Trouble A-Bruin: On UCLA And Who Schools Choose To Redeem

By Guest Contributor Dr. David J. Leonard


Much of the buzz surrounding Sports Illustrated’s report about the
troubles surrounding UCLA men’s basketball program has focused on the players, sporting headlines like “UCLA players undermined discipline, morale,” and “UCLA Basketball Out Of Control.” But the story itself really hones in on coach Ben Howland’s failure to “control” and “discipline” those players.

But if this same story had been about teams like UNLV, Miami or
Michigan’s “Fab Five,” the narrative would been less one of shock and
disappointment but rather the fulfillment of expectation, which are
wrapped in racial and class assumptions that UCLA, celebrated as an
example of the nostalgic ideal of collegiate sports entertainment, has benefited from for years.

More specifically, much of the article focuses on Howland and his inability to corral and control Reeves Nelson, who has denied many of the allegiations.

The piece gives ample attention to the disruptive influence of Nelson, who is white: injuring three players on separate occasions, getting into a fight with another player away from practice, and otherwise engaging in questionable behavior. I could not help but think how much the story revealed about the state of education, privilege, and inequality within society.

Whereas other players are lamented for drug use and partying in ways that detracted from the team success (victories), Nelson comes across as being at a different level. Noting how Howland “looked the other way” because of his play, SI describes Nelson as a pariah, as a cancer to the program:

Nelson was hardly the player around whom to build a team. He was a classic bully, targeting teammates who weren’t as athletically gifted as he and tormenting the support staff. At the end of practice, he would punt balls high up into the stands at Pauley Pavilion, turn to the student managers and say, “Fetch.” Nelson frequently talked back to the assistant coaches. When they told him to stop, he would remark, “That’s how Coach Howland talks to you.” […]

Nelson showed Howland only slightly more respect. By his own admission, he often ignored the head coach’s phone calls, and Howland resorted to calling one of Nelson’s roommates, asking him to coax Nelson onto the line.

There certainly wasn’t a system of zero tolerance for any of the players, but most certainly Nelson had a level of impunity. It made me think about the ways race infects the process of discipline and punishment as well as how education increasingly operates through a commodity model as opposed to one of education.

This is not say that what is happening at UCLA is all about race or that it is evidence of the failed priorities of today’s educational system but rather that what we see at UCLA isn’t simply a soap opera or a instance to wax nostalgically about the John Wooden era but rather a window, glimpse and teachable moment regarding issues bigger than UCLA.

Beginning in the 1980s and extending to the 1990s, students of color attending American public schools faced increased levels of surveillance, policing, and state-sanctioned violence. For example, in 1994, President Bill Clinton signed the Gun-Free Schools Act, a law requiring a one-year suspension for any student who brought a gun to school. This had both direct and indirect consequences throughout the United States. In Chicago, for example: during the 1994-95 school year, only 23 students were throughout the entire district. By 1996-1997, this number reached 571, surpassing 1,000 by two years later.

Although white youth are more likely to bring a gun to school, sell drugs, and use drugs, the efforts to rid schools of these behaviors have focused on youth of color.

The consequences of a Jim Crowed disciplinary process have been evident since day 1. Consider just these three findings:

  • According to a 2007 study by the National Economic and Social Rights Initiative, black students accounted for 17.1 percent of U.S. student populations in 1998, but represented 32.1 percent of students suspended as a result of rule violations. The study also names this statistic from a national survey of high school students: the number of students who reported the presence of security guards and/or police officers in their schools rose from 54 percent in 1999 to 70 percent in 2003.
  • In a separate study of 15 major American cities, the Applied Research Center found black students “report higher than expected” suspension and expulsion rates in all fifteen.  In Chicago, while African American students accounted for just over half the district students, they represented almost 2/3s of the students suspended and close to 3/4s of those expelled.
  • According to a report compiled by the Transnational Racial Justice Initiative,

While zero tolerance penalties appear to be racially neutral, they can be applied in very subjective ways, influenced by racial prejudice. For example, parents involved in Indian People’s Action in Missoula, Montana reported that their children were being disciplined for ‘defiance of authority’ if they didn’t look their teachers in the eye when being reprimanded, even though it is disrespectful in some Native American cultures for a young person to look directly at an elder in such an interaction. . . .

Evidence suggests that schools are more willing to recognize mitigating circumstances when they perceive the student involved in an incident as having “a real future” that would be destroyed by expulsion. Overwhelmingly, it is

African American and Latino students whose futures are wrecked by zero tolerance policies. Too often, we receive reports of cases where white students are given the benefit of the doubt, while students of color (due to prevailing stereotypes and negative imagery) are presumed guilty until they can prove themselves innocent — if they are even afforded the privilege of a defense.

This trend continues today with roughly 4 students arrested each and every day in New York City schools, with a disproportionate number of black and Latino youth subjected to this form of state power. New York has also seen racial inequality in terms of school suspensions and other disciplinary measures:

  • Black students, who compose 33 percent of the student body, served 53 percent of suspensions over the past 10 years. Black students with disabilities represent more than 50 percent of suspended students with disabilities.
  • Black students served longer suspensions on average and were more likely to be suspended for subjective misconduct, like profanity and insubordination.

The process of “white students leav[ing] high school with diplomas” and African Americans “leaving in police cars” reflects a willingness and a desire to discipline and punish people of color in ways not experienced by whites within American society. Whether dismissing as an aberration, a sign of immaturity, a phase, or just insignificant, the power of the white racial frame is in clear operate.

Courtesy People Magazine

These injustices aren’t limited to K-12, but can extend into the collegiate ranks as well. Following the suspension of Brigham Young player Brandon Davies last year for violating the school’s Honor Code, Deadspin’s Darron Smith and Luke O’Brien demonstrated the school’s selective enforcement of those policies.

“Clearly, though, something is amiss at BYU, where around 23 percent of the athletes are minorities, according to the university. Only .6 percent of the student body is black (176 out of the 32,947 students enrolled in 2010),” they noted. “Yet a majority of the honor code violations involve black athletes. Do these numbers mean these athletes “sin” more than everyone else? Hardly. Several former BYU football players told us that their white teammates routinely broke the honor code and got away with it, either because they didn’t get caught or because their violations were covered up.”

Smith followed up this article with a post on Racism Review, which situated the BYU case within a larger context:

Upon closer examination of the honor code system, we found discrepancies in how the honor code is applied for athletes of color, especially African Americans. Since 1993, according to our research, at least 70 athletes have been suspended, dismissed, put on probation, or forced to withdraw from their respective teams or the school for various honor code violations. Fifty-four of these athletes, nearly 80 percent, are people of color. Forty-one, or almost 60 percent, are black men. These are conservative numbers compiled largely from media reports and interviews. From what we gathered, a clear pattern of conduct has been established for athletes of color who only make up a mere 23 percent of all athletes according to the university.

What is happening at UCLA should give us pause, allowing us to think about potential connections here and the ways in which implicit bias and assumptions play out in both the media narrative and the disciplinary process. One has to wonder: do readers consider the larger context of race? Do people think basketball and immediately assume black players given societal representations? Given the celebration of programs like Duke and Gonzaga, private institutions whose best players, historically, have often been white, it is clear that blackness embodies the normative, the point of reference within the context of the NCAA’s basketball culture.

If the story is read through that lens, does the media focus in the form of headlines reinforce stereotypes about misbehaving black athletes? One has to wonder if readers think about Reeves’ whiteness and the blackness of other players, and how their differential treatment offers a window into broader issues.

While I have no knowledge about how race may have impacted this process (and it is impossible to know given the powerful and implicit ways that race operates within our society), where one black player eventually left the team (even if a mutual decision) while Nelson was given many chances before finally being kicked off the team, the experiences at UCLA point to larger issues in terms of race and discipline, and who is seen as redeemable and who is seen as a lost cause.


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Racialicious is a blog about the intersection of race and pop culture. Check out our daily updates on the latest celebrity gaffes, our no-holds-barred critique of questionable media representations, and of course, the inevitable Keanu Reeves John Cho newsflashes.

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