Colleges Need to Address the Racism and Harassment in College Athletics

Racist incidents in college sports are part of the student-athlete experience today. Administrators and coaches have a responsibility to work harder on this front.
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Aman Kidwai
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Aman Kidwai is a freelance reporter who writes about the workplace, sports, higher education, and their intersections. Formerly on staff at Morning Brew, Fortune, and Business Insider, Aman previously worked in consulting and b2b sales at a corporate...
Published on December 8, 2023
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Darlene Earnest is a copy editor for BestColleges. She has had an extensive editing career at several news organizations, including The Virginian-Pilot and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. She also has completed programs for editors offered by the D...
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  • Racism against college athletes has flooded the news and social media this year.
  • While fans' racist remarks are damaging, a bigger problem impacting student-athletes is the culture of college athletics programs.
  • Administrators, directors, and coaches need to change that culture. If not, the mental health of student-athletes of color could decline.

The last few months have seen racism rear its head in ugly ways in the world of college sports. These incidents can contribute to ongoing mental health challenges student-athletes may face. And they also represent a problem that many believe the schools can do more about.

At Northwestern University, amid a hazing investigation involving the football team, allegations surfaced that players were subjected to racialized taunts and nicknames as part of a general culture of racism. Black players recalled being told to dress a certain way because they were no longer in the hood. One player said he was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and didn't watch a football game for five years after leaving the school.

At the University of Alabama, bystanders caught fans on camera yelling slurs at University of Texas players. The University of Alabama leadership delivered a swift public rebuke of those actions. They also responded to the local newspaper of the opponent with a statement: ... anyone found to be in violation of our rules and expectations will be promptly removed and may be banned from future events.

But some close to college sports say pervasive issues surrounding race and inclusion stem from the dynamic between the administrators and coaches in power and the athletes.

John Robinson IV, a former Tennessee State University and University of Connecticut football player, told BestColleges that racial dynamics in hiring practices, power dynamics between administrators and athletes, and general apathy allow racism in college sports to linger.

These universities have to either go and listen and put people in charge to make sure incidents like this don't happen, or you will see a decline ... in the student-athletes wanting to go to these universities because they won't feel safe going there, Robinson said.

Aside from the racism college athletes can experience in a program, they then often have to deal with the court of public opinion — social media users. And sometimes these social media users favor sending death threats, something Christina Dalce, a junior forward on Villanova's women's basketball team, and other athletes know too well.

Dalce told Best Colleges she received direct messages after her team lost in the 2023 NCAA Tournament, telling her she cost her team the game.

All my other athlete friends ... are like Yeah, we get this all the time. We even get death threats just because we didn't get a certain amount of points, Dalce said.

Koi Love, a college basketball player who started her career at Vanderbilt, told Capital B that fans would call her the N-word, say she looked like a man, or call her girl condescendingly. She added that team road trips required players to be on high alert.

As Dalce's and Love's comments reveal, this is often part of the Black student-athlete experience. Black student-athletes are recruited to a school and promised an education and athletic glory. However, many leave with neither — just a lot of psychological damage.

I see a lot of trauma, Taylor J. Langley, a counseling and sport psychologist, told Capital B. The kids are unwell.

It's going to take more kids coming out and talking about their experiences, Robinson said.

He pointed out that all students, not just athletes, are documenting their experiences with racism on campus and making them known.

How Colleges Can Address Racism and Harassment in College Sports

To address racism in college sports, colleges have to tackle the dynamic between the administrators and coaches and the athletes.

Until very recently, athletes were unpaid. Name, image, and likeness (NIL) deals changed that. However, most of those making money today are still not rich.

Meanwhile, at the Division I level, salaries for football and basketball coaches have skyrocketed.

Athletic departments have grown significantly, as have athletic director salaries. Moreover, the administrators are mostly white, mostly male, as are the coaches, while the majority of athletes in football and basketball are Black.

We're all teammates here, but it is important to know what your brother on the field experiences off the field, Robinson said.

Incidents, like the hazing allegations at Northwestern, currently under lawsuits, are not just crossing a line, he adds, they are a reflection of the leaders that we are allowing to lead these [students].

This is one of the pervasive reasons that racism is still acceptable to many in and around college sports — because many of the people in charge are OK with it, and the movement to change this is not moving very quickly.

Even for the coaches who are not highly paid — like a tennis or lacrosse coach — they command a lot of respect due to the resources and access at their disposal.

They control their athletes' entire existence at that school, from their admission, to their scholarship, and their good standing with the team. And they manage the student-athletes' schedules to the point of pushing them to certain majors or, in the worst cases, intentionally pushing them to relaxed academic programs.

The first solution is to ensure better diversity in college athletics' leadership and maintain a culture of inclusion throughout athletic departments. This way, the people chiefly responsible for the personal enrichment of these athletes while they're in college do not ignore the perils of racism and the mental health toll of experiencing racism.

Robinson explained that athletic directors coming from privileged backgrounds and decades of experience in academia are, understandably, facing a gap in understanding the lives and upbringings of most student-athletes in sports like basketball or football.

I don't think you can advocate for a group of young people if you don't have any way of getting to know them, Robinson said.

Conferences like the Ivy League, Big East, and Big 12 have initiatives in place to address racism and equality in sports. On campus, athletes increasingly have access to mental health support.

Diversity and inclusion counselors or administrators can also leverage their guidance and resources to increase the level of support available to student-athletes, especially those likely to experience discrimination while aiming to represent their school on the field of play.

We have to find a way to stop feeling so uncomfortable with having these conversations because that's one of the biggest battles, Robinson said.

The Knight Commission, a nonprofit focused on improving college athletics, has published a set of recommendations, mostly calling for increased accountability for coaches and administrators when it comes to athletes' academic and professional outcomes as well as their well-being, rather than just focusing on wins and losses or dollars in fundraising.

The Knight Commission also recommended creating pathways for more leadership opportunities for Black athletes. Dalce mentioned being part of on-campus groups for student-athletes as well as athlete social activism at Villanova and benefitting from the experience.

Fans can also play a role in the mental health of student-athletes.

This can be positive or negative, but given the pressures student-athletes face on campus and in life, hopefully, fans of the school are willing to be supportive.

However, the ugly side of sports is that vitriol will come a player's way after a loss. Schools can also extend communications to their donor and season-ticket holder bases about smarter conduct on social media.

Fans do not realize how much effect they have on these athletes' minds because of social media, Robinson explained.