This Friday, Vanderbilt was shaken up by the loss of trailblazer and former athletics director, David Williams. The loss of former Vanderbilt Vice Chancellor came as quite surprise to many in the community. Death is often surprising but the events of Friday, February 8, 2019 were shockingly heartbreaking.
As a university, we prepared to lose Vice Chancellor Williams as Vanderbilt’s athletic director in September, maybe earlier. There were many events on campus and efforts by the institution to memorialize Williams and his unique impact. This year a movie was screened in Williams’ honor, additionally athletics named their annual MLK Day trip for him. Unlike many other surprise passings, we had a chance to say good bye to Associate Vice Chancellor Williams, the athletic director, but we were not prepared to part with, David Williams, the man, the father, the husband, the (great) grandfather, friend, mentor and the other earthly manifestations of his spiritual being.
The last time I saw Mr. Williams, I was walking from a homecoming event with my mentee. As usual, he was with Candice Storey Lee. What started off as a casual greeting flowed into a conversation about diversity, access and learning. I told him that I was interested in social justice work and in examining formalized and informal diversity education policy. I’d recently played with the idea that athletics could arguably be higher education’s first institutionalized diversity and inclusion practice. (Think about it, athletics represents a program of the university where students are recruited for academic excellence as well as co-curricular talents that make them a unique asset to the institution.) Athletics could be thought of as the first-time universities recognized and placed fiscal value on diverse intelligences like kinesthetic intelligence instead of restricting intellect to knowledge of traditional disciplines. As the light shined bright in my eyes, Mr. Williams asked me what was next? I said, “hopefully a Ph.D.,” he told me wherever I ended up, I should get as much as I could get out of it, no matter how challenging.
As we separated, I thought of his advice. His advice was echoed to me over and over again in moments where I’d cling to a similar platitude of “eat the apple, spit the core.” Today, I think of the thousands of students Mr. Williams advised and steered to a path of mindfulness, resilience, gratitude, grit and understanding of their own cultural and social capital.
Today, I also recount the myriad of relationships I created with student-athletes who felt like home. I’m perpetually grateful for the man that made Vanderbilt athletics, as I knew it, possible.
When Vanderbilt University claimed diversity was their “top priority” (like other elite institutions), I felt pretty siloed in my very intersectional identity. It felt like many minority students at Vanderbilt represented an elite subset of American Blackness, which made sense – Though seemingly holistic, Vanderbilt University primarily recruits students via biased (racist, classist, ethnocentric, etc.) proxies such as standardized testing (SATs and ACTs) with documented histories of perpetuating social disparities.
Athletics represents a co-institution within higher education that evaluates students’ potential holistically. Universities make large investments in their student-athletes and have to engage and evaluate their multiple intelligences and personal capital via high school visits, physical examinations, campus visits, filial support assessments, written support, applications, and community resource inventories in addition to NCAA academic eligibility requirements.
Student athletes, especially Black student athletes, are one of the most vetted, visible, scrutinized and stigmatized students on college campuses. Scholars have remarked the black student athlete can viewed as a colonized Black body (Hawkins, 1995). According to Hawkins:
“black student athletes are, in most cases, heavily recruited because of their athletic abilities; token interest if any is given to their academic abilities. Yet these athletes are penalized (put on academic probation and suspended from athletic participation) for not performing well academically. Furthermore, the highly competitive seasons of these athletes often force them to place academics at a lower priority than athletics…” (27)
A lot of people aren’t able to disentangle the difficulties some student-athletes face with balance and usually project their deficit perspectives on these students, however, Hawkins highlights the tension student-athletes face while trying to balance the rigorous demands of their dual identity.
At the University of Southern California, Dr. Shaun Harper has theorized extensively on the implications of the overrepresentation of black men on athletic scholarships at predominately white college campuses. Some major takeaways from his research include:
- Black male scholarship athletes are less likely than their non-athlete peers to graduate
- In the Power 5 (ACC, Big 10, Big 12, Pac 12 & SEC), graduation rates have declined over the past two years at 40% of the universities sampled
- Overall, graduation rates have only increased 2.5 percentage points from 2016-2018 (though funding and support services for athletes has increased optically)
The complexities impacting student athletes aren’t limited to race or even gender, they’re extremely intersectional. For the last ten years, during Esquire Williams’ tenure, sexuality has been another layer through which student-athletes are scrutinized. I recently read a thesis by Jillian Robin Ross titled Triple Threat. It explored how Black lesbian student-athletes negotiate three components of their identity – race, sexual orientation and being a female NCAA Division-1 athlete. Ross conducted interviews which nuanced discussions of athletics by discussing athletic privilege, racial expressiveness and sexual expressiveness – allowing readers to look deeper into the experiences of those “on the lower ranks of the totem pole of the U.S. social hierarchy.” Student-athletes, especially those from minoritized backgrounds often must negotiate their place in the U.S. social hierarchy, while adhering to the strict guidelines of their academic and athletic institutions. In order to gain the tools necessary to negotiate social capital, strong leadership must be present, and it was present in Vice Chancellor’s lifework.
Student athletes of difference, whether that be socioeconomically, racially, nationally, ability, language proficiency, sexually, etc., represented a lot of the qualitative diversity (versus optical diversity) that Vanderbilt claimed to champion. Outside of my Posse, student athletes, especially Black student athletes, represented the diversity and opportunities for intergenerational mobility romanticized by elite private universities. For example, when I couldn’t find a campus-community to celebrate my Afro-Latina, I met the only native-Haitian student on campus through Vanderbilt’s Basketball program. Through Vanderbilt Athletics, I made connections with peers who like myself, experienced feelings of commodification, imposter syndrome tied to unorthodox financial scholarships, physical ailments like concussions, scrutiny based on optics, distanced home lives, struggles for balance, culture shock and more. These similarities led to mutual community building, making Vanderbilt a more welcoming place for me to be my whole self.
Though American higher education has been traditionally tied to intergenerational mobility, that’s not the case for the students of most difference especially the poorest ones, who tend to be disproportionately black.
The intergenerational mobility narrative is seen as a monolithic athlete experience, though it is not. Based on the research presented earlier by Shaun Harper, minoritized student-athletes aren’t achieving academic outcomes, like graduation (which is often a proxy for intergenerational mobility or academic success), at the same rate of their non-athlete support even with immense availability of support resources. These poor outcomes are baffling considering the comprehensive evaluations and services Athletics departments support to ensure their student-athletes’ enrollment is a mutually beneficial relationship.
The holistic review of college recruitment in SEC athletics felt similar (though more thorough) to the review and evaluation I received when I entered Vanderbilt as a Posse Scholar. As I reflect back to the ways my friends, who were student-athletes, came to exist on Vanderbilt’s campus, I realize how similar their experiences were to my own non-traditional journey to the academy. Looking closer, a lot of their lives reflected staunch social realities and perpetual tension of merging the binaries of many disparate yet intersectional worlds.
Though there were many obvious differences between our experiences, one of the key differences between my experiences as a Posse Scholar and the experiences of some of my student-athlete friends, was the level of visibility and scrutiny placed on them. Their lives were heavily regulated by their coaches, institution and larger sports governing bodies like the NCAA vis a vis fitness regiments, academic support, drug testing, frequent travel, dieting, etc. Their worth was primarily measured by their wins and losses in academic performance but mostly, physicality. If they could not meet evaluations for any reason, a lot of them were dismissed. During my time at Vanderbilt, I noticed significant movement and transition among my friend’s on athletics teams like the football and baseball team. This added layer shows that ultimately, “it just takes more,” to carry the honor of student-athlete especially at Vanderbilt University.
Mr. Williams was an important part of helping student-athletes manage the unique added layers that made transition into Athletics so unique. He mentored so many student-athletes into advanced academic credentials, into business, sports leadership, professional sports careers, careers in law, education and management, to name a few. His legacy and impact continue to multiply even as his body and soul finally take rest.
Ultimately, David Williams carried an important torch for our institution for over eighteen years. He shined it bright so we could also remember our community heroes like, the late, Perry Wallace (BE ’70) while also churning out more trailblazers out of McGugin and into this world. His legacy began as the son of a Tuskegee Airman and a Detroit public school teacher, and ended having transformed the lives of millions both directly and indirectly.
He was the first Black athletics director hired by an SEC school and in a way, he might’ve been one of our university’s first unofficial diversity officers. In thinking about his life, our loss and his legacy – it’s important to meditate on his history and its impacts on our community history.
Recounting history is always about perspective and this is mine colored through the lens of my own experience. I believe we must remember (not deify) our heroes and honor our trailblazers not for their official titles and documented contributions but for the compounded generational impact they have on our community healing. Under the direction and vision of David Williams, Vanderbilt was able to see, recruit and help develop some of the strongest athletes and human beings, Vanderbilt has ever seen – for that we say thank you.
I wish to express my deepest condolences to his family and loved ones.
May he rest in peace.
Anchor down, sir.