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Of Jackets, College Football, and Education

Photo Source David Armer | CC BY 2.0

Major Applewhite and I have something in common: we have both been tasked by universities to educate young people. That mandate is the reason why I have a policy that when students try to excuse themselves from my writing seminar due to illness, I require them to attend. If temperatures are below 50 degrees, I hold classes outside and prohibit those students who have tried to shirk class from wearing jackets. After all, it’s my job to toughen them up and show them that excuses are for the weak. And, let me assuage any concerns: I am careful to apply the policy equally to all my students, regardless of grade point average.

Oh, wait, no, actually, I don’t have that policy. Because that would be fundamentally inhumane. It would, in fact, be a direct contravention of my role as an educator.

But, that’s almost exactly what Major Applewhite does in his position of Head Football Coach at the University of Houston. Don’t take my word for it. Here’s how he put itafter his team’s game on Thursday night: “We just have a rule on the sideline that guys who are participating in the games and specifically starters, that they have jackets so they can stay [warm]. As a coach who has coached and played for years, you don’t want a thousand guys in jackets when it’s only 50 degrees outside. You want guys to stand up, be off the bench, be tough.” To paraphrase, players inactive because their bodies need to heal from extreme harm should toughen up by spending three hours standing in the cold. That’ll teach them.

Okay, but I’m sure, if players, includinginjuredstudent-athletes, object, he relents, right? We are, after all, talking about their literal physical well-being…

“Some guys had them early on. I asked them to take them off … and Ed had one, so I asked him to take it off.” Well, to be fair, that’s not entirely what happened. The Coach didn’t actually ask Ed Oliver, the team’s star defensive lineman and a future NFL player unable to play because of a knee injury, to take off his jacket. It was more that he walked over and forcibly removed it from the body of a young person he was responsible for supervising on a 48 degree evening.

Don’t worry. This wasn’t discrimination against a particular individual, the coach assured us. “Everybody follows the rule. I want everybody to follow the rule. I asked him to follow the rule. I just wanted him to understand I’m not singling you out. I’ve asked other guys to take it off. I’m trying to be fair.”

Glad we’ve got that sorted out. The policy of publicly humiliating and physically punishing injured students who generate revenue for an academic institution by sacrificing their bodies to the extent they will almost certainly be afflicted with the degenerative brain condition chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) isin fact evenly applied across all team members.

You could say it’s part of the culture Applewhite is trying to instill in his team. He’s not alone. Other coaches (read: educators) at distinguished academic institutions also view fostering a culture that values toughness to be an important part of their pedagogy. For instance, at one, injured players were segregated in practices, and forced to occupy a gravel area called “the pit,” away from other players. Their coach lovingly referred to them as a “waste of life.” That coach’s name is DJ Durkin, and, on his watch, a young man named Jordan McNair collapsed on the football field and later died.

Is the behavior of Applewhite as egregious as that of Durkin? No, it isn’t. Could Oliver have been nursing his injury in order to protect his draft prospects? Yes, possibly. But, then again, isn’t the job of university teachers to nurture students so that they can be their best selves when they depart our institutions? If the answer to that question is also ‘yes,’ then college coaches who put their own interests above those of their students have much to answer for.

Now, Major Applewhite is the forgiving type. He doesn’t hold it against Ed Oliver for getting upset and refusing to come out to the field with the team for the second half. “We’re all young. I don’t blame him. I’ve made plenty of mistakes in my life, and we all need second chances. Ed will do great and he’ll be fine.”

He’s right. Because, it seems, Ed Oliver, like Jordan McNair’s University of Maryland teammates, who refused to allow Durkin to be reinstated as their coach after the university’s board of regents attempted to do just that, understands that he isn’t at university to be degraded by those employed to educate him. The University of Houston may be failing in its responsibility to provide him with the educational conditions he has earned through nothing less than the sacrifice of his body, but that hasn’t prevented him from learning fundamental truths about power and injustice.

These are the lessons increasingly being learned by young people laboring on football fields across the country. I salute them whenever and wherever they demand to be treated with the dignity that is the very least they deserve from each of us privileged enough to teach them.

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