By Dave Zirin on Nov 1, 2009
Some people go to college and become a Wildcat, a Blue Devil, or a Seminole. I was a Fightin’ Scot. No semi-pro sports factory for me. I attended Macalester College, a small liberal arts school in St. Paul, Minnesota, with 1,750 students, back in the mid-1990s. It fit me like a well-oiled baseball glove: no frats, lots of fiery debates, and a sports program that was at times regarded as a rumor. The military regimentation that marks big-time college sports programs just wasn’t an easy fit for a school that offered a course called Physics for Poets. Students were always more likely to cheer on a building takeover than a touchdown.
We were an institution of iconoclasts and outsiders. Sports had to fit into that general mosaic. It was high school turned on its head.
That’s what makes a recent lawsuit leveled against my alma mater all the more troubling, as the school appears to have tumbled into our post-9/11 fever dream.
A 2009 grad named Jacob Bond contends in court that he was booted from the football team his sophomore year because he refused to remove his helmet during the national anthem. For anyone who thinks the marriage of sports and nationalism is in need of a divorce, this could be reason enough to support young Mr. Bond.
But even if you sleep with a flag pin fastened to your pajamas, you might find yourself sympathizing with Bond because the anthem was actually being played on an adjacent field for a high school soccer game.
For assistant coach Patrick Babcock, that was reason enough for Jacob and his teammates stop practice, remove helmets, and stand at attention. Seems extreme for West Point, let alone Macalester.
Bond, who held strong disagreements with Bush’s war in Iraq, just said no. “I don’t think . . . our national anthem is important enough to interrupt a football practice,” he told Inside Higher Ed.
“Why do you always have to be different?” Bond contends Babcock responded. Within twenty-four hours, the lineman was out on his ear.
The school denies it did anything wrong, though it acknowledges there was an “incident” on the field that day.
“I think the norm [of responding to the anthem] would be respect, but there would never be any kind of penalty because of free speech,” said Laurie Hamre, vice president for student affairs, according to Inside Higher Ed. The office of civil rights in the U.S. Department of Education also looked into the matter and sided with the school, according to the Minneapolis Star Tribune.
But Bond alleges that he was discriminated against not only because of his political beliefs but also because he has Asperger’s Syndrome, a mild form of autism. This never stopped him from playing all four years in high school, and his freshman season at Mac, but all of a sudden his “disability” allegedly became an issue.
Macalester professor Peter Rachleff, a labor historian and community activist, looked into the situation (per my suggestion) and met with the school president, Brian Rosenberg. According to a letter from Rachleff to the office of civil rights in the U.S. Department of Education, Rosenberg said there were confidential issues regarding Jacob’s “condition.” As Rachleff wrote, “President Rosenberg asked me to keep confidential Jacob’s condition, to drop my investigation into the entire situation, and to discourage further publicity. He advised me that such a course of action would be ‘in the student’s interest.’ ”
Soon, the story was out that Bond was dismissed for confidential health reasons. Jacob’s mother, Trudy Bond, was appalled.
“What was most shocking to me, after the manner in which Jacob was removed from the team, were the lies and coverup by the coach and the administration at Macalester, to the point they used his disability as an excuse for their actions,” she said to me. “All that was initially requested was an apology.”
Rachleff sees the college’s actions in the Bond case as symptomatic.
“This incident on the football practice field and its handling by the college administration was one more milepost in Macalester College’s institutional trek in this twenty-first century from mildly left-of-center to solidly right-of-center,” he tells me. “This journey has involved shifts in policies, practices, resources, and image, from the jettisoning of ‘need blind’ admissions to the construction of the Twin Cities’ largest private athletic facility (with no plans to share it with students from underfunded public schools or residents of under-resourced neighborhoods), even as we pay lip service to ‘civic engagement.’ ”
Rachleff pointed to the school’s reaction last summer, when student activists from around the world, invited by Macalester’s own, sought permission to camp out on campus grounds while participating in protests and demonstrations at the Republican National Convention. The school informed them that “the appearance of sleeping bags or tents would lead to calls to local police to arrest ‘trespassers,’ ” Rachleff recalls.
“The college’s political odyssey seems to revolve around the reconstruction of conventional masculinity, with competitive football one of its epicenters,” he says. “Intercollegiate competitive sports rules, while the arts languish in a falling down, overcrowded building. The agenda here has become the displacement of critical thinking and questioning conventionality and authority with patriotism, nationalism, and normative masculinity. Free speech is but collateral damage.”
From an institution for intelligent outcasts to a quiet preserve of privilege. From a place where sports had a sense of proportion to a place where the arts are now on the back of the bus. My dear alma mater has journeyed from Mac to McSchool. It’s certainly not the only college to sand off its edges in the post-9/11 world, but I would have expected more from the Macalester that I knew. That remarkable place no longer seems to exist. u
Dave Zirin is the author of several books on the politics of sports, including “A People’s History of Sports in the United States.” He is a monthly columnist for The Progressive magazine, and this article will appear in the September issue of The Progressive. To subscribe to The Progressive, for only $14.97, click here.