In the years before Coach Jeff Tedford took over Cal football, UC Berkeley students became known for bum-rushing the field and rioting after the Big Game. Having lost to Stanford seven times in a row, the logic was simple: If we aren’t going to beat you, at least we’ll kick your ass.
But these days, Cal students have a rather different outlook. Now that the Bears are ranked number four nationally, it’s hard to ignore the cult that’s arisen around them. Billboards, buses, and BART trains are wallpapered with pictures of the handsome, ethnically diverse team standing in full gear and gazing out into a boundless azure sky. New marketing credos aren’t the only signs, either. With the A’s, Raiders, and Warriors all losing this year, Cal’s weekly press conferences have been packed with sportswriters and broadcasters. Vendors in Sproul Plaza hawk jerseys of star players like tailback J.J. Arrington, and Coach Tedford has become a local folk hero: as the Big Game approached, the perennial “Fuck Stanfurd” T-shirt was eclipsed by “Impeach Bush: Tedford for President.”
The great rivalry between Cal’s Bears and Stanford’s Tree stands in for the cultural divide between an ethnically diverse public university and a privileged and elite private one. Traditionally, the annual Big Game has been the theater in which these differences are played out. The schools’ competing outlooks are evident from the very moment their respective bands first take the field.
At this year’s game, each section of the notoriously clever Stanford Band selected its own nerdy costume. The yell leaders wore togas; the trombones were dressed as Ghostbusters; the altos were Transformers; the mellophones were dressed as Waldo from Where’s Waldo?; the drummers wore twisty-ties and duct tape; and the alto saxes were riot police with shields and batons. It was all very eggheaded and, uh, a bit white. The pregame show was organized around a post-election “Escape to Canada” theme, as the announcer, evidently Dudley Do-Right, shouted mock instructions for blue-state expatriates, such as Wear a Mountie hat and Learn how to fake a Canadian accent. “We don’t take football as seriously as Cal,” observed Chris Holt, who plays trumpet and also helms media relations for the band. “We like to infuse a certain mirth and humor into the whole rivalry thing.” Cal fans booed obstreperously throughout the whole skit, undercutting Stanford’s pageantry with a routine in which audience members pretended to chop down Stanford’s beloved tree.
Once the Stanford nerdfest ended, the considerably less intellectual Cal band rushed onto the field playing Beyoncé’s “Crazy in Love,” followed by Outkast’s infectious “Hey Ya.” Wearing black, military-style uniforms with gold placards draped over their jackets, the horn players shook their booties and gyrated their hips while the baritones and tubas laid down a seriously funky bass line. Cal’s peppy, miniskirted cheerleaders rushed onto the field and boogied down with the horns, and the crowd went wild as three groups of dancers stole the show by grinding their pelvises and shaking their pompoms in front of the band.
The two football teams were just as mismatched. It wasn’t just a case of the land-grant university squeaking by the private school thanks to a funky final play involving bandmembers. This year, the Bears humiliated Stanford 41 to 6. Arrington picked up 169 yards for his tenth hundred-yard game of the season, and along the way set Cal’s new single-season rushing record. With three and a half minutes left in the third quarter, Cal’s freshman running back Marshawn Lynch made a 55-yard dash into Stanford’s end zone, which broke open a 13-3 game and turned it into a blowout. After Lynch contributed another touchdown by passing the ball twenty yards to wide receiver Burl Toler III, a reporter in the press box scoffed, “Now I think Cal’s just showboating.” But someone else countered: “Cal is showing the national press that it’s Rose Bowl material.”
Cal fans even abdicated the role of sore losers. Right about the time Lynch blew the game open, Stanford incurred a series of questionable penalties. First, Stanford’s #29 Leigh Torrence tackled Cal punt receiver Tim Mixon before he even had a chance to catch the ball. Then, during a crucial fourth-quarter play at his own five-yard line, Stanford defensive end Will Svitek ran out and pushed Cal’s offensive lineman, Jonathan Murphy, before play had even begun. A guy in the press box muttered: “God, I hope they don’t run out into the middle of the field after the game. These guys are gonna kill each other.”
Fearing just that, dozens of real riot police ran onto the field to stand guard as the game ended. But triumphant Cal fans were so happy to have kicked Stanford’s ass that they didn’t crave more bloodshed. Instead, hundreds of fans in blue and yellow jerseys rushed onto the field and scooped the players onto their shoulders, waving flags and dancing to triumphant music.
In short, Cal outclassed Stanford on the football field.
Too bad that Stanford outclasses Cal in the classroom.
Don’t hate the player; hate the game
“A few years ago, a TV broadcaster interviewed a Cal player and a Stanford player back-to-back after the Big Game,” recalls Adrian Bankhead, who helped start the African-American Theme Co-Op during his junior year at UC Berkeley in 1997. “The Stanford player was, like, the next W.E.B. Dubois — this talented tenth-ass individual who saw all the game’s plays as part of this whole global, metaphysical philosophy. The Cal player was, like, grabbing his nuts and stuff.”
Athletes at Stanford fit into the larger academic community. “Because Stanford’s stringent admissions standards apply to all sports, everyone on the football team is also a really capable student,” trumpeter Holt said. “The football players can sit alongside the bandmembers and talk about Chekhov, as they can with anyone else in the school.”
Tony Mirabelli, who coordinates the tutorial program at UC Berkeley’s Athletic Study Center, explains the schools’ differences as a function of their respective missions. Whereas Cal recruits almost exclusively in California, Stanford can go all over the United States to handpick athletes who also are accomplished students. “So Stanford can come across looking like they have a brilliant athlete population, but they’re bringing in a very different athlete,” Mirabelli said. “That goes back to the notion of the public university having a duty to serve those who are less privileged.”
But in fact, the greatest disparity between the two universities occurs not because Cal is committed to serving the less privileged, but because it has largely stopped doing so. These days, elite Stanford has the much stronger commitment to students of color and the less privileged. African Americans comprise 12.3 percent of the Stanford freshman class, almost twice as large as that group’s 6.9 percent share of the California population. Meanwhile, Berkeley’s 2004 freshman class included only 112 African Americans out of about 3,700 total students, or barely 3 percent, according to Derek Van Rheenen, who directs the campus’ Athletic Study Center. And the UC regents’ announcement two months ago that they would raise the school’s minimum grade-point average from 2.8 to 3.0 all but ensured that the black population at Cal will continue to decrease.
Before the 1996 passage of Prop. 209, which prohibited racially preferential treatment in academic admissions, only one in every ten black males who came to Cal were scholarship athletes, Van Rheenen said. Now, he adds, the ratio is one in three. Junior cornerback Wale Forrester sarcastically predicts that, within a few years, the only black people on campus will be athletes recruited to play high-revenue sports like football and basketball.
The New Affirmative Action
If your only experience of Berkeley was the Athletic Studies Center in Cal’s Cesar Chavez building, you’d think the campus was mixed-up cool. If African-American students motivated primarily by academics are increasingly scarce at Cal, at least black students are still coming to play sports. But UC Berkeley is no longer the bastion of racial diversity it so wants to be. When Forrester first came to the university from West Los Angeles in 2002, he remembers wanting to turn around and go home. It was the first time he’d been the only black student in a classroom.
Athletics is the new affirmative action at Cal. That means that the university’s relationship with black men is increasingly based on sports and not academics. This is a troubling development. Take it from me: I tutor the players.
It’s not that athletics or athletic tutorial is bad, or that the players are bad students or bad guys. On the contrary, the ones I’ve tutored are witty, keen, and insightful — even if they didn’t always have the grades to prove it. The problem is that the process of educating athletes at Cal is separate and unequal. They come in unequal, the education they receive is unequal, and then they move on unequally, often without graduating.
At UC Berkeley, as at any Division 1 school that abides by NCAA guidelines, the admissions requirements for athletes are different from those for other students. The average unweighted GPA for Cal’s general freshman population is 3.81, and average SAT scores fall between 1,200 and 1,500. In contrast, student athletes with a high-school GPA of 2.5 or above are allowed to have SAT scores as low as 820, whereas athletes with scores of 950 or higher need only have a 2.175 GPA to be accepted.
Van Rheenen said Cal’s athletic admissions policy divides students into four basic categories, which are denoted by the letter grades A through D. The Cs and Ds — who number about twenty — are admitted under the lower NCAA standards. “They’re traditionally what people would call ‘blue chips,'” he says. “They’re supposedly the individuals who would be major factors in turning a program around, or adding to a program’s competitiveness athletically. The people who the coaching staff say is a ‘game breaker.'”
Critics complain that these scholarships are simply a ruse for recruiting students to the university just to throw footballs and shoot hoops. Others argue that such athletes take up slots that could otherwise be granted to students with higher GPA and SAT scores. But Van Rheenen notes that it’s highly unlikely the positions now being filled by African-American athletes would be allotted, in their absence, to other black students.
In other words, UC Berkeley’s lack of diversity is not the fault of athletes. They get into the university legitimately, even if it’s via a separate, parallel admissions process. Nor, Mirabelli notes, are they the only students admitted by exception. In fact, exceptional athletes fall into the same category that would harbor a brilliant physicist who couldn’t speak English, or a concert violinist with poor writing skills.
The dicier issue is that many scholarship recipients come to the university more interested in sports than in the classroom, and some lack the study skills to compete with Cal’s general population. Many attend study hall merely to fulfill a weekly requirement. The unsupervised “quiet study” area upstairs in the Athletic Study Center is actually the loudest part of the building. Most students clock in to get their compulsory seven hours out of the way, but spend the time gabbing with one another instead of studying. Left to their own devices, they would prefer to sit around and discuss football, or predict who will be drafted first for the NFL. Of course, it is hard to study over the perennial drone of voices and the latest Usher song constantly bleeping from everyone’s cell phones. This is why — especially in revenue sports like football, which grants 85 full scholarships every year — students are closely monitored by coaches, tutors, and advisers.
Once scholarship recipients arrive at UC Berkeley, many are so segregated from the rest of the student body that they could be living in a parallel universe. Freshmen are clumped together in residence halls, where they typically don’t interact with other students because their schedules are tightly circumscribed by daily practices that can clock in at eight hours, if you include morning weightlifting. Moreover, many athletes’ sheer physicality makes them stand out on campus. “I’ve read a number of essays by student athletes who say they’re hesitant to go to the library for fear that everyone will immediately know they’re athletes,” Mirabelli said. “And if they do anything that appears to be awkward, they’re going to be outed as being the ‘dumb jock.'”
In the summer of 2002, a freshman basketball player approached me with an analysis of linguist Robin Lakoff’s essay, “The Grooves of Academe.” In her text, Lakoff explained how academics jockey for power by learning how to talk the talk. If you don’t know the “insider” collegiate vocabulary, she observed, you’re perennially out of place. The basketball player wanted to know why his instructor had drawn a red slash through the first sentence of his paper: “I think there’s a lot of irony going on here.”
I told the student he was more right than he probably knew, but that if he expressed his thoughts like that, his instructor would not take him seriously for precisely the reasons that Lakoff had identified. At an elite university like Berkeley, the stuff you say often matters less than how you say it, which makes it doubly hard for underprepared students to write successful papers.
In most cases, the tutoring process amounts to me translating an essay assignment from wonk-speak into basic English, talking the student through his thoughts, and then translating them back into wonk-speak. Occasionally, the emphasis on writerly stylings outpaces the actual fleshing-out of ideas, and sometimes I lose students along the way. After all, many come to sessions after ten-hour days of workouts, classes, and meetings, and seem too burnt out by that point to grapple with alien concepts such as “identity formation” or “cultural discourse.”
During the summer of 2004, my tutoring sessions with freshman linebacker Marlin Simmons often devolved into conversations about his life in Compton. At first I thought he was reluctant to show me a paper he had written about Tupac Shakur because he didn’t want to open it up for critique. But eventually, I realized there might be other reasons a black guy from Compton wouldn’t want a white female college graduate telling him how to talk about race and identity. There was a lot of irony going on there, too. So instead, I listened to his stories.
After all, Simmons didn’t really come to Cal; Cal came to him. Growing up in Compton, the future linebacker garnered his tackling skills by fighting against the gang members on his block: “Where I lived, you got shot or beat up for wearing the wrong color in the wrong ‘hood,” he recalled. One day when he was thirteen, four guys knocked him over a Cheetos stand for wearing blue in his predominantly Blood ‘hood. After he punched the largest guy out, they ran off and reappeared with guns. Simmons sprinted to a nearby elementary school and hid in the bathroom for three hours until the crackle of gunfire subsided. Although he avoided gangbanging, he learned how to dodge bullets and fight well enough to earn respect on his block. In high school, he transferred these skills to football, and became one of the six top players on his team. Citing “girls and video games” as his other extracurricular activities, Marlin is hard-pressed to think of a high-school class that he liked all that much. But that didn’t matter, because football became his passport out of the ‘hood. During his sophomore year in high school, he started receiving letters of interest from various colleges, choosing Cal on his mother’s recommendation.
Simmons started at UC Berkeley in the summer before his freshman year by enrolling in UC Berkeley’s Summer Bridge program, which is designed to close the gap between freshmen from underprivileged backgrounds and the rest of the student body. Enrolling 140 students — about 25 of whom are athletes, on average — Summer Bridge operates on the idea of making up for lost time. Cal’s wider freshman population may report higher SAT scores on the whole, but many of them had the benefit of private schools or Kaplan prep courses not available to these students.
After four weeks of Bridge, Simmons went straight to football’s weeklong boot camp, where he endured two practices a day and was allowed no contact with anyone except his teammates. He came back refreshed and ready to start a full course load at Cal: African-American Studies, Education 52: “Understanding Language in Society,” and Education 75: “Introduction to Sports in Higher Education.” And, of course, football.
In the Classroom
Once students like Simmons arrive at Cal, they are advised to take courses like Ed. 52 and Ed. 75, which, although open to everyone, cater to athletes because the classes are held between practices, taught by people who work in the Athletic Studies Center, and focus on sports-related issues. Van Rheenen, who teaches Ed. 75, developed the curriculum after noticing that many athletes — particularly young black men on the football and basketball teams — were feeling exploited by the university and using that as an excuse to disengage from the academic process. “I thought that was painfully problematic, because the ones who would lose in the end were these young men,” he says. “They were in some ways internalizing this exploitation, but struggling against it in a very self-destructive manner.”
Van Rheenen tries to invert this relationship by teaching the athletes to reflect on their own position at the university. Thus, the thrust of Ed. 75 is to recast student-athletes as overachievers — the Horatio Alger ideal of a person who plays by the rules, and triumphs. Incurably optimistic, Van Rheenen sees himself as a kind of academic cheerleader who shuttles them through the process: “Read Gramsci, read Marx, and tool yourself with the ability to actually intellectualize and communicate about this, as opposed to just sitting blindly on the side and saying ‘I’m being screwed, I’m being used.'”
Van Rheenen tries to provoke his students by opening up the Tuesday and Thursday discussions with a commonly held but provocative statement about men being stronger than women, or African Americans being hardwired for athletic achievement, or something of that ilk. When the talk veers into thorny issues such as race, sexuality, or gender, inevitably someone in the back makes a snide remark, and others chime in. Then the offended parties yell back at them, or shout imprecations at Van Rheenen.
The majority of the ninety students enrolled in Education 75 this semester are athletes. A big cluster of football players always sits in back with a couple flirty females, and doesn’t seem interested in class. But some athletes respond to the lectures. Van Rheenen said defensive tackle Albert Ma’afala e-mailed him in the middle of the semester, saying, “I’m really getting excited about this Gramsci stuff.” A few weeks ago, Marshawn Lynch started sitting in the front of the room, away from his teammates, so that he could concentrate harder on the lectures. “I just wanted to let Professor Van Rheenen know that I’m interested in the class,” he said.
Still, many students resist Van Rheenen’s efforts, and adamantly defend the stereotypes the instructor is trying to subvert. In one lecture featuring the guest speaker Jere Takahashi, who screened Justin Lin’s short documentary, Crossover — about a Japanese-American basketball league — Van Rheenen had one of his graduate assistants write on the blackboard: “How have Japanese Americans used the sporting practice of basketball in response to issues of race marginalization in larger society?”
After the film, Takahashi opened up the discussion. One student raised his hand and said, “Black people may have the ability to jump, but those Japanese guys are really shifty, you know. You see them bobbing and ducking up and down on the courts, because they have some skills that other races don’t have — plus they add to the flavor of the team.”
Words like “shifty” came up a lot, as students tried to describe a style of play by enforcing stereotypes. Some class members criticized the teams in Crossover for seeming “too American,” and “not playing their own style of basketball.” One girl asked what are the criteria for being Japanese American — “Is it genes, or facial characteristics?” Takahashi addressed all these questions in the most diplomatic way possible.
On another day, Van Rheenen wrote the sentence “Blacks are naturally better athletes than whites” on a PowerPoint screen and projected it in front of the class. He passed out index cards so students could write whether they agreed with the statement, and why. He remembered that class members “defended the statement, and utilized the same tools that journalists and people have done for decades, trying to prove the differences between these groups — like, you know, a longer heel, or slow-twitch, fast-twitch muscles.” He shrugged his shoulders in recollection. “The frightening thing is that people desperately want to believe these things.”
About half the students rejected the statement outright, saying that it was grounded in stereotypes, and that it is absurd to polarize the world into “black” and “white.” But several others cited ideas of natural selection, saying that, in the words of one student’s card, “Blacks’ genetic makeup changed as a result of being slaves for hundreds of years.” Another student wrote: “Blacks are bigger, faster, and naturally stronger. This could be due to the lifestyle which blacks lived compared to whites, and their bodies had to adapt to the demands. Today that shows on the athletic courts and fields.” Another student wrote: “Blacks have a natural rhythm or smoothness that whites don’t have. Whites have power in weights, but blacks dominate in the efficient use of their bodies.” Someone else suggested that black folks have an extra tendon in their legs that makes them run faster. One girl said that, because she’s white, she’s “intimidated by black people’s genetically stronger muscles and faster limbs.” Consequently, she added, she’s “more satisfied beating a black girl on the court.”
Teaching assistant Laura Neustedter said Van Rheenen would have liked a more heated discussion, but that no one would have the guts to say aloud what they’d written on their cards. At least people knew they were making offensive statements, she said.
A couple weeks later, Van Rheenen screened a clip from the film Pumping Iron, featuring Arnold Schwarzenegger. The class oohed and aahed as they watched a young, beefy Schwarzenegger sashay before a line of prison inmates and then tell an interviewer that bodybuilding puts him in a state of perpetual arousal: “I’m cumming day and night,” the star cooed, his eyes wide as dinner plates.
“Ooh, he said ‘cum,'” somebody jeered.
Simmons sat in the back of the class with Ma’afala and two other members of the football team. Once David Ortega, the director of student athlete development, left the room, the players sank lower in their seats and tittered at the images onscreen. Van Rheenen loaded a new clip of a women’s bodybuilding contest from 1985, which was supposed to be the female equivalent of Pumping Iron. “Ooh, she’s nasty. She looks like a man,” Simmons said, pointing to one of the contestants as his colleagues giggled. Ma’afala sleepily put his head on his desk and started to snore.
The Academic Gameplan
When Coach Tedford transferred from the University of Oregon to Berkeley in 2001, he not only set about winning, he also introduced a system called the “Academic Gameplan.” The plan — which was developed at Fresno State University, where Tedford coached in the mid-1990s — is marketed as a way to teach personal accountability and time-management strategies, and improve graduation rates. The idea is that players are more likely to succeed if the university imports the rhythms of football into the classroom — not merely by emphasizing regimentation over intellect, but by translating the language of the academy into football patois.
The plan begins with a spiral Daily Planner. As soon as they get their class syllabi, students are supposed to fill up a “Scouting Report” calendar with due dates. Next comes the “Daily Gameplan Lineup Card,” which students are supposed to use to list every task from taking a history final to calling their girlfriends. There’s also a little box to list tasks projected for next week, called “This Week on Deck.” Last comes the yellow and pink “Gameplan Scoreboard,” which is divided into four columns, labeled due date, type of item (homework, quiz, etc.), possible score, and earned score.
Under the Academic Gameplan, each student falls into one of three color categories. Red students, including all freshmen, are considered at risk of not passing and are compelled to attend seven hours of study hall and tutorial every week. Three times a week when they finish practice at 6 p.m., the reds come into the team room and have to show their day’s work before they get dinner. Yellows are doing a pretty good job unitwise, but veering toward the edge gradewise; they have to spend two hours a week at tutorial. Greens are passing the right amount of units and staying on top of their grades as well. Excluding freshmen, the team currently comprises 61 greens, 13 yellows, and 10 reds.
Some may see this form of monitoring as the equivalent of academic boot camp, but the Bears’ advising coordinator, Joe Morello, commends the coaches for being so involved in their students’ academic work. Morello says the real value of this program is that the coaches hold the players accountable for their schoolwork. “Advisers actually play an auxiliary role,” he says. “If I were to say ‘Hey, look, I see you’ve missed two classes, and you didn’t turn in your midterm paper on time,’ a player might just let it slide. But if a coach said the same thing, he’d really listen.”
From a tutor’s vantage point, it has always appeared as if the players’ primary motivation for attending tutorial wasn’t to hone study strategies but to meet a weekly quota so they wouldn’t have to run laps at 5:00 a.m. Athletes frequently blamed tutors like me when they had to endure such torture, because part of our job was to rat them out when they flaked. I once got so fed up with being vilified that I complained about the coaches’ practice of physically punishing players to motivate them in the classroom. If this was the thrust of their college experience, I didn’t see the point of tutoring.
But Morello said the players’ motivation to please their coaches doesn’t merely hinge on the threat of having to run, or having their free game tickets revoked. “It’s not like the coaches are saying, ‘If you don’t do this work, you get whips with a wet noodle,’ or anything like that,” he said. “They’re actually saying, ‘If you don’t do your work, there will be real consequences.'”
Since this is the style of instruction that successful football players have embraced on the field, Tedford believes it stands to reason that it would also help them thrive in the classroom. And indeed, the grade-point average of members of the football team has improved by .2 since Cal adopted the Academic Gameplan, said Ortega, the former Cal football player whose job is to keep track of players’ grades and make sure they attend their classes — which sometimes entails the unglamorous duty of following them around campus.
Many players find that the discipline they learn in football applies to other facets of life — particularly those that involve a Calvinist ethic and a certain amount of spiritual buy-in. After playing center for the Bears during his first year of college, Marvin Philip redirected his energies to fulfilling his Mormon mission in South Dakota.
But for other players, it’s a different story. They find the emphasis on control and standardization that’s so successful on the football field patronizing in the context of academics. Ryan Jones, a 2003 graduate and former starting center for Cal, recalled: “When I was initially placed on the Gameplan in the fall of my senior year, I was horribly insulted by having to complete such menial tasks as filling the color-coded binder with dates and records of my study progress. I felt that the Gameplan dampened aspiring student athletes’ ambitions by showing them a model for mere academic survival — not outstanding success.”
Jones noted in a recent interview that several of his fellow players never graduated or went pro. In fact, according to the NCAA, of the nation’s 56,500 college football players, only about 250 get drafted by an NFL team each year, and even fewer make it onto a team’s final roster. Cal will be rewarded for its successful football season with increased corporate and alumni donations and a rise in student applications, but most of the team’s players will never play again after college, owing to debilitating injuries ranging from broken fingers and torn ligaments to degenerative disk disease. Meanwhile, only about half the players will leave Berkeley with a degree.
The Only Black Kids in Class
On a recent Monday night, a high-carbohydrate feast was being served in the mess hall at Memorial Stadium: big vats of spaghetti with runny marinara sauce, baked potatoes, corn off the cob, tortillas with pinto beans and sour cream, gooey chocolate mousse cake, five different kinds of sugary cereal, and pitchers of something pink and sweet. When the players finished eating, they filed into the Travers Big Game Room to meet with the ten advisers and coaches who oversee their academic progress at Cal. Each adviser meets regularly with five or six students to find out whether they’ve attended class, met with tutors, and finished their homework assignments. The players report their midterm grades to the advisers, who document their progress in big blue ledgers and also might demand to check a student’s notes against those of other players attending the same class.
As other players finished their tacos and dutifully presented their Academic Score Cards to the coaches, Wale Forrester got ready for a secret town hall meeting in Dwinelle. That night, he and a hundred other African-American students were to strategize for “The Blackout,” a protest to be held the following Wednesday. The plan was to dress all in black, blacken their faces, and wander through classes at Cal passing out leaflets that provide the current admissions and graduation rates for African-American students.
The players filed out of the stadium, chatting about who they were planning to vote for the following day. Forrester climbed into his Lexus and glanced down at his cell phone. “Damn. Fifteen missed calls, seven messages,” he griped. “That’s a regular day for me.” Then he drove two blocks down the street, parked in a structure on campus, and headed into Dwinelle Hall, where he gingerly placed his blue athletic bag beside a seat in the back of the room.
Forrester, who came to Cal on a football scholarship right after graduating from Venice High School in West Los Angeles, concedes that the dumb-jock stereotypes often prevent him from comfortably mingling in the general student population. “Since I’m black and wear sweats to class, people assume right away that I’m on the football team,” he said. “I mean, I’m too short for basketball.”
When Forrester first arrived at Cal, he had his hopes pinned on the Haas School of Business. But he decided to shift gears once he learned the department’s stringent academic requirements. “I realized I was too far behind to compete with the other students, especially in math and science,” he said. He described his initial experience as lonely and isolated — aside from being the only black kid in class, he often had to run straight from practice to class in his warm-ups. Worse yet, the general black population on campus didn’t exactly welcome football players with open arms. In his observation, “Athletes don’t really support a lot of the black events, and a lot of the black people on campus feel that we kind of took the easy route, because we’re here on scholarship. They don’t realize we actually have to work for what we have — they think we’re conceited, and we think that they think they’re too good for us, because we didn’t get here on a 4.0.
“I’m that one kid in class whose skin is darker than everyone else’s,” he said. “And at some point they’re gonna need to address that.”
For precisely that reason, Forrester feels compelled to be involved in Berkeley’s black activist community. He says the pressure to conform puts people like him in a bind. “They wouldn’t like it if they saw me here,” he mumbles. “I’m supposed to represent Cal football, but I can’t be a sellout to my own race.”
In 145 Dwinelle, students stood at the mic and delivered testimonials about how they got into Cal. Some of the stories were meant to pull heartstrings: People talked about mailing in their applications and praying every day until the letters of acceptance arrived. Originally billed as a town-hall-style meeting to mobilize black students around the issue of admissions, it became a night of shaggy-dog stories. The atmosphere alternately veered between that of Sunday morning church services and an episode of Oprah. Most testimonials followed the same template: A long tale of woe established the protagonist as someone who had proved his or her virtue by suffering, followed by a small triumph. Whether each story had a point was less important than the delivery — many people elicited laughter by interspersing their personal dramas with slapstick, or stirring the crowd up by invoking an easily identifiable hero — usually Martin Luther King or Jesus Christ.
One woman talked about being in a community college class where she was the only black person, and recalled that, when the class was assigned to do group projects, she couldn’t find a group that wanted to let her in. “So I stood in the center of the room and said I’m forming my own group, because that’s the kind of person I am,” she snapped. “And guess what? We won an award from Hewlett-Packard, and every time the other students saw me walking around campus after that, they’d say ‘Ooooh, you the girl who talked so much in class.'” A chorus of laughter rose in the room — mostly because of the dismissive accent that she used to impersonate her immigrant classmates. “Yeah, she couldn’t find a group, but it wasn’t because she’s black,” hissed one wag in the back.
As the night wore on, Forrester looked increasingly annoyed. Finally, he stood up and bellowed: “Well, was anyone here for the 2001 Blackout protest? Was it effective?”
“Uh, that was before my time,” said the moderator, “so maybe we could ask the brother Lamont to speak on that. Lamont?”
From the back of the room, Lamont raised his hand. “Well, what the 2001 protest did was provide a sense of cohesion for the black community at Cal.” He twaddled on about the emotional rewards of the protest, but was unable to identify any material change.
“Well, do you think it was effective?” Forrester asked.
“Uh, it showed people outside the black community that we are here,” Lamont replied.
“Well, look,” Forrester blurted, “I feel they already know me. I mean, it’s like this: I’m black, I’m here — I’m here and I’m black, you feel me?”
“Yeah, well, we can dialogue about that if you want to, brother,” Lamont replied, but Forrester interrupted him again.
“We need to get on the same game plan and come together,” he said, even as he was standing up and grabbing his bag to leave. “I thought this was supposed to be more of a planning meeting than a proposal. And I’m not gonna be walking on Wednesday, because I got things to do. I thought tonight was about coming together and forming a game plan.”
Everyone swiveled to look at Forrester. People nodded their heads and snapped their fingers in approval — although one young woman did yell at him to sit down. Still, the antirhetoric rhetoric of football had prevailed over the Berkeley activist rhetoric of exploitation and victimhood. It might as well have been straight from the Academic Gameplan: solidarity, conformity, and immediate action.
Another touchdown for the Bears. Another shutout for UC Berkeley.