Trouble A-Bruin: On UCLA And Who Schools Choose To Redeem
By Guest Contributor Dr. David J. Leonard
Much of the buzz surrounding Sports Illustrated’s report about the troubles surrounding UCLA men’s basketball program has focused on the players, sporting headlines like “UCLA players undermined discipline, morale,” and “UCLA Basketball Out Of Control.” But the story itself really hones in on coach Ben Howland’s failure to “control” and “discipline” those players.
But if this same story had been about teams like UNLV, Miami or Michigan’s “Fab Five,” the narrative would been less one of shock and disappointment but rather the fulfillment of expectation, which are wrapped in racial and class assumptions that UCLA, celebrated as an example of the nostalgic ideal of collegiate sports entertainment, has benefited from for years.
More specifically, much of the article focuses on Howland and his inability to corral and control Reeves Nelson, who has denied many of the allegations.
The piece gives ample attention to the disruptive influence of Nelson, who is white: injuring three players on separate occasions, getting into a fight with another player away from practice, and otherwise engaging in questionable behavior. I could not help but think how much the story revealed about the state of education, privilege, and inequality within society.
Whereas other players are lamented for drug use and partying in ways that detracted from the team success (victories), Nelson comes across as being at a different level. Noting how Howland “looked the other way” because of his play, SI describes Nelson as a pariah, as a cancer to the program:
Nelson was hardly the player around whom to build a team. He was a classic bully, targeting teammates who weren’t as athletically gifted as he and tormenting the support staff. At the end of practice, he would punt balls high up into the stands at Pauley Pavilion, turn to the student managers and say, “Fetch.” Nelson frequently talked back to the assistant coaches. When they told him to stop, he would remark, “That’s how Coach Howland talks to you.” […]
Nelson showed Howland only slightly more respect. By his own admission, he often ignored the head coach’s phone calls, and Howland resorted to calling one of Nelson’s roommates, asking him to coax Nelson onto the line.
There certainly wasn’t a system of zero tolerance for any of the players, but most certainly Nelson had a level of impunity. It made me think about the ways race infects the process of discipline and punishment as well as how education increasingly operates through a commodity model as opposed to one of education.
This is not say that what is happening at UCLA is all about race or that it is evidence of the failed priorities of today’s educational system but rather that what we see at UCLA isn’t simply a soap opera or a instance to wax nostalgically about the John Wooden era but rather a window, glimpse and teachable moment regarding issues bigger than UCLA.
Beginning in the 1980s and extending to the 1990s, students of color attending American public schools faced increased levels of surveillance, policing, and state-sanctioned violence. For example, in 1994, President Bill Clinton signed the Gun-Free Schools Act, a law requiring a one-year suspension for any student who brought a gun to school. This had both direct and indirect consequences throughout the United States. In Chicago, for example: during the 1994-95 school year, only 23 students were throughout the entire district. By 1996-1997, this number reached 571, surpassing 1,000 by two years later.
Although white youth are more likely to bring a gun to school, sell drugs, and use drugs, the efforts to rid schools of these behaviors have focused on youth of color.
The consequences of a Jim Crowed disciplinary process have been evident since day 1. Consider just these three findings:
- According to a 2007 study by the National Economic and Social Rights Initiative, black students accounted for 17.1 percent of U.S. student populations in 1998, but represented 32.1 percent of students suspended as a result of rule violations. The study also names this statistic from a national survey of high school students: the number of students who reported the presence of security guards and/or police officers in their schools rose from 54 percent in 1999 to 70 percent in 2003.
- In a separate study of 15 major American cities, the Applied Research Center found black students “report higher than expected” suspension and expulsion rates in all fifteen. In Chicago, while African American students accounted for just over half the district students, they represented almost 2/3s of the students suspended and close to 3/4s of those expelled.