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Trouble on the field: players confront race in athletics

April 19, 2019

At a glance, Maurice Butler ’74 and Amir Parker ’19 have much in common. It was a passion for the sport that drew both athletes to walk onto the College’s football program. But the team Butler encountered, with just one African American player, was another world compared to Parker’s experience 40 years later.

Much has changed on campus and in politics since the 1970s. Today, it is shocking to hear Butler recount the memory of his team refusing to block for a black man. But it’s easy to write it off as a different decade. It’s much harder to listen to Parker describe his high school teammates in Maryland calling men the n-word on the field less than five years ago.

“[Hereford High School was] very rural, very conservative, very confederate flag. There were always rumors about Klan meetings and it had the reputation of being a very racist school,” said Parker of his former school. “When I played for Hereford, I also played in a summer all-star league, so I knew kids from other teams that we played in our division.  It became a bit of a challenge because other black students that I played football with were telling me; this guy on your team called me the n-word during the game. I didn’t necessarily know if they were doing it just to get the penalties but it was certainly a low blow to go there just for that.”

The Bowdoin football program is currently among the most racially diverse teams on campus. When Parker joined, nearly 14 percent of the team was black, compared to the 6.1 percent of students that identify as black or African American on campus now. Yet issues concerning race in America go beyond simple percentages. Decades of disproportionate poverty and incarceration of African Americans created a dearth of role models for students like Parker to admire growing up.

The problem doesn’t end with player demographics. Coaches on the College’s payroll are overwhelmingly white, with just two African Americans on the football team’s eight-person staff.

“There’s something to be said about having somebody to look up to that looks like you,” said Parker. “If the only black person you see is the trash man [while] all your teachers are white and all your coaches are white, there’s something to be said about [the lack of] variety in your life. Seeing people in certain positions that are dignified or elevated such as black coaches and principals [help you gain] an understanding that people don’t fit into categories in society.”

Although the issues and complexities surrounding race on a sports team can never be fully resolved, the Athletic Department has made significant strides since it convened its first commission on race in the 1970s. A few weeks ago, Yuejay Reeves ’19 represented Bowdoin along with three other student-athletes of color at a NESCAC-wide conference on race in athletics. It is typical for the NESCAC to sponsor talks and book readings to further the discussion on race in sports, especially during Black History Month. Hamilton College and Connecticut College have both hosted events in the past.

The College’s most significant contribution to race relations; however, is felt in the greater Brunswick community. When varsity teams host clinics and camps in the community, they are showcasing their teams’ diversity and becoming role models for children. In one of the whitest states in the Union, it is imperative for mentors to come from diverse backgrounds.

“There’s [also] something to be said about having somebody to look up to that doesn’t look like you,” said Parker. “We should all treat each other with a level of respect and understanding that makes us all comfortable and not just the certain people that we want to associate with within our team or social circles.”

Yet the major component of race in athletics is class and socioeconomic status. When asked to describe the typical Bowdoin athlete, Parker created two sets: the ones who come from money, and everyone else.

“Think of the country and how wealth is divided among different races,” said Parker. “It would make sense that race and socioeconomic class coincide. It’s a very complex thing that’s not just about race. It’s about race and socioeconomic class.”

Socioeconomic inequalities are more difficult to observe on the playing field, especially since athletes wear the same uniforms and share equipment. But student-athletes are expected to do more than just attend practice. They often plan extra workouts and lead team events all while participating in other aspects of student life. These expectations are an added pressure to the student-athlete experience and leave students with on-campus jobs in a tough spot.

“If you come from a lot of money, you don’t have to work 20 hours a week on campus to support yourself financially,” said Parker. “You can dedicate those 10 to 20 hours to being a better athlete and honing your skills. At the end of the day you can’t buy your way to victory, but time is money, and the more money you have, the more time you have to dedicate to sport.”

While the work Bowdoin done to confront and correct racism in athletics and on campus has been apparent, looking toward the future means reevaluating what problems still plague teams’ social lives. Classism has not replaced racism; but it has added another talking point to the discussion. As past distinctions evolve from the color of one’s skin to the size of his wealth, Bowdoin will have to find new and creative ways to insure the student-athlete experience is not reserved for the privileged.


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