Keep blowing the whistle on hazing, racism in high school and college sports

Northwestern’s controversies over hazing and racism in its sports programs took me back to the time my brother laughed off a high school football coach’s racist digs toward him and his friend.

SHARE Keep blowing the whistle on hazing, racism in high school and college sports
The student newspaper’s follow-up piece on the football team’s dysfunctional culture serves as a stark reminder that having significant Black and Brown representation in any institution isn’t enough to stave off a racially hostile environment. It is also indicative that there are times those in leadership positions who should know better don’t.

The Daily Northwestern’s follow-up piece on the football team’s dysfunctional culture is a stark reminder that having significant Black and Brown representation in any institution isn’t enough to stave off a racially hostile environment.

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When my brother, Kamran, played high school football for a brief period in the 1990s, one of his coaches referred to him and a friend, also of Indian descent, as either “Seven” or “Eleven.”

No, those numbers were not splashed across their red-and-white jerseys. The coach just thought it was hilarious to nickname the two South Asian boys on the team after the 7-Eleven convenience store, where I’m guessing he may have spotted a Brown person or two behind the counter.

My brother also found the “Kwik-E-Mart/Apu” digs amusing at the time and waved me off when I told him that his mentor was way out of bounds.

Years later, Kamran, or “Kamoo” as most of us in the family call him, mused on social media about how he now recognized the comments as “totally racist.”

“What were we supposed to do? New school. Freshmen. Timid kids,” he wrote in a 2013 Facebook post, trying to make sense of why he and his friend didn’t call the coach out.

“Today I would have gotten him fired.”

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My brother’s experiences pale in comparison to the bigotry reportedly endured by former Northwestern University football players, who said they heard the now-terminated head coach Pat Fitzgerald ask Black coaches and players to chop off their dreadlocks while allowing their white teammates to freely sport long hair.

And while Kamoo had at least one hot-headed baseball coach in Little League, I don’t remember him being subjected to the type of reported abusive behavior that also ended Jim Foster’s run as the Wildcats baseball coach last week.

Yet, in those brief moments when my brother was reduced to an ethnic stereotype, he was brought down a peg, even if that wasn’t his football coach’s intent.

Kamoo’s defense mechanism as a teenager — chuckling over the bone-headed remarks — was pretty much in line with how former NU offensive lineman Ramon Diaz Jr. said he and others reacted to the racist queries and jokes they were bombarded with during their time on the school’s football team.

Diaz and his fellow teammates of color, like my brother, simply laughed it off, Diaz told the Daily Northwestern.

Authority figures need to grow up

While the sexualized hazing claims the Daily Northwestern detailed have rightfully taken center stage, the student newspaper’s follow-up piece on the football team’s dysfunctional culture is a stark reminder that having significant Black and Brown representation in any institution isn’t enough to stave off a racially hostile environment. It is also indicative that there are times those in leadership positions who should know better don’t.

I get that trash-talking is part of high school and college sports, but racist slurs and quips don’t qualify as good-natured ribbing, especially if they are coming from someone who is being paid millions to help foster cooperation and camaraderie among the youth he or she is supposedly guiding.

My brother’s high school football career didn’t last that long, mostly because he didn’t care to play anymore. No big deal. After all, as Kamoo said on the Facebook thread he started 10 years ago, he was a “scrub on the B team” who only got to play because another kid got hurt.

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Kamoo’s friends had a field day hating on his self-admitted lack of skills with the pigskin, but his original “7-Eleven” post also triggered high school sports memories that had nothing to do with scoring a game-winning touchdown or home run.

“I remember freshman year...when our coach referred to (opposing) Evanston players as ‘chocolate bars,’” one family friend wrote.

Another classmate of Kamoo’s, a Hindu, also mentioned how the school’s baseball coach perhaps not so innocently once asked him what the red dot — a bindi — signifies.

“I just told him that it meant I’m now recording this conversation,” the classmate reminisced of his witty comeback.

My brother, who was on his high school baseball team, actually admired and respected that coach, but was taken aback when he starting calling a student of East Asian descent “Jin Foo” during gym class, even though the boy, whose real name was Jin Fon, went by Jimmy.

While Kamoo didn’t stand up to his football coach, he did tell his baseball coach to cool it.

At that point, my brother said, he was a senior and had enough confidence, or “balls” as he put it, to say something.

The baseball coach felt awful, told Kamoo he wasn’t a racist and stopped.

Too bad, even decades later, there are still plenty of authority figures in the sports world who refuse to grow up.

Rummana Hussain is a columnist and member of the Sun-Times Editorial Board.

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