Beyond the obvious, something happened today that as a race scholar, a civil rights advocate, attorney, father, and human being I found disheartening. Here's what it was.
Jalen Tabor is maybe the best Gator football player since Harvin and Tebow. Even if he is not, Tabor was by several accounts the best defensive back in the SEC last year and the second-best DB in college football behind Jalen Ramsey. By any account, Tabor is a brilliant football player and a gregarious, kind, outspoken kid.
And today, as social media was ablaze with discourse on the police shooting of Alton Sterling, Tabor, an All-American football player and honors student, expressed an opinion about the shooting on Twitter.
While many folks share his opinion, Tabor took care to express that he felt the way he did as a young black man. Tabor also took a risk expressing his view because of his public profile and platform.
Keep in mind that Florida players have utilized their platform to speak out on social issues in the past, whether they were still in school or after it. Danny Wuerffel fought and continues to fight for the poor and seemingly hopeless in New Orleans and across the rural south. Tim Tebow's humanitarian exploits are well-documented, as was his participation in a pro-life advertisement. Tabor has quieter avenues as well, whether it be as a mentor for young people in Gainesville or as a leader on campus. You can decide what you want about the root causes of the reaction to Tabor's outspoken Twitter account. I have my own views.
What's not up for debate is that the backlash to Tabor expressing his opinion, rooted in his social status as a young black male, was nearly immediate. The braver tweeted directly at Tabor, telling him he was an "embarrassment to the University of Florida" for expressing his opinion and telling him to "shut up" and "stick to football." Those are just a few of the gems.
The more cowardly hid behind social media, in places like 247 Sports message boards or Facebook posts and elsewhere, but their messages were the same.
One I saw read: "I've never been more embarrassed of one of our star players than Tabor playing the race card today."
I had a visceral reaction to most of this. I felt agony. I felt sadness.
Sadness not just that a student like Tabor, situated at a top-tier public university, would be ripped apart for expressing an opinion, both as a student and as a young black male. I also felt sadness for Florida, a university with a tough past on race. UF was one of the last southern schools to integrate football, and the shadows and specters of a checkered racial history linger still.
Next fall, in a fit of Shakespearian irony, the University of Florida will have a renovated basketball arena (the O'Connell Center) named for a state Supreme Court Justice who began his career a segregationist ... situated next to a stadium named for a man who had racist covenants in his will (Ben Hill Griffin) ... that will contain a field named for a man who was integral in having the Confederate Flag removed from capital buildings across the south, and in South Carolina in particular (Steve Spurrier.)
Tabor's football light shines brightly from beneath the gothic walls and oak trees bathed in this history.
I felt sadness for Tabor for becoming an object lesson in sports racism: the notion that a black football player should be cheered and applauded for being excellent on the field but shut his mouth and his mind off it. I could hear the casual tailgate racism of a Saturday down South: "Be seen, boy, not heard."
I don't think the plantation economy SEC football/college football arguments are right. I've spoken on this issue and talked to men like Bill Rhoden and Dr. Richard Lapchick about it, and I think the reality is the opportunity to earn a college degree for free is unparalleled. I had that chance as an undergraduate and as a graduate student, prior to law school. It was amazing. It made me smarter. I don't advocate "pay for play."
But I do think the NCAA needs to loosen the grip on revenue producing athletes. Students like Tabor need more rights, more benefits, spending money stipends, agent access without eligibility threat. And they need that not just because they produce revenues or what my colleague Kristi Dosh calls "Saturday Millionaires" but because the type of vitriol hurled at Tabor for expressing sadness about the destruction of a black body by the police seems a double-bind for those who speak out against it. You don't want to pay him because he's getting an education, you say. But you don't want him to speak out and use his educated mind, either.
Sounds an awful lot like employer-employee, doesn't it? But without the money. And with far more sadness.