What Football Locker Rooms Can Teach Us About Race

My sophomore year of college, I rented a two-bedroom apartment for the school year. Right before the year started, I had a roommate back out on me. I went to my football coaches and asked if they knew anybody who needed a room because I couldn’t afford the apartment on my own. They hooked me up with a new kid on our football team.

Menyada was a black fullback from California. He had long dreadlocks, was as dark as any human I had ever met, and was 240 pounds. Menyada was not the roommate I thought I was looking for, but he ended up being the one I needed. Since I was not in a position to be choosy, I was happy to say yes.

He was a tremendous roommate and we had some interesting conversations about race. I think about these late-night, college conversations whenever I see the race issue pop up in our world, like it has this week in Minnesota and eventually around the nation.

Menyada played his first college football season in Tennessee, at the University of Tennessee-Martin. That was much bigger football than Southern Oregon, so one of our first conversations started there. It was the beginning of a race discussion that was disguised as a football discussion. I joke with my students that I don’t know much outside of football, so everything I know is somehow tied back to sports. There is a lot of truth to this joke.

I learned quickly that growing up as a black person was different than growing up as a white person. Not better, not worse, but different.

“That was a new concept to me — that racism was a spectrum.”

Menyada had left Tennessee because the racism was so different than it was in California, where he had lived his whole life. That was a new concept to me — that racism was a spectrum. As a white kid growing up, I had not considered that racism had gradients. I assumed it was a Yes or No thing. There was racism or there wasn’t. Menyada taught me that there are differences in everything, and some differences he just couldn’t take.

Menyada talked about being called the N-Word by whites at the mall in California and about being stopped by white cops for driving after dark. He talked about these racial incidents as “normal” or “okay.” They bothered him, but since this was his normal and that’s how he grew up, he expected them.

One of my first lessons about taking grades seriously in college was given to me by my defensive coordinator, Jeff Olson. I didn’t know it at the time, but this would also be a lesson on racism. Coach Oly suggested to us freshman that we should communicate with our professors, during office hours, early in the semester, that we were on the football team and would miss a couple of Friday classes. He suggested that we should be proactive and explain the situation before it happened and make a plan for getting the work and staying caught up.

This lesson worked awesome for me. I will never forget the pride that I felt when teachers reacted positively to me and how I felt like a real college student-athlete, taking control of my education. That one lesson was so empowering to me — to learn how to be an advocate for my education and to make the system work for me. As a high school teacher, I strive to teach this lesson to student-athletes.

“I don’t let niggers in my office. You make it stink so wait outside.”

However, Menyada talked about going to a Tennessee professor’s office hours and explaining to the professor that he was on the football team and would miss some Friday classes. He said as he entered the office, the prof was on the phone. Without even looking at him or glancing up, the professor stated “I don’t let niggers in my office. You make it stink so wait outside.” Menyada said he staggered back into the hallway, more out of shock that he was spoken to that way than compliance. He said as he waited, his ears burned with anger but he wanted to do the right thing.

Menyada waited for a considerable amount of time before the professor came out of his office. When the door opened, Menyada again tried to introduce himself and why he was there and was quickly cut-off.

“Frankly, no nigger football player has ever passed my class and I don’t intend for it to happen now. Your best bet is to drop this course.”

This was in the early 1990s, mind you, not the 1960s. As a teacher myself since the late 1990s, I can’t comprehend how one would speak to a student that way. I can’t comprehend how this is even possible, but it happened to Menyada and I saw the pain in his eyes when he told me about it. I saw a proud, tough dude, who could have torn that professor to shreds (and definitely wanted to) and his resignation to the entire situation.

That interaction is why Menyada left Tennessee. It was just too much for him.

This overt racism, this in-your-face-ness, was new to Menyada. He said it isn’t like that in California or Oregon, so after redshirting at Tennessee-Martin, he looked for a place closer to home, which is how he ended up at Southern Oregon.

It has always struck me that the same powerful, positive lesson I learned during my first semester in college could be such a negative for Menyada. Talking to adults and advocating for yourself is supposed to be a positive. I believe in this lesson so strongly, I try to teach it to every student I can. The juxtaposition of the two experiences has never made sense in my brain. I don’t know how the same lesson could go so well for me and so poorly for him, except for the obvious — that I’m white and he’s black.

Since I was from a small town with zero diversity, everyone assumed I was racist.

Other players on the football team thought it was funny that Menyada and I lived together — the little, white defensive back from Canyonville, Oregon, and the big, black running back from Riverside, California. Since I was from a small town, everyone assumed I was racist and assumed that Menyada would beat my ass at some point.

This wasn’t the case at all. I loved living with Menyada and he loved living with me. I learned about racism from him. I think he learned a lot from me, too. Since we both had such different backgrounds, and we were teammates and trusted each other, we were able to ask each other questions that we didn’t understand. We were each other’s museum pieces because our backgrounds were both so foreign to each other.

We were able to have true, authentic discussions and learn. I explained to him that it wasn’t that I didn’t like black people, but I had no experience with black people. There simply was no diversity where I grew up. I had never spent time with a colored person until I went to college. He had never met a white redneck from a logging town. It was a match made in heaven.

Again, Menyada and I were able to talk about issues without classifying each other as right or wrong, but different. Where I grew up was very different than where he grew up. Growing up white was very different than growing up black. Again, not right, not wrong, just different. However, since we had a football brotherhood, we both knew the other was coming from a place of honesty, not judgment.

Football is the ultimate classroom

Our world would be so much better if it was like a football locker room. When I played high school and college football, I didn’t care if you were florescent green — if you could help our team win, you were my teammate. The color of skin was far less important than the color of the jersey you wore on Friday or Saturday and far less important than your overall attitude and commitment to the team.

Menyada, and other black teammates I had in college, helped me learn this athletic lesson on a broader scale. I had little in common with some players and lots in common with others. However, what we all had in common was a burning desire to win. What mattered most was how much effort and efficacy you brought to the table in the way you trained, the way you lifted, the way you practiced, and the way you played.

Written by: Nathan White