptical, he was happy to be part of the discussion.

“I think some of the things that will come out of these discussions will be brought back to the administration and there will be some action taken in regards to these issues,” Harris said. “It was great to be around the panel and to hear the stories and lives and experiences we’ve all had.”

Jake Mauff

Jake Mauff is the Editor-in-Chief and staff writer for the CU Independent. He enjoys biking, hiking and running in what little free time that he has, and he has interviewed a variety of interesting people including a presidential candidate. You can follow him on Twitter at @jake_mauff.

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