For UNC, this is deja vu. About 20 years ago, football players joined other athletes and students in protests to have a free standing building for the Black Cultural Center, which was previously located in the Frank Porter Graham Student Union.
The building was approved in 1993, with the ground breaking in 2001. The new building for the Sonja Haynes Stone Center for Black Culture and History — named after a faculty member who died in 1991 — was officially opened in 2004.
Robert Stone-El, Sonja Haynes Stone’s son and standing member of the Stone Center advisory board, was only 19 years old when the protest for the freestanding building occurred. He said the situation in Missouri takes him back to the ‘90s because in both situations, the athletes played a large role.
“The athletes at Missouri definitely took my mind to the athletes at Carolina who were instrumental,” Stone-El said.
Malcolm Marshall, who was an activist for the Stone Center and played football for UNC from 1990-1994, applauded the athletes’ action at Missouri but said UNC’s situation in the ‘90s was completely different.
“We just wanted a building. Missouri’s story is a little different. They had actual racial actions on campus, and the president didn’t do anything about those actions,” Marshall said.
He said the two are also different because he and his teammates did not threaten revenue like the Missouri athletes did. Marshall said he and his teammates led speak-outs and peaceful protests to educate everyone so others would get behind the idea of building a freestanding Black Cultural Center.
But in both situations, Marshall said, the teams and coaches supported the athletes’ choices to speak out.
“When I played at Carolina, people thought it was going to divide my team, but it didn’t,” he said. “It brought my team closer together, because my teammates who weren’t African-American understood.”
At both Missouri and UNC, there are questions about whether the athletes’ actions put their scholarships in danger.
Robert Orr, a UNC law professor and former North Carolina judge, said there isn’t much a school or coach can do when it comes to taking a number of athletes’ scholarships away if they decide to stand together and protest or go on strike.
“Should (the players) organize and come together to make demands like that, I think the University, in a practical matter, (has) to roll over and do what the players want,” Orr said.
Marshall said alumni would write to then-head coach Mack Brown asking the University to take their scholarships away. Brown stood with the team, which made Marshall and his teammates feel safer in their decision to speak out.
“Knowing he had our back, we felt like this was a cause that we should probably stay with,” Marshall said.
Orr said the case in Missouri proved that athletes have more power than they think they do.
“They refer to them as student-athletes, but in reality they are huge revenue generators for the universities and the NCAA,” Orr said. “Like any worker who is extraordinarily valuable to his or her employer, that worker has a certain leverage if they’re willing to use it.”