Ohio State University Higher Education and Student Affairs Professor Matthew Mayhew has issued an abject apology after penning a column entitled “Why America Needs College Football.” Mayhew argued that the return of college football could get the country through “uncharacteristically difficult times of great isolation, division and uncertainty.” That did not sit well with some at the university and Mayhew published Why America Needs College Football – Part 2 to seek forgiveness for the harm that he caused. The column and its confessional follow-up are unnerving for many in academia in the current debate over free speech on campuses. It is entirely appropriate and commendable for an academic to reconsider his views and retract any statements which he now considers racist or insensitive. However, the retraction of such views as inherently harmful raises questions about the range of acceptable speech today. There are clearly good-faith reasons to favor the return of college football as well as good-faith reasons to oppose it. The question is whether expressing the former is now unacceptable at universities for a professor or student. Despite being a sports fan, I am uneasy about the return of college football during the pandemic. I welcomed the publication of the first column as the start of a possible (and needed) debate on the question and the underlying economic, social, racial and academic issues.
In the original column, Mayhew and graduate Musbah Shaheed wrote:
This election season has demonstrated how stifled, polarized and dangerous our political differences have become, and college football can remind us of respect — even in the wake of deep disagreement. We can root for different teams, scream at the players, argue with the refs and question the coaches, but win or lose, at the end of the day, we leave the stadium, watch party or tailgate with a sense of respect for the game and the athletes that train so hard, leaving it all out on the field every time. Indeed, if a player is injured, the entire stadium usually applauds, not just fans from one team.
Many have found the return of football and baseball to be a huge emotional boast during this long isolation. However, the column apparently led to the backlash and Mayhew’s apology that “I was wrong. And even worse, I was uninformed, ignorant and harm inducing.”
I am struggling to find the words to communicate the deep ache for the damage I have done. I don’t want to write anything that further deepens the pain experienced by my ignorance related to Black male athletes and the Black community at any time, but especially in light of the national racial unrest. I also don’t want to write anything that suggests that antiracist learning is quick or easy. This is the beginning of a very long process, one that started with learning about the empirical work related to Black college football athletes.
There are very compelling arguments against resuming college football during the pandemic. This includes the concern that the college environment lends itself to more risky or less compliant conduct. Indeed, Mayhew and Shaheed stressed that they was only supporting the return to the season if it was done safely:
To be clear, we are not suggesting that athletes put their lives or their health at risk for the sake of entertainment: players, coaches and fans should strictly adhere to safety guidelines. And to be clear, we frankly hated writing this piece. As higher education experts, we routinely scrutinize and criticize colleges and universities for placing too much emphasis on athletics, and it pains us to admit that college football may play a starring role in the political theater of American life.
As an academic, I am concerned with the inherent conflict in schools barring group meetings and events while permitting football games and practices. I am also concerned over whether these students will feel pressure to participate or lose their scholarships or benefits if they do not. There are also compelling arguments that the risks can be addressed as Major League Baseball and the National Football League have done. We have seen the successful use of precautions at the National Basketball Association which are being cited as a model for such events. However, academics should be free to write on both sides. A professor could view the football season as something with great value for society during this period and also something that can be done safely. That view should not be “harm inducing,” even if others disagree.
From a free speech perspective, the characterization of such a column as harmful is concerning. Notably, the second column was authored only by Mayhew, leaving student Musbah Shaheed in a difficult, if not precarious, position of not retracting a column that Mayhew now says was harmful. As someone who may want to go into teaching, there is obviously a concern that this could be used against him in seeking positions given the position of his co-author. Mayhew mentions Shaheed but he is fairly ambiguous on what specifically in his original column was racist. What he is clear about is that arguing for the resumption of the season was offensive and hurtful and should never have been written:
“To all communities of color and especially the Black community, I am sorry for causing pain by ignoring yours. I really hate the idea of hurting anyone. I hate that I have done this: if I had not ignored the pain of so many, this article would have never been written.”
Mayhew notes that the harm includes “that my students have to carry my ignorant racist energy with them at all times.” Mayhew treats the entire column as harmful not any particular line or statement that should have been changed. Yet, isn’t it possible to favor the resumption of college football and not be racist or harmful to people of color? Indeed, many athletes and commentators of all races have supported the move.
Many colleges and universities have curtailed free speech or barred controversial speakers by claiming that opposing views are harm inducing for some students or faculty. Public confessions of racism has become common around the country. The greater harm is the chilling effect on speech and the rising intolerance for opposing views.