Black athletes can’t even the playing field against the anti-DEI movement. That’s white people’s job.

Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio.

On Feb. 20, 25 white Republican members of the Alabama Senate introduced SB129, a bill designed to essentially eliminate diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) programs at public institutions in the state.  

The proposed law not only makes it illegal for any “state agency, local board of education or public institution of higher education to sponsor any diversity, equity, and inclusion program or maintain any office, physical location, or department” dedicated to DEI or similarly “divisive concepts,” it also gives agencies the authority to “discipline or terminate” employers and contractors who violate the law. While the proposal allows for private funding, the discrimination legislation forbids students, teachers and employees at Alabama’s public institutions of higher learning from applying for private or federal funding that supports diversity, equity or inclusion. 

Alabama’s legislative act of caucaity mirrors legislation passed in Arizona, Kentucky, Oklahoma, and at least 21 other states. On March 1, the University of Florida complied with Gov. Ron DeSantis’ law defunding diversity spending by terminating all positions associated with DEI. UF’s decision prompted a harsh rebuke from Gator football legend Emmitt Smith, who issued a statement on Twitter suggesting that athletes at the university use their platform to speak out. More importantly, Smith didn’t feel the need to let the white people off the hook. 

“We cannot continue to believe that a team of leaders all made up of the same background will make the right decision when it comes to equality and diversity,” wrote Smith on Twitter. “To the MANY minority athletes at UF, please be aware and vocal about this decision by the University, who is now closing the doors on other minorities without any oversight. And to those who think it’s not your problem and stay on the side lines and say nothing, you are complicit in supporting systemic issues.”

Translation: Y’all must be crazy if you think white people are ever going to use their power to dismantle the racism systems white people built. And white people who are doing nothing, I blame y’all, too.

Smith was not the only prominent figure to express displeasure with the right-wing attack on diversity, equity and inclusion. In a series of tweets, Birmingham, Ala., Mayor Randall Woodfin, who leads one of America’s Blackest cities, said he had “no problem organizing Black parents and athletes to attend other institutions outside of the state.”

“Come on, man. What are we doing?” Woodfin asked during his conversation with theGrio. “Let me tell you what a very considerable amount of white, male Republican males have done. They’ve created a very narrow definition of DEI that no one can find in a dictionary or a textbook and weaponized it against Black and transgender people to gain more power. What they’re forgetting is that DEI is also about white women. It’s about veterans and people with disabilities. It’s about the elderly. It’s about immigrants. It’s not just about transgender, but it’s about the entire LGBTQ community. And it’s about all groups.” 

It’s also about a strong-arm robbery.

Woodfin notes that taxpayers in a 27% Black state are footing the bill for large, overwhelmingly white public universities like the University of Alabama (11% Black) and Auburn University (4.5% Black). But Woodfin didn’t put the onus wholly on Black athletes to undo institutional whiteness. While the state’s new anti-DEI proposal will likely exacerbate this systemic theft, the two-term mayor notes that coaches, fans and lawmakers don’t seem to have a problem with DEI when they literally parachute into a school district that’s 99% non-white to recruit athletes that will enrich the perpetual generational wealth generators fueled by Black taxpayers and student-athletes.

“These athletic directors, and coaches and these flagship programs will actively come to Birmingham, land a helicopter on a high school grounds, go sit in a mama Big Mama house and say: ‘We want your child to come to our school to play football or basketball,’” Woodfin said. “At the exact same time, in the exact same breath, those same institutions are saying: ‘We’re not going to support the programs that support you off the grid or are off the basketball court. Or be intentional about supporting a diverse faculty and staff, and professors. We’re going to make that illegal.

“My disappointment comes from the fact that the chancellors and the presidents haven’t said anything,” he added. “The coaches, athletic directors have not said anything. Don’t tell me you want these Black bodies on your fields and on your basketball courts, but you won’t support them in any other area on that campus. Why should they come? Why should they play for you?”

Aside from using his “bully pulpit to always call out any form of injustice or any law that is immoral on its face,” the two-term mayor is encouraging athletes, parents, community members, Black student unions and other student organizations to organize against SB129. On Wednesday, more than 100 Alabama college students from across the state converged on the statehouse to challenge lawmakers. More than 5,000 stakeholders have signed a petition to protect diversity, equity and inclusion in the state. And if all else fails, Woodfin wants to hit them in the pockets.

In 2020, after serving in Birmingham’s Division of Youth Services, the county’s Committee on Economic Opportunity and as board president of Birmingham City Schools, Woodfin created Birmingham Promise, which provides scholarships, financial aid and academic support for every Birmingham City Schools graduate who wants to attend a two or four-year college in the state. By 2023, the initiative had provided more than $5 million in tuition assistance, including millions in donations from corporate sponsors and individuals who pledged to support causes like diversity, equity and inclusion in the wake of the 2020 George Floyd uprising. Woodfin wondered what would happen if leaders used their influence and connections to get corporate donors to funnel dollars into programs like Birmingham Promise instead of institutions that adhered to the divisive concepts of white supremacy. 

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“What I can do is literally go to the leaders of these public institutions and corporations in Birmingham and say, ‘What are you doing to support diversity? What are you doing to support equity? What are you doing to support inclusion?’” said Woodfin. “What are you doing in the private sector to offset this? As a leader, I can remind them what they committed to voluntarily. We can’t let them hide behind a … state law that makes it illegal to use public tax dollars to support DEI. These are the conversations I can have.”

While Birmingham benefits from the state’s $200 million college football economy, the Morehouse alum reiterated that he has no problem organizing an effort to dissuade athletes from attending these anti-Black, historically anti-Black colleges. Like Smith, Woodfin believes that the influence of athletes shouldn’t be the only line of defense against Republicans’ white power play. 

In Kentucky, senators have pushed multiple bills prohibiting schools from “expending any resources or funds on diversity equity, inclusion and belonging or political or social activism.” A University of Louisville professor working at the nexus of DEI and sports noted that — because of the competitive nature of college sports — athletic departments at predominately white institutions will feel the impact of these retrograde initiatives, even if Black student-athletes do nothing. 

“College athletes have been socialized to follow rules and not leverage their individual power,” said the Louisville instructor, who spoke anonymously to protect their employment. “But what about the companies using Name, Image and Likeness deals to sell products? Why should local corporations and boosters who support these legislators get a pass?”

A Black faculty member in Auburn University’s athletic department also insisted that it is unfair to place that burden on the shoulders of Black players. “White people wrote this law,” explained the faculty member, who spoke to theGrio on the condition of anonymity to protect their job. “Sixty percent of the athletic scholarships go to white kids. Eighty percent of the athletic directors are white. Eighty percent of the coaches are white. But you want Black kids to sacrifice their dreams and goals to fight some shit that white people did? Make it make sense.” Instead, the Auburn employee also highlighted a blunder that may have a more significant impact than protests and lawsuits.

Alabama’s far-right lawmakers may have inadvertently outlawed college sports.

Most universities maintain a compliance office to avoid violating rules governing college athletics. According to NCAA Division I sports regulations, every active institution must “complete an equity, diversity, and inclusion review at least once every four years and provide written confirmation of completion to the national office.” By declaring that students, employees and contractors may not “attend or participate in any diversity, equity, and inclusion program or any training, orientation, or course work,” Alabama’s new quasi-Jim Crow decree seemingly could make it illegal to complete this NCAA requirement. In fact, the law would prohibit public institutions of higher learning from “sponsor[ing]…or maintain[ing] any office, physical location, or department that promotes diversity, equity, and inclusion,” essentially defunding the six officers inside Auburn’s compliance department. In any case, using state, federal and NCAA funds to achieve the mission of “encouraging diversity and equitable treatment for all,”  the entire compliance office would be illegal under Alabama’s new law. 

Because the law doesn’t allow schools to “authorize or expel funding, or apply for or accept a grant, federal funding, or private funding” for these “divisive concepts,” Alabama colleges might not be able to compete for the 26 NCAA $10,000 scholarships devoted to “ethnic minorities and women.” Does the Alabama law run afoul of the Title IX law that “prohibits schools that receive Federal funding from discriminating based on sex in their programs or activities?” Will administrators and coaches at the seven Division II schools in Alabama be fired if they apply for NCAA diversity grants

Both higher education employees who spoke anonymously to theGrio conceded that these laws could inevitably cause problems inside athletic departments. Because non-DEI research grants often require a diversity component, high-level institutions with “R1” designations could also be negatively affected. Combined with the increasing cost of college, the looming “enrollment cliff” expected to hit higher education in 2025, and the ultra-competitive environment of big-time college sports, it’s quite possible that the “Defund DEI” movement may ultimately create a crimson tide of red ink and white tears.

“If I was a student or a professor at the University of Alabama, I’d be running toward the transfer portal,” commented the University of Louisville faculty member. “Ultimately, students are going to choose colleges that make them feel safe and supported. Black athletes aren’t any different. Eventually, these universities will start losing professors, coaches, players and staffers to colleges that aren’t outlawing being Black. Laws have consequences, and this will all eventually trickle down. Numbers don’t lie.”

Asked if HBCUs might benefit from this exodus, Auburn’s insider noted that 52 of the 101 HBCUs are public institutions, making them subject to the same discriminatory laws. “Don’t forget — even though the big colleges are predominately white, they do not belong to white people,” the Auburn insider added. “They belong to us.”

“There’s no bigger Bama fan than me,” Woodfin added. “But I’m also a fan of us. And we can’t afford to stay silent.”

You too, white people.

Michael Harriot is a writer, cultural critic and championship-level Spades player. His book, Black AF History: The Unwhitewashed Story of America, will be released in September.

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The article discusses the introduction of a bill in Alabama, SB129, aimed at eliminating diversity, equity, and inclusion programs at public institutions. The bill makes it illegal for these institutions to sponsor such programs or maintain offices dedicated to diversity. It also allows for the discipline or termination of employees who violate the law. The article highlights reactions from prominent figures like Emmitt Smith and Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin, who criticize the bill’s impact on Black and minority communities. Woodfin also emphasizes the importance of diversity and inclusion for all groups, not just Black and transgender individuals. The article also touches on the potential consequences of the bill on college sports, compliance with NCAA regulations, and funding for minority scholarships. Ultimately, the article calls for resistance against the bill and support for diversity and inclusion efforts in Alabama, with a focus on leveraging corporate support for programs like Birmingham Promise.

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