By: Sean Cartell
SEC Digital Network
OXFORD, Miss. – There’s a saying that athletics are the front door of a university. It’s become a cliché, but there is a lot of truth in that statement.
In the 14 universities of the Southeastern Conference, there are all kinds of impressive things taking place each and every day. Those accomplishments occur in the classroom, in the lab, in the arts and on the playing fields. Those campuses are a haven for high achievers of all different disciplines, strengths and interests.
Despite that fact, athletics are generally the most visible part of a university, have widespread television exposure and manage sizeable budgets.
That means, simply, that athletics have a huge responsibility to represent the very best about a university because sometimes those sports teams are the only connection someone might have to that school. Student-athletes, therefore, must set the standard when it comes to high achievements in the classroom, community involvement and character.
Athletics are only one part of each university and also when it comes to the SEC, which has demonstrated its commitment to academics with numerous student-athletes earning recognition as Academic All-America selections, the SEC Academic Honor Roll and the SECU initiative.
Monday night was another reminder of that fact. Last evening, Commissioner Slive and I ventured to Oxford, Miss., to attend several events as part of the University of Mississippi’s 50 Years of Integration: Opening The Closed Society series, which is commemorating the enrollment of James Meredith as Ole Miss’ first African-American student.
I was so excited to attend this event because, as anyone who knows me knows, two of my favorite interests are history and education. While I am in my ninth year working in college athletics in some capacity, I have always considered myself to be working in education, not simply in athletics.
In sports terms, I was definitely a fan at tonight’s event. The keynote speaker was Harry Belafonte, an award-winning performer and actor, who is a well-known activist for social justice and civil rights.
Meredith, in the fall of 1962, became the first black student to enroll at the University of Mississippi, a courageous act that required President John F. Kennedy to federalize the Mississippi National Guard after a riot erupted on campus. Meredith earned his bachelor of arts degree in political science from Ole Miss in August 1963.
The evening began with “Meredith and Me: The Walk,” a mass walk from Baxter Hall, where Meredith lived on campus, to the Lyceum, where he registered for classes. It was a moving opportunity to retrace the path that Meredith took that fateful day.
As I looked in the group of people making the walk, there were young men and young women and there were students of all races. There also were student-athletes sporting gear from many different sports teams at Ole Miss taking part in the event. Among the diversity, there was one constant: all of those in attendance were smiling, embracing the moment, enjoying one another’s company and soaking in the history of Meredith’s heroic actions.
Ole Miss Chancellor Dan Jones is to be commended for putting on this program. He is approaching the history of his university with a holistic view, focusing on the school’s successes in the areas of civil rights, but also not shying away from ugly moments in the school’s past. Citing Meredith’s courage to be a trailblazer, Jones encouraged students to not be “silent observers of injustice.”
Following an introduction that was highlighted by performances from the Ole Miss gospel choir, Belafonte spoke at an event in the Gertrude C. Ford Center for the Performing Arts entitled “50 Years of Integration, Opening The Closed Society.” The event name was inspired by a book “Mississippi: The Closed Society,” written by former Ole Miss history professor James Silver.
Belafonte spoke of his work for civil rights, recollected meetings with Dr. Martin Luther King and told of a daring trip he took to Mississippi in the 1960s to deliver money and resources to Freedom Riders. Belafonte had no prepared remarks from which to speak, but his emotional and candid speech had the audience captivated throughout the address.
On the ride back to Birmingham, I began thinking about the title of the program and how it relates to athletics. And suddenly, it all made sense to me.
So many times, college sports play a role in opening the closed society. In the current era, sports are the great equalizer. Athletes come from all walks of life, races, gender and economic background. These athletes are judged only by what they contribute to their team and squad members from a variety of backgrounds must come together in order to make their team a successful one.
Discrimination often comes from a fear of people different than us. The more different kinds of people that one is exposed to and the broader the base of different viewpoints one can understand, the more comfortable a person is around all types of people.
Before I heard the speech and even considered formulating these thoughts, I was reading the New York Times on our trip over to Oxford. I was drawn to read an article about something that was happening in the country of Georgia, regarding its upcoming elections.
Maybe something that happens in a small Eastern European country might not be of much relevance to many people in the Southeast United States, but it was to me. In fact, because I’ve worked in collegiate athletics for nearly a decade, there are a lot more things relevant to me than there were before I started.
You see, one of the most impressive student-athletes I ever worked with came from the country of Georgia. She was a track and field student-athlete, who came to America without much of an understanding of the English language and from a country that, during her collegiate career, would become war-torn. She finished her collegiate career with multiple individual national shot put titles and as an exceptional student who had mastered the English language.
Her brother was in the military fighting for the country of Georgia, but had done everything possible not to tell her he had gone to war, so that she would focus her energies on her throwing career and her academic career. She once told me that all she wished was that there could be peace in her country and that politics wouldn’t get in the way. Her family lived in Tbilisi, the capital city, and the dateline in the story I read today.
And that story is just one of the examples of how my viewpoint has been widened since being involved in athletics. It’s all about perspective.
I’ve seen college sports provide opportunities in education for students who wouldn’t have otherwise had that chance, I’ve seen student-athletes of all races, backgrounds and genders come together to win national titles and national academic awards.
My perspective encompasses many points of view because, through sports, I have been exposed to a wide variety of thoughts, opinions and backgrounds. And I’m not the only person whose life has been touched by athletics who feels that way.
As a lifelong student of both history and sports, my takeaway from last night's presentation is that college athletics needs to continue to take a leadership role in keeping society open and making a closed society a thing of the past.