Black student athletes discuss identity conflicts, share personal experiences at panel

Ben Pope, Reporter

When Derrick Thompson, a wide receiver for Northwestern football from 1996 to 2000, first walked into the Black House his freshman year, he said he felt an unexpected tension. Others saw him as an athlete, not a black student.

Although Thompson eventually developed friendships outside of the football sphere during his time at NU, that initial feeling has stuck with him, he said. On Wednesday, Thompson returned to the Black House to share his story.

A panel of six current and former black student-athletes — including Thompson, senior football player Traveon Henry, a SESP senior, and former football player El Da’ Sheon Nix (SESP ’04) — as well as Johari Shuck, who conducted a study on the black student-athlete college experience, spoke to a group of about 30 attendees Wednesday night on their experiences.

During a conversation lasting nearly two hours, the panel members exchanged ideas, anecdotes and friendly debate about issues that ranged from the divide between students and student-athletes to ongoing race-related issues on campus.

“We created a space where we were able to voice our minds and voice our experiences,” Henry, a three-year starter at safety who is set to graduate in June, told The Daily.

Shuck spoke of a rift that her study had revealed between student-athletes and their non-athlete peers. Often, the time commitment needed to maintain an “athlete” identity or the all-encompassing bond of the team prevents players from developing a “black” identity outside of sport, she said.

Shuck said that lack of identity sometimes leads to a lack of inclusiveness, which becomes particularly apparent when players graduate or are injured and have to step completely outside the sports realm.

“Repeatedly, this issue seems to come up with this wedge between black students and black athletes, but it’s never been resolved,” Shuck told The Daily. “Part of what we wanted to achieve is continuing that conversation and not having it just stop.”

Others on the panel mentioned feeling unappreciated or left out in black communal causes.

Panelists also said the protest that disrupted the university’s lakeside athletic facilities groundbreaking ceremony in November caused a conflict of interest for black students involved in the athletics department, and several said that while they supported the protest’s aims, they wished there had been more organization and communication with athletes.

Henry added that, in his experience, some athletes base so much of their self-identity on their on-field performance that they feel no need to explore the rest of who they are. As a result, when major issues arise in the real world, they aren’t sure how to approach the subject and what their role in it is.

Heather Browning, assistant director of Multicultural Student Affairs, said the event was not intended to settle disagreements but rather to generate discussion, which she thought it did well. She said she hopes the “shared dialogue” between students undergoing varying college experiences will lead to “greater understanding” among the black community at large.

Medill senior Morgan Jackson, who attended the talk, said she believes it will.

“I look forward to future conversations on this topic and connecting with black athletes, especially the ones I saw present today because I know that they’re also open to discussion,” Jackson said. “I look forward to the future that this panel has paved the way for.”

NU plays a noteworthy role in the racial history of collegiate athletics. The first black man to letter in football in the Big Ten, George Jewett, finished his career with the Wildcats in 1893; the second black Division I football coach ever, Dennis Green, headed NU’s team from 1981 to 1985.

Wednesday’s discussion, however, focused more on the role of athletes within the campus and black communities than racial issues among athletes. The group in attendance fueled a conversation which ended only due to time constraints — a positive sign, Browning said, for further developing such lines of communication moving forward.

But for Henry, the opportunity to be heard for his perspective, not just watched for his skill, was important in itself.

“People are willing to listen, people want to hear our stories,” he said. “That’s the biggest takeaway that I had. It could be huge step to a … more unified community.”

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