Everyone privileged enough to attend UNC for four years does some growing up during that time. One part of growing up for me was coming to terms with the fact that UNC isn’t the idealized institution I held in my mind as a kid.
My picture of UNC has been shattered from a variety of angles: how it has responded to destructive political forces, how it has treated survivors of sexual violence and how it has failed to truly reckon with its history of racial violence and exploitation. I’ve realized this university is made up of real people, and with that inevitably comes real flaws.
That holds true with UNC basketball as well.
When I arrived on campus my first year, I was very much a fanboy. My suitemates in Hinton James would joke about how I knew an unreasonable amount about UNC basketball history. Embarrassingly for me now, I would excitedly recount my minor interactions with the players of my class — Marcus Paige, Brice Johnson, Joel James and J.P. Tokoto — to my friends. I acted as if they were demigods rather than people.
I was only just beginning to understand the labor exploitation college sports are built on. UNC is a visible part of a system that benefits from the artificially undervalued labor of athletes working in revenue sports — men’s basketball and football — where a majority of the players are black.
In our culture, they are given the status of professional athletes, but they are told they are greedy if they expect any of the monetary benefits. Unlike other jobs for which there is a market — and with all of the advertising, hours of national television coverage and business deals around college athletics, clearly there is a market — college athletes are not permitted to negotiate for the value of their labor.
This realization, combined with my mindfulness of the years of fake classes the University offered to athletes, forever complicated my relationship with UNC basketball.
But this realization hasn’t stopped me from being a fan of Tar Heel basketball. After all, all of us, myself included, take part in complicated institutions that don’t always do the right thing. And UNC basketball also does good — participants in the program preach selflessness, and our community’s shared love for basketball forges true bonds among us at UNC.
However otherworldly Brice Johnson’s blocks into the stands, however cold-blooded Marcus Paige’s threes, however hilarious Joel James’ bench celebrations may be, they’re all people who have shared classes, bus rides and this institution with me the last four years. I’ve come to appreciate how they’ve navigated their paths under bright spotlights and tremendous pressures.
That doesn’t mean we should ever go silent about systems of exploitation or refrain from doing whatever we can to change them for the better. But I appreciate Marcus Paige, Brice Johnson and Joel James for taking up the mantle as admirable symbols for this flawed, complicated place — whether that was fair to ever ask of them or not.