What Do You See When I Take Off My Jersey?

This story was first printed in InfUSion Magazine.

By Mariya Lewter

When a UGA student-athlete steps foot onto the field, they can expect an array of cheers and support from their fellow Bulldogs in the stands. However, for black athletes at this predominantly white institution, how likely is it that they’ll receive the same support when they remove their uniform?

The experience of a black athlete at a PWI is one marked by praises and pedestals, but also stereotypes and isolation. The same students yelling “Go Dawgs!” when the star running back makes a touchdown are oftentimes the same ones who avoid sitting next to him on an Orbit bus.

On one hand, it’s no secret that athletes at UGA are placed on a high pedestal by students.

“When you’re on a level like this, it’s almost like you’re a celebrity,” says Justin Scott-Wesley, fifth-year student and former member of the Georgia football team. “You’re not a regular student because you don’t do the things that regular students do. The things we do are televised and glorified.”

On the other hand, these same athletes are often treated like outcasts.

“The white people here are kind of scared of us,” says third-year student and Georgia track and field team member Derrick White. “When we get on the elevator, they tighten up. When we’re on the bus, they won’t sit next to us. If I walk through, people will literally stop talking and move out the way. I don’t know what that’s about.”

It could be easy to dismiss race as a reason black athletes are isolated given that mostly all athletes at UGA experience both fandom and avoidance from their non-athlete peers. However, in situations when there’s no Georgia “G” or Nike gear involved, the discrimination is evident.

“I’ve been downtown before and tried to get into a bar,” says Christian Harrison, a fourth-year business management major and member of the Georgia track and field team. “The white boy in front of me wearing the same exact thing that I have on gets in, but they tell me I can’t get in because I’m not dressed business casual.

Harrison transferred to UGA in 2014 from North Carolina A&T, a historically black university. The transition from a school where everyone looked like him to one where he was a minority proved to be a major adjustment, even as an athlete.

“At A&T, even if you were on the football or basketball team, you were still just another student,” says Harrison.  “I’ve had people here tell me that the only reason I have a lot of friends is because I’m an athlete, and you would never hear that at A&T. Back there, athletes could be friends with regular people, but here, they mostly just hang with other athletes.”

Most of the athletes are unaware of the challenges they may face as African Americans before they enter a school like UGA. It’s not until they step foot on campus as an official student that they get a glimpse of what life is really like for black students at a PWI.

“When you get recruited, they really don’t tell you about campus life,” says Scott-Wesley. “They tell you about football life. ‘Yes, we have the best facilities. Yes, we have the best film room, weight room, indoor training facility.’ They don’t tell you, ‘Yeah, let’s come to Tate.’ You really don’t get a sense of what it’s like to experience things like racism because they treat us how they treat us.”

While race does play a factor in the disconnect between some of the athletes and the rest of campus, could it be possible that they are also personally responsible?

Some deal with issues of not wanting to open up to the vibrant culture that is present on the campus, understanding that college is not like home and that you cannot make it continue to be like high school, taking ownership of the independence that you have and raising your level of expectations,” says Robert Miles, Director of Life Skills for the athletic association and former member of the 1980 National Championship Georgia football team.

Knowing their part in the discourse, some athletes have even challenged themselves to bridge that gap.

“I think our biggest challenge should be getting over the coliseum and getting to know everybody,” says White. “Nobody knows us. All of us walk around campus all day with our Beats headphones, and we’re just not social. That’s something that we have to work on to help people stop stereotyping us.”

With a little over 7-percent of UGA students being black and an even smaller percentage being black athletes, there’s no denying the sense of otherness they feel walking this campus.

But the one thing they ask is to be treated the same way in their jeans and sneakers as they would in their jersey and cleats.

“We’re here,” says Harrison. “We’re students too.”

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