NORMAN, Okla. — Five months after he went viral, Oklahoma linebacker Eric Striker sits in a dimly lit meeting room, more composed but just as emotional.
His head lowers when he thinks back to that spring night. His robust shoulders shrink as the pain returns.
The text message arrives the evening of March 8. A teammate asks if Striker has seen the video of a fraternity singing a racist song on a bus. “There will never be a n—– in SAE!” members of Sigma Alpha Epsilon chant. Striker’s first thought: Please don’t let this be at Oklahoma. But it is.
He grabs his phone. “Same m—–f—–s talking about racism don’t exist are the same m—–f—–s shaking our hands, giving us hugs, telling us how you really love us,” a shirtless Striker says during a 19-second Snapchat video. “F— you phony-ass, fraud-ass bitches.”
The Snapchat sent shockwaves. Striker had touched on the fundamental disconnect black college football players from across the country cite: On Saturday nights, they’re celebrated as heroes, but the rest of the week, they’re profiled in classes, at parties and in their communities.
“Like Striker said, everybody loves you on game day,” Florida defensive endJonathan Bullard said. “Everybody loves you after you win and you go out to Midtown, but behind closed doors, who are you? What are you?”
College football locker rooms often transcend race, and universities serve as cultural melting pots for people to learn about one another and discuss important topics. But when racial flash points occur, or even subtle, everyday occurrences, black athletes must navigate the bridge between sports and society.
Since the Striker video, ESPN interviewed more than 40 players from 15 programs across the country and surveyed another 99 players anonymously about their reaction to Striker and their own encounters with racism and profiling. Many players applauded Striker for speaking out and were eager to share their own opinions and experiences that mirror his at Oklahoma.
It’s a complicated conversation — one with numerous questions and few answers — that Striker started.
“At the end of the day, this is bigger than the sport of football,” Striker said, his deep voice softening and scratching as he spoke to ESPN.com last month. “If I move on and I just continue and maybe not raise awareness and keep playing football, I wouldn’t feel good as a person.”
OU just the tipping point
Norman is like most college towns. Dive bars and dance clubs rub elbows near campus. Beer and burgers are cheap, and there’s little buzz when the students are gone. And the SAE incident, while generating national attention, isn’t unique to Oklahoma.
“I’m quite certain it has happened numerous times at predominantly white institutions across the country,” said Harry Edwards, professor emeritus of sociology at the University of California-Berkeley and one of the nation’s leading voices on race in sports. “There’s a continuing reality of racial antipathy on many, if not most, of these predominantly white campuses that is in stark contradiction to the cheering that happens on Saturday afternoon at the stadium.”
Last year Ole Miss, still trying to distance itself from its racially charged past, saw one of its students hang a noose around the statue of civil rights activist James Meredith, the university’s first black student in 1962. Also in 2014, Arizona State’s Tau Kappa Epsilon fraternity celebrated Martin Luther King Jr. Day by throwing an urban-themed, blackface-inducing party advertised with hashtags such as #blackoutforMLK.
In April, a University of South Carolina student was suspended after a video of her writing a racial slur on a whiteboard spread through social media.
Black players condemned the SAE incident at Oklahoma, but several said the attention it generated places a spotlight on the racial reality. “It goes on [at] every single campus,” Auburn linebacker Kris Frost said. “It’s embarrassing for the university, but at the same time, it’s good for people to understand that things like that do go on … but it’s all about evolving. It’s all about getting better.”
One reason Striker’s initial reaction resonated so strongly is he wasn’t afraid to come forward. Many athletes said they struggle with speaking out about racial issues because they’re afraid of being ostracized or a distraction to the team. Some schools have banned players from all social media.
“You kind of have to hide your opinion as an athlete,” Auburn cornerbackJonathan Jones said. “Sometimes you’re not able to be as outspoken because of the people who look up to you. When you’re in that situation, you really can’t say the right thing. Somebody’s going to get offended because of the diverse people who follow [us] on social media.”
Striker faced a similar dilemma at Oklahoma. He apologized for how he delivered the Snapchat reaction, a gesture scholars some said was unnecessary. “A double standard,” said Charles K. Ross, an associate history professor at Ole Miss and director of the school’s African-American studies program.
“What this brother did when he blew up is not just reacting to that incident,” Edwards said. “That comes from a last-straw kind of disposition. You’re constantly living under that tension. How are you going to cope with being a football player, a de facto star on campus, and at the same time being an African-American, where by definition, in certain sectors of campus outside of the athletic arena, you are the other, the alien, the unknown, the one to be feared and distrusted and avoided?”
Striker understands the consequences of voicing his views, especially about a subject many deem too controversial. But he refuses to stay silent.
“It’s a hard balance because any time I get to say something, I will, but I still love the game and I have a goal of bringing my team together and being a great leader,” he said. “I feel like I owe that to them, but I also feel like I owe my voice to black people as well when anything bad like this is happening.”
According to a 2013 study from the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education, black men made up 2.8 percent of full-time, degree-seeking undergraduate students but represented 57.1 percent of football programs in six major conferences — the ACC, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC.
At Notre Dame, for example, the Penn study found that black men made up 1.8 percent of the student body but 45.6 percent of the school’s basketball and football teams. “It’s almost assumed when a huge black guy walks in a room, he’s a football player,” said Notre Dame defensive lineman Isaac Rochell.
The demographic reality brings labels.
“From the time a black scholarship athlete walks on campus, he is profiled,” Edwards said. “It is assumed that he is there under special admissions. It is assumed he is there with no particular academic competitiveness. It is assumed he is someone that is going to have to be monitored in terms of citizenship. So he is not going to be automatically admitted to the parties, especially those at historically white fraternities. He is going to be profiled in the classroom as soon as the professor realizes he plays on the football team.”
Players who spoke with ESPN were predominantly happy with their social lives on campus but also described some difficulties blending in.
“I can’t pick out a white guy on our team who will be left out of parties if people don’t know him,” a black player from a Pac-12 team said. “It’s sad. In these people’s minds, they look at you — a big tall black dude, probably dressed a certain way, and they get intimidated by it. They get scared.”
Black players said they encounter assumptions based on their skin color, but their appearance often brings even more.
Notre Dame cornerback Matthias Farley said people see how he looks — “I have dreads; I usually have a long beard; I have tattoos,” he said. “They’re like, ‘What is this guy going to say?'” — and make snap judgments. Farley enjoys talking with those people and dispelling preconceived notions. “You meet people and you know they have a stigma of you, and then you break it and they don’t know what to do with themselves,” he said.