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Part I: In the gym
Brecca Thomas is shouting, just like everyone else.
And that’s because Brecca is a freshman point guard, and “everyone else” is the University of Colorado Boulder Women’s basketball team — a unit of players that is more a well-oiled machine than a mere assembly of nine college students on a hardwood floor.
At the risk of ripping off every ESPN broadcast you’ve ever seen, it can only be said that the women’s team at practice is like clockwork: one pass, two pass, three pass, step, step, layup, bucket. For about a straight minute, the players run through their first drill of the pre-game practice, playing their roles with laser precision against the backdrop of encouraging shouts and claps from other players, coaches and team assistants on the floor — even the rare missed layup is met with claps and reinforcement. Like a foghorn, the buzzer sounds, and the first drill is over.
The players get into their dynamic stretches, spreading out on the baseline and doing knee-hugs lengthwise across the floor. But even this part of practice isn’t silent.
“Brecca, what is number 5’s favorite thing to do?”
“Uh, she tries to drive first. She’ll post up- she’ll shoot the three, but as a last resort.”
“RDL backwards!” More stretches ensue.
“Dani, what are some looks that are gonna be open?”
“Jasmine, what are some things we’re gonna be looking for?”
“Stops, finding gaps — box one, maybe secondary…”
“Monster crawl hamstring!” And the players monster crawl.
Each stretch is punctuated with a “Ready! Attack!” from the players in unison, and that’s just what they are: in unison. These students, all from different places and different grade levels and different experience levels, are the prototype of what a team looks like. Seven of the 11 players on the floor look like they can identify as African-American, some teammates are white — one is from Germany — the coaches and assistants are predominantly white. But the atmosphere couldn’t be more natural here, in this gym, between all the people fueling the CU women’s team. The players’ sync doesn’t take any breaks through the next half-hour of drills.
And then, finally, it’s quiet and practice is winding down. Half of the team shoots free throws in groups at both ends of the gym. Small side-conversations go on among the pound of the ball against the hardwood. Each half of the team has to hit a certain number of consecutive free throws to end practice without doing pushups. (One player misses a shot, and half the team drops for pushups.) The players reposition themselves along the paint. Eventually the gym gets quiet as the last shot is thrown up, up, up and then cheers, raucous cheers erupt as the shot sinks, and the team collapses into a huddle of bumping shoulders and laughs and smiles in the middle of the court.
That scene alone is evidence of how close the players are to one another, but a coach said it best half an hour prior when the team huddled before breaking into play simulations. She turned to a player, and asked, about a specific play, “What does it mean to you?”
The player paused in thought, and gave what seemed like a satisfactory answer. The coach frowned and responded, “To the team. What does it mean to us? It doesn’t matter what it means to you — it matters what it means to us.”
Part II: In the campus world
In the athletic world for an African-American athlete, “us” is an easy thing to feel, to understand and to be. But when they’re being normal students along with the other 29,000-something students here, CU-Boulder can be a whole different world.
“When I wake up, I don’t think, ‘Oh, I’m here, I’m black,’” Brecca said“It’s not the first thing on my mind. But when you walk around and see people hangin’ out, you see — ‘Oh. We’re different.’”
For Brecca, coming from her home city of Houston, Texas, to Boulder was a large cultural change — there is a much larger African-American population in Houston — and the changes in coming to Boulder range from hearing different music on the radio to realizing that people might not relate to your perspectives in class.
“In the classroom, it’s Black History Month, or we talk about whatever things may be going on,” Brecca said. “I find myself wanting to say something, but it’s kind of uncomfortable to say something when people don’t know the background of how you grew up…past the stereotypes.”
Brecca says that race is always in the back of her mind, but it’s not something she “moans over” — she’s seen people at CU make generalizations about race, but hasn’t seen cases of overt racism. At CU, it’s more of a problem of how pure demographics can feel isolating. Brecca remembers the moment that factor first sunk in for her: She left her dorm in Buckingham on the way to class, she walked up the Engineering pathway, she turned east on her way to Ketchum.
“I was on my way there, walking dead straight through the middle of campus,” Brecca says. “Looking left and right, halfway there, I realized, wow — there’s no one. No one of color. It’s very rare to see more than three on the same sidewalk. And going into class, it was the same thing. Like wow — even the teacher.”
She compares it to picturing yourself in the center of something: You just see the color that’s right in front of you. She says she’s at the center of the circle, and she could do a full 360° and only see that one color, on campus and in the classroom.
What is hard for athletes like Brecca is confronting a common African-American stereotype here at CU: If you’re African-American, you must play a sport. With so few African-American students at CU in general (the number was 2.1 percent in Fall 2014, or 643 out of the whole 29,772 students), some students succumb to the lazy assumption that if an African-American attends CU, it must be because they’re athletic, despite the fact that they make up nowhere near the majority of even student-athletes at CU.
“It’s interesting to walk across campus and have someone ask you what sport you play, rather than…’what’s your name,’” Brecca said.
She’s been approached by students who assume she plays a sport and who ask that question even when she isn’t wearing the CU athletic gear.
As has Tory Miller, a freshman forward for the men’s basketball team.
“More often than not, yeah, that’s how I’m approached. It’s not like it’s a bad thing, but I don’t wanna be known just as my sport.” He’s been asked the question when wearing “just normal stuff, or sweats that don’t even have CU on it, half the time.”
“I think athletes….are more conscious,” Brecca said. “Being an athlete, it’s real diverse. People are conscious of what they say and how they say it. As opposed to the regular student population — some know their boundaries, and some don’t.”
She says that some non-athlete students don’t know what’s racist or okay to say.
“People tend to go to stereotypes, like the ‘big black guy,’” Tory said. “They think I’m an intimidating big black dude, and that’s not the case at all.”
People don’t say it right off the bat, he notes, but once some people get more comfortable, they reveal it.
Tory said that he thinks his experience would be different if he were a white student; he says people would be more likely to look at him not as someone who plays a sport, but as a student.
“When I think of the word ‘university,’ I think ‘diversity,’” Brecca said. “They go hand in hand. Just coming here, it’s not the ideal picture of what you would think of a university.”
Part III: Just how diverse is diverse?
CU’s website takes conscious steps to highlight the university’s commitment to diversity — as a prospective student, you might see more ethnic diversity in photos online than you would in an actual day on campus. The website’s diversity section in the “About” tab displays CU’s Flagship 2030 plan, a “bold vision” to improve the university in various ways, one of those being to “exemplify the power of diversity.” The Office of Diversity, Equity and Community Engagement’s website also puts forth an air of confidence in CU’s commitment to diversity that seems quizzical against the backdrop of the campus’ reality.
“I’m not satisfied,” said Kevin MacLennan, CU’s Director of Admissions. “I’m excited about our growth in diversity, but absolutely not satisfied. When I first [came to the office] in 1992, we hovered around 13 percent diverse. We set two goals: to get the most academically talented and most diverse students.”
As MacLennan said, there has been growth in the campus’ diversity. While MacLennan refers to diversity as differences in any demographic category — gender, sexual orientation, national identity, and so on — there have been legitimate improvements in the ethnic or racial department. According to CU’s Planning and Budget Analysis office, the number of new African-American freshman in Fall 2014 was 73 percent higher than it was in 1997, the earliest year of published data.
That number seems large at first, but a 75 percent increase represents a change from 85 new African-American freshman in 1995 to 149 in 2014, a number that still only makes up 2.1 percent of the whole CU student population. In 2004, African-Americans made up 1.9 percent of “103+” in-state applicants to CU on the Colorado Commission on Higher Education (CCHE) index. What that means is that 120 out of 6,472 in-state applicants that hit CU’s required score of 103 on the CCHE index — which is based on ACT scores and GPA — were African-American.
When one considers that 111 of those 120 were accepted, and only 41 actually enrolled at CU (a total of 66 African-Americans enrolled from in-state and out-of-state in 2004), the university faces a larger problem. Financial obstacles may be standing in the way of many African-American students’ path to CU, a possibility that MacLennan and the Office of Admissions have tried to address. The CU Promise program guarantees enough grants and scholarships to any student who falls below a certain income level, which doubtlessly is a huge leg-up to low-income students, but middle-income families who fall just above the line may still be forced to look elsewhere for college education.
Financial aid for athletes, on the other hand, is never in question — the university makes sure scholarships for athletes are taken care of. CU spent $470,355 in 2011 on football recruiting alone, and the athletic program came under heat in the early 2000s for allegations of enticing recruits with sex, strippers and alcohol, as well as questionable handling of sexual assault allegations against athletes.
The Regents of the university initially defended the athletic program in the midst of the uproar, although the Title IX-related scandal ultimately forced out the university’s president and football head coach. Even the CU police have treated athletes with leniency at the pressure of football officials, according to a statement by a CUPD detective in a 2004 Rocky Mountain News report. Just last year, the university moved to allow more academically at-risk student-athletes into its football program, at predicted GPAs as low as 2.0. In many ways, the university has taken strenuous and ethically questionable steps to garner and protect lucrative student-athletes over the years, many of whom are African-American. But is there a comparable effort for regular African-American students?
In the admissions world, CU accepts a small amount — 16 percent or less — of students that get in “in the window,” which means they fall below the 103+ index score. Window applicants are accepted based on factors other than academics, and thus the window represents a potential opportunity for more African-American students. However, window applicants are also riskier to take into the university — they are more likely to struggle and even drop out due to the level of rigor at CU.
“We have an ethical obligation not to set a student up for failure,” MacLennan said. The university wouldn’t want to give spots to students just to have them fail and rack up unnecessary college debt. But in the most recent data from 2004, white students made up 77 percent of window enrollments, which almost exactly mirrors the status quo: 76.8 percent of the overall student body was white at the time. It is unclear how many African-American students were window applicants, but they made up only 4 percent of window enrollments — a pattern that only perpetuates the racial imbalance at CU.
“There’s not a school in the country that doesn’t have diversity as a top priority,” MacLennan says, which is a gentler way to say that no school doesn’t struggle with diversity. CU ranks around 182th in the country, but even the most diverse school we’ve got — Rutgers in New Jersey — is only 7 percent African-American. Based on both national census demographics and Colorado high school graduate demographics, African-Americans are the least represented group at CU.
Short of waiting 17 more years for the African-American enrollment rate to near-double again, the state of diversity at CU may come down to what students themselves can do to change things. MacLennan and the admissions office have a commitment to diversity that shows in the small but steady progress the university is making, and more financial aid or window policy changes may make another dent (these changes can be tricky due to Supreme Court opposition to outright affirmative action policies). But at the end of the day, as MacLennan acknowledges, whether African-American students — and students of any group — can feel comfortable at CU depends on whether they can feel welcome in everyday life. Statistics can be stubborn — but attitudes don’t have to be.