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From Perry Wallace to Robert Quinn, SEC sports are integrated but are they still plantations?

We’ve moved into a different era in sports, but we need to maintain the same courage of our convictions

The NFL’s long-awaited playoffs began over the weekend. That’s terrific news for a league whose regular season was drenched in politics and protest, with challenges from the White House, from players and from fans on both sides of the protest issue threatening to turn their backs on the league.

The playoffs bring them all back.

The road to the Super Bowl is littered with mindless good times, tailgating and diversions that make the world seem right again. Even if it’s not.

Here in Los Angeles, the Rams played their first playoff game at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum since their January 1979 loss to Dallas. The only evidence of dissent and discord occurred during the playing of the national anthem when linebacker Robert Quinn raised his left fist and turned his back to the field.

Quinn was the only player left in the playoffs who continued the protest initiated by Colin Kaepernick in 2016. With the Rams out, the rest of the playoffs will likely be protest-free.

Last month, the NFL, facing intensifying criticism over player protests, fell back on an age-old solution: money. A group called The Players Coalition, led by Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins, secured a commitment of at least $89 million over the next seven years. Jenkins subsequently announced that he would end his protest. Quinn is one of several players who disagreed with the decision to accept the NFL’s money.

On Saturday, Quinn dressed quickly and spoke briefly with reporters after Saturday’s loss. Outside the Coliseum, Quinn spoke about why he continued to protest. He was initially inspired by Kaepernick, although his continued demonstration during playoff euphoria speaks to an ocean of issues that are too numerous and too complex to articulate beyond a silent gesture — especially after a heartbreaking loss.

“We preach this ‘free America,’ but if you really look at us as American people, we have so many laws and so many things that brainwash us and wrap us up and control us, I really look at it as a new, modern-day slavery.”

As for social justice issues especially facing the black community, Quinn said, “I just want true justice and freedom for the people.”

Quinn, a two-time Pro Bowler and the Pro Football Writers Association’s 2013 NFL Defensive Player of the Year, referred to a plantation as a school where the strong presence of black football and basketball players has been co-opted by fear and money.

In what has become one of the largest academic scandals in recent history, Quinn’s alma mater, the University of North Carolina, faced questions about academic integrity in 2011. A probe into the football team found universitywide fraud and impropriety in the school’s African and Afro-American studies department. A pair of internal investigations found, among other things, grade changes that had not been authorized as well as classes with little instruction taking place. A disproportionate number of black athletes were enrolled in the courses.

An NCAA investigation did not result in sanctions against the UNC athletics program, but the entire saga raised questions about the miseducation of athletes, especially those in the revenue sports of football and basketball.

There is so much talk about black players being a significant majority in the NFL, yet those numbers have not been leveraged. Asked why, Quinn noted that most NFL contracts are not guaranteed, and many players are simply not willing to risk income by getting on the bad side of management.

“Modern-day slavery is about money,” Quinn said. “You have to step out of your comfort zone, no matter what people think, and stand up for what you believe.”

There is a direct line going from the old-school courage demonstrated by Quinn, 27, and the courage demanded from Perry Wallace, who died Dec. 1 at age 69.

Wallace had to deal with racism firsthand

In the fall of 1967, Wallace became Vanderbilt University’s first black varsity scholarship basketball player and the first to play in the Southeastern Conference.

Vanderbilt Commodores guard Perry Wallace in action during the 1967 season.

Malcolm Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

During an hourlong interview in December 2016, Wallace told me about the trials and triumphs of his experiences at Vanderbilt and in the SEC.

For contemporary athletes, it seems laughable that white officials went to extraordinary lengths to keep black players out of their football and basketball programs.

Wallace said that when he was at Pearl High School in Nashville, Tennessee, the idea of playing at a white school in a big arena in front of huge crowds was unthinkable. “The notion of going to a white school was out of the question,” he said. “It was not part of my reality.”

Now the same schools do everything possible to lure top black football and basketball players to their universities. Wallace was the valedictorian of his Pearl High School graduating class and led Pearl to three consecutive state titles, including the first integrated championship.

For many contemporary black athletes, the idea of NOT going to an SEC school, of NOT playing in a huge arena, NOT playing on national television, is unthinkable. Black bodies have become the engine that drives college sports.

“Basically, what happened was that progress started taking place because of people like me,” Wallace said. “America started looking around and said, ‘These black guys really know how to play the game, and we’d do well to take advantage of these opportunities.’ ’’

The fruits of Wallace’s pioneering legacy will be on display Monday evening in Atlanta when two SEC schools, Georgia and Alabama, play for the national championship in college football.

Each team’s roster is packed with African-American players, many of whom are stars and difference-makers.

In Saturday’s playoff game between the Rams and Atlanta Falcons, 20 players were from SEC schools.

Wallace did not want to play for a small school or for one of the historically black colleges. He wanted a bigger stage, and he saw one on the evening of March 19, 1966, when Texas Western, with five black starters, upset Kentucky to win the national championship.

Earlier that day, Wallace’s Pearl High team won Tennessee’s first integrated state championship. “I wanted a shot and to play in big arenas and show I was as good as any white athlete,” he said. “In the 1960s, the publicity and the resources were going to the big schools. That’s where I wanted to go; I wanted to hit the big-time.”

Yet, during his campus visits, Wallace said that he was disappointed by what he saw from many of the black athletes on campus. “A lot of the black athletes were not participating in the social and intellectual life on campus,” he said. “Most were not good students — it was really like a plantation.

“The brothers would be in the dorms, playing music, then they’d go to the canteen, then they’d go to the gym. They’d do this for three of four years, drop out, lose eligibility. I told myself, I did not work this hard to buy into some nonsense like this.”

Wallace described growing up in the segregated South as a veritable plantation and said he was determined not to duplicate the experience in college. “I was not going to trade one plantation for another,” he said.

The Vanderbilt experience was difficult, but Wallace, who became an attorney, said the experience was worth the struggle that has created opportunity for so many.

“I don’t think you ever want to find yourself saying that getting rid of discrimination and prejudice and racism is a bad thing. I think it ought to be a good thing,” he said. “But it needs to be managed the right way. If you’re going to get these brothers onto these colleges, educate them.”

Fighting for the right to play was the frontier for black college athletes aspiring to play at white schools during the 1960s and ’70s.

As plentiful as African-Americans have become on college football fields and basketball courts, they are practically invisible in virtually every aspect of the college sports industry outside of playing courts and football fields. This is the ultimate Oreo power arrangement: black on the outside, white on the inside.

The frontier in the middle of the 20th century is desegregating the vast, lucrative industries that have grown up around a college sports industry built, in large part, on the shoulders of black athletes from Perry Wallace to Robert Quinn.

This is not a new phenomenon, but the solution remains elusive.

How do you leverage a high number of players into power?

Interestingly, in our conversation a year ago, Wallace referred to a plantation where black athletes were brought to campus and often exploited for their muscle but never received a proper education.

Quinn referred to a plantation where a strong presence of black football and basketball players has been co-opted by fear and money.

“I don’t want to point fingers, I just think folks are scared to make a stand because they’re afraid to lose dollars,” Quinn said Saturday evening.

“If all you care about is making a dollar, you’ll continue to be a slave to someone.”

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.