Up Next

Locker Room Talk

FAU plays on in the Final Four as diversity and inclusion are threatened in Florida

As men’s team enjoys unprecedented success, state legislation threatens the student body’s curriculum and support organizations

DALLAS — During a meeting of the Florida Atlantic University faculty senate in January, faculty member Charles Dukes posed a question for board of trustees chair Brad Levine.

The university president had recently stepped down and the university was looking for a new leader. Dukes wanted to know how the search committee would position Florida Atlantic as a desirable institution for a candidate.

“What are two things that you like about this university that you would sell to others?” Dukes asked.

Without hesitation, Levine said, “Can I start with basketball?”

There was restrained laughter, but Levine was serious: Florida Atlantic’s men’s basketball program had put the school on the map.

“Honestly, athletics is very important to the university,” Levine said. “We need to start thinking about, if we are invited to the March tournament, what is our playbook. How are we going to react?”

Levine’s comments were prescient. Florida Atlantic roared through January and February and dominated in March. In the process, the Owls became the most talked about men’s basketball program in the nation. Now the team finds itself two victories away from winning a national title. With a team made up predominantly of Black players, Florida Atlantic has become a national feel-good story, one Florida politicians have embraced.

But beneath the surface of Florida Atlantic’s Cinderella story lies an ugly story of political forces. A Republican-controlled state legislature has introduced legislation that seeks to undermine the diversity that Florida Atlantic’s high-profile basketball team represents.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis announces a proposal for a Digital Bill of Rights on Feb. 15 at Palm Beach Atlantic University in West Palm Beach, Florida.

Wilfredo Lee/AP Photo

I began thinking of this dynamic last week when the University of Miami and Florida Atlantic won their respective Final Four berths and were embraced nationally.

At the same time, Florida is part of a conservative movement to restrict, censor and eliminate how race and racism are taught, and is arguing that women’s studies and Black studies should be eliminated. The legislature has introduced HB 999, a bill that would prevent state colleges and universities from using funds to “promote, support or maintain any programs or campus activities that violate or espouse diversity, equity and inclusion or Critical Race Theory rhetoric.”

The bill, one of the first pieces of legislation to target higher education institutions, would give the state’s board of governors the ability to provide direction to constituent universities “any major or minor in Critical Race Theory, Gender Studies, or Intersectionality, or any derivative
major or minor of these belief systems.”

Last week, a group of Florida Atlantic University students representing a coalition of student groups asked for and received permission to address the faculty senate. The student speakers urged the faculty senate to fight the proposed legislation that would change the way American history was taught and would possibly remove funding from affinity organizations.

Trevian Briskey, a sophomore business major at Florida Atlantic, asked rhetorically: “Who is diversity negatively impacting? Who does it hurt? What is the fear of being inclusive?” He closed by issuing a call to action: “I urge you guys as faculty to stand up against this, stand up with your students.”

Briskey is president of the Latino Latinx Student Union at Florida Atlantic. He also serves as a student intern for the Center for Inclusion, Diversity Education, and Advocacy. “Both of my positions currently are being threatened with this bill,” he said.

“Right now, we have a Black advocacy, a Latin advocacy. We used to have an LGBT advocacy. These positions are going cease to exist, which means students are going to lose their community, their safe space.”

The legislature’s war on diversity and inclusion is being waged beyond Florida in places such as South Carolina, home of the top-ranked women’s basketball team, and in Texas, where the men’s and women’s Final Fours are being staged.

These states are aggressively looking to remove everything from women’s studies to Black studies.

“A lot of people don’t knows this, but we are already a Hispanic-serving institution,” Briskey said. “A lot of people assume that Florida Atlantic University is a predominantly white institution, but we are not. We pride ourselves on our diversity and our inclusion.”

Florida Atlantic guard Bryan Greenlee speaks during a news conference in preparation for the Final Four on March 30 in Houston.

David J. Phillip/Associated Press

According to usnews.com, Florida Atlantic has 57% minority enrollment. Twenty-nine percent of its students are Hispanic and 20% are Black.

Earlier this week I asked Briskey what prompted the students to address the faculty?

“The first plan of action was to ask to see what Florida Atlantic University had put in place, what the legislative obligations of the university were,” Briskey said. “We wanted to understand what FAU could do if this bill passed.

“We understand that the legislative process is really out of Florida Atlantic University’s hands, but what we do have as students and as faculty, is the voice to rise and spread knowledge and make sure that this doesn’t just happens to our university, and this doesn’t just go unspoken.”

He added: “We’re going to organize as students and faculty leaders to make sure that we can spread the word, demonstrate what is happening, to push the message that there will be no funding for our Black student union, for our Latin student union, for the Asian student union, if this bill is passed.”

When the bill was first introduced, Briskey led a group of eight student leaders from campus and traveled to Tallahassee to meet with legislators.

“We felt powerless because of the current legislative landscape,” he said. “Right now, it is completely run by people who are for this bill.”

Florida Atlantic coach Dusty May celebrates with his after the team defeated Kansas State in the second half of an Elite Eight game in the NCAA tournament’s East Region final on March 25 in New York.

Adam Hunger/AP Photo

Briskey will not be in Houston for the Final Four, but he wishes that some members of the Florida Atlantic basketball team could address the negative impact of the bill when they face the media during the tournament.

“We have to reach out to them,” he said. “We’re going to ask. That’s actually an idea that we haven’t thought of yet. It would be really good to have them maybe bring a message up there with them from our university to voice. If they do make it to the finals and we get to have two Florida universities battling it out for the win, that’d be a great moment to have representation from our sports team to say, ‘Hey, this is what our university is standing for. We are diverse. If you take that away from our school, you wouldn’t have people like us on our team.’ ”

Hannah Laguerre, the president of the Florida Atlantic University branch of the NAACP, said she wasn’t confident that members of the basketball team would help deliver a message of opposition to the legislation.

“You would hope to see something like that, so it is a bit disappointing because the majority of our athletes at our school, whether it’s football or basketball, come from diverse backgrounds,” she said. “But I don’t believe they understand the importance of the issue at hand. It is disappointing not to see that from them.”

Black athletes at predominantly white schools live an existence that is often drastically different from other Black students. The Black athletes are embraced and valued and, as Levine told faculty, they add value.

“There are two things that follow money,” he said. “They’re called jocks and docs.”

For Black athletes on campus, the team provides a built-in haven that other Black students must find a way to create. The pending Florida legislation threatens those havens.

“It’s taken away these safe spaces that help us grow as individuals and student leaders,” Laguerre said. “In our day-to-day life we’re code-switching, we’re doing different things to fit in and assimilate, sometimes we just want to be ourselves and have a space that allows us to be ourselves. To hear that they’re going to be taken away, it’s disheartening.”

But she’ll still be pulling for the Owls.

“It’s great to see our school recognized,” she said. “It’s great to see FAU on the map.”

William C. Rhoden, the former award-winning sports columnist for The New York Times and author of Forty Million Dollar Slaves, is a writer-at-large for Andscape.