On a whim, I decided to take a history class called “Race, Basketball and the American Dream” this semester. I’m a second semester senior! I’m fun! It’s taught by Matt Andrews, a figure who apparently has something of a cult following on campus: in my (almost entirely male) recitation on Friday, multiple students cited this as their third or fourth “Andrews class.”
I can see the appeal. The class itself is a fascinating mix of player biography, historical context and cultural analysis. I’ve learned more about basketball and basketball players in the past week than I had in the rest of my 21 years combined.
In a recent class, Professor Andrews mentioned Charles Scott. The first Black scholarship athlete at UNC, Scott went on to play for various teams in the NBA and won a gold medal in the 1968 Summer Olympics. He's also, according to his bio page on Wikipedia, the first African-American to join a fraternity at UNC. All of this – all of these firsts – can seem insane and foreign and far away.
To read Scott’s recent interview with The Daily Tar Heel, though, is to be reminded of the continued need for voices like his on campus, especially given the current outcry of athletes against the potential reinstatement of Silent Sam on campus. In his interview, Scott talked about the moral imperative for students and faculty at UNC to be “leaders of society — not the followers.”
His plea for sound and moral leadership reminded me of one of the “critiques” of race in basketball that Professor Andrews discussed in an earlier class. Called the “Plantation Critique,” it refers to the idea that Black bodies in sports are continuously exploited by white managers and owners for their own profit, imbuing owners with a sense of real and problematic ownership over their players.
In the case of Charles Scott, a player held out as a mascot of integration at UNC while “Dixie” was still being played before basketball games, this tension between celebration and exploitation seemed to be mitigated only by his relationship with Coach Dean Smith, whom Scott described as a man with “moral fortitude” that “understood integration.”
Recently, more than 200 current and former UNC athletes signed a letter calling for Silent Sam’s permanent removal from campus. To avoid the “Plantation Critique” dichotomy, University administration must listen, sincerely and seriously, to its athletes, who have ran and fought and sweat for UNC (and made the school a lot of money in the process).
To fail to do so – to profit off of Black athletes’ bodies while remaining complacent in their fight for equality and dignity on campus – is to disregard the voices of leaders like Charles Scott entirely.
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