The racial impact of Eric Striker

— -- NORMAN, Okla. -- Five months after he went viral, Oklahoma linebacker Eric Striker sits in a dimly lit meeting room, more composed but just as emotional.

His head lowers when he thinks back to that spring night. His robust shoulders shrink as the pain returns.

The text message arrives the evening of March 8. A teammate asks if Striker has seen the video of a fraternity singing a racist song on a bus. "There will never be a n----- in SAE!" members of Sigma Alpha Epsilon chant. Striker's first thought: Please don't let this be at Oklahoma. But it is.

He grabs his phone. "Same m-----f-----s talking about racism don't exist are the same m-----f-----s shaking our hands, giving us hugs, telling us how you really love us," a shirtless Striker says during a 19-second Snapchat video. "F--- you phony-ass, fraud-ass bitches."

The Snapchat sent shockwaves. Striker had touched on the fundamental disconnect black college football players from across the country cite: On Saturday nights, they're celebrated as heroes, but the rest of the week, they're profiled in classes, at parties and in their communities.

"Like Striker said, everybody loves you on game day," Florida defensive end Jonathan Bullard said. "Everybody loves you after you win and you go out to Midtown, but behind closed doors, who are you? What are you?"

College football locker rooms often transcend race, and universities serve as cultural melting pots for people to learn about one another and discuss important topics. But when racial flash points occur, or even subtle, everyday occurrences, black athletes must navigate the bridge between sports and society.

Since the Striker video, ESPN interviewed more than 40 players from 15 programs across the country and surveyed another 99 players anonymously about their reaction to Striker and their own encounters with racism and profiling. Many players applauded Striker for speaking out and were eager to share their own opinions and experiences that mirror his at Oklahoma.

It's a complicated conversation -- one with numerous questions and few answers -- that Striker started.

"At the end of the day, this is bigger than the sport of football," Striker said, his deep voice softening and scratching as he spoke to last month. "If I move on and I just continue and maybe not raise awareness and keep playing football, I wouldn't feel good as a person."

OU just the tipping point

Norman is like most college towns. Dive bars and dance clubs rub elbows near campus. Beer and burgers are cheap, and there's little buzz when the students are gone. And the SAE incident, while generating national attention, isn't unique to Oklahoma.

"I'm quite certain it has happened numerous times at predominantly white institutions across the country," said Harry Edwards, professor emeritus of sociology at the University of California-Berkeley and one of the nation's leading voices on race in sports. "There's a continuing reality of racial antipathy on many, if not most, of these predominantly white campuses that is in stark contradiction to the cheering that happens on Saturday afternoon at the stadium."

Last year Ole Miss, still trying to distance itself from its racially charged past, saw one of its students hang a noose around the statue of civil rights activist James Meredith, the university's first black student in 1962. Also in 2014, Arizona State's Tau Kappa Epsilon fraternity celebrated Martin Luther King Jr. Day by throwing an urban-themed, blackface-inducing party advertised with hashtags such as #blackoutforMLK.

In April, a University of South Carolina student was suspended after a video of her writing a racial slur on a whiteboard spread through social media.

Black players condemned the SAE incident at Oklahoma, but several said the attention it generated places a spotlight on the racial reality. "It goes on [at] every single campus," Auburn linebacker Kris Frost said. "It's embarrassing for the university, but at the same time, it's good for people to understand that things like that do go on ... but it's all about evolving. It's all about getting better."

One reason Striker's initial reaction resonated so strongly is he wasn't afraid to come forward. Many athletes said they struggle with speaking out about racial issues because they're afraid of being ostracized or a distraction to the team. Some schools have banned players from all social media.

"You kind of have to hide your opinion as an athlete," Auburn cornerback Jonathan Jones said. "Sometimes you're not able to be as outspoken because of the people who look up to you. When you're in that situation, you really can't say the right thing. Somebody's going to get offended because of the diverse people who follow [us] on social media."

"What this brother did when he blew up is not just reacting to that incident," Edwards said. "That comes from a last-straw kind of disposition. You're constantly living under that tension. How are you going to cope with being a football player, a de facto star on campus, and at the same time being an African-American, where by definition, in certain sectors of campus outside of the athletic arena, you are the other, the alien, the unknown, the one to be feared and distrusted and avoided?"

Striker understands the consequences of voicing his views, especially about a subject many deem too controversial. But he refuses to stay silent.

"It's a hard balance because any time I get to say something, I will, but I still love the game and I have a goal of bringing my team together and being a great leader," he said. "I feel like I owe that to them, but I also feel like I owe my voice to black people as well when anything bad like this is happening."

Campus life

According to a 2013 study from the University of Pennsylvania's Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education, black men made up 2.8 percent of full-time, degree-seeking undergraduate students but represented 57.1 percent of football programs in six major conferences -- the ACC, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC.

At Notre Dame, for example, the Penn study found that black men made up 1.8 percent of the student body but 45.6 percent of the school's basketball and football teams. "It's almost assumed when a huge black guy walks in a room, he's a football player," said Notre Dame defensive lineman Isaac Rochell.

The demographic reality brings labels.

"From the time a black scholarship athlete walks on campus, he is profiled," Edwards said. "It is assumed that he is there under special admissions. It is assumed he is there with no particular academic competitiveness. It is assumed he is someone that is going to have to be monitored in terms of citizenship. So he is not going to be automatically admitted to the parties, especially those at historically white fraternities. He is going to be profiled in the classroom as soon as the professor realizes he plays on the football team."

Players who spoke with ESPN were predominantly happy with their social lives on campus but also described some difficulties blending in.

"I can't pick out a white guy on our team who will be left out of parties if people don't know him," a black player from a Pac-12 team said. "It's sad. In these people's minds, they look at you -- a big tall black dude, probably dressed a certain way, and they get intimidated by it. They get scared."

Black players said they encounter assumptions based on their skin color, but their appearance often brings even more.

Notre Dame cornerback Matthias Farley said people see how he looks -- "I have dreads; I usually have a long beard; I have tattoos," he said. "They're like, 'What is this guy going to say?'" -- and make snap judgments. Farley enjoys talking with those people and dispelling preconceived notions. "You meet people and you know they have a stigma of you, and then you break it and they don't know what to do with themselves," he said.

Former Florida State safety Myron Rolle, a Rhodes scholar at FSU who is in his third year of clinical rotations for pediatric neurosurgery at three hospitals in South Florida, said he could see hesitancy in white students when they saw him surrounded by teammates with "long dreads, gold teeth, long white tees ... and some Air Force 1s on their feet."

It wasn't until Rolle approached them that their views changed.

"They're like, 'Oh, OK, he's not like that. He's a little bit different,'" Rolle said. "'He's a good one.'"

In addition to their size, football players are easily identified because of the team-issued clothing they often wear. Black and white players both told that they intentionally avoided wearing issued gear in class, especially at the start of the academic year, to avoid being profiled by professors or classmates.

But for black players, wardrobe choice might not be enough.

"He could wear khakis and a nice button-down shirt," said Shaun Harper, a University of Pennsylvania professor who founded the school's Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education. "But even if these guys unsport themselves or take away their athletic representation, the black kid is still going to be the black kid. They're still going to presume he's a student-athlete. They're also going to presume he came from some poor, failing public school and he only came there for his sport, and he's not smart.

"The white athlete could much more easily blend in."

Kenneth Shropshire, director of the Wharton Sports Business Initiative at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, said the racial isolation black football players experience on campus isn't new. Black college football pioneers Paul Robeson and Fritz Pollard went through similar things while starring for teams at Rutgers and Brown, respectively, in the 1910s.

"Fast-forward to today," Shropshire said. "Not only do you have racial isolation but now you have isolation that occurs with the time that is spent playing a sport and the lack of time you have being a student."

Ross calls black football players "the most stereotyped group" on campus, especially in classes. It's why Ross encourages black players to reach out to their professors, sit in the front of their classrooms and do anything to "not fall into that paradigm." Notre Dame linebacker James Onwualu has made headway in his classes but said, "It's not always easy to take that jump. It's intimidating."

"I'm in one of the most rigorous majors in the College of Arts and Letters, maybe in the whole school," said Notre Dame wide receiver Corey Robinson, a first-team Academic All-American last year -- the first sophomore at a Division I school to earn that honor since 2008 -- who majors in liberal studies and sustainability. "As a black student-athlete here, I care about my education. I work hard and I get great grades in my major.

"I try to change the stereotype a little bit."

Ole Miss linebacker C.J. Johnson doesn't want his classification as a black football player to limit positive experiences in classes. He's proactive in reaching out to nonathletes and creating positive interactions. "If I'm known for just football," Johnson said, "then I've failed."

Life in the community

Black football players have seen the images from Ferguson, Missouri, and Charleston, South Carolina. They have read about Christian Taylor, a defensive back at Division II Angelo State who was shot and killed Aug. 7 by police officers responding to a burglary call at a local car dealership.

It makes football seem trivial for them.

"Every time I turn the TV on I see another black guy dying or another black person dying from a [police] officer, and it's like I'm playing this game of football and probably winning in spots, but am I really winning when I turn on the TV and I see my people dying?" Striker said, choking up and slowly dropping his head. "It hurts -- it hurts me to see that every time."

Striker's mother prefers he doesn't drive, fearing what would happen if he gets pulled over. If Striker is stopped and asked to present documents, she has advised him against reaching into the glove compartment, so as not to provoke the officer. Striker said if pulled over, he "wouldn't feel 100 percent safe with what's been going on."

That fear is not uncommon -- a 2014 Gallup poll showed 37 percent of African-Americans nationally have confidence in police, compared with 59 percent of white citizens surveyed.

"I've been pulled over by police," a black Conference USA player said. "The officer accused me of smoking and tried to search my vehicle. His excuse was that nine times out of 10 he was right, when dealing with African-American males in this area."

But many black players say they have had positive interactions with law enforcement. This summer, former Oregon linebacker Derrick Malone tweeted about an encounter with police when he got a flat tire along Interstate 5. Malone went from "terrified" to "really grateful" when police taught him to change the tire.

"I had a certain perception, especially right now in America, about how things were going with police officers," Malone said. "It really changed my outlook and opened my eyes that all cops aren't the same, just like all athletes aren't the same, just [like] all people aren't the same."

Wisconsin running back Corey Clement recalled an episode this summer with a white university police officer at a traffic light in Madison. They both joked about giving the other an official escort to their destination. "I dressed as a regular person, had a regular conversation with him," said Clement, who wasn't sure whether the officer recognized him from football. "It was a cool connection to have with things normally -- people are scared of because of the shootings."

Aside from encountering police, some players are concerned about simply entering the communities that surround their campuses. Because of his upbringing in the racially charged city of Philadelphia, Mississippi -- site of the 1964 murders of three civil rights workers that the movie "Mississippi Burning" was based on -- Johnson doesn't like large crowds. He can count on both hands how often he has ventured out in Oxford, Mississippi.

"I know what's out there, and I know what people are capable of and what people think," Johnson said, "so I just stay away."

University of Georgia professor Billy Hawkins, whose research centers on racial issues in the context of sports, has seen black athletes profiled and occasionally targeted in several college towns where he's worked. "The assumption," Hawkins said, "is black athletes have sort of this illegitimate access to the university. That causes a lot of confusion, and in some cases, it causes a lot of friction."

Many black players said they understand the landscape when they venture out.

"If people want to approach us or don't, it's at their own discretion and it doesn't bother me," Northwestern defensive lineman Deonte Gibson said. "I'm not going to lose sleep because something insecure about you makes you not want to talk to me."

Making sure the discussion continues

Athletes at every school described campus chasms they encounter: between people of different races, between athletes and nonathletes, between black athletes and black students, between athletes and fans. Who must construct these bridges?

"It's not one person going the full 100 yards," Wisconsin cornerback Darius Hillary said.

Striker is doing his part. After his Snapchat, he has taken a new approach to improving race relations on campus. Education, he said, is the solution.

When Striker met with Levi Pettit, an SAE member caught on video singing the racist chant, Striker learned that Pettit's knowledge of lynching had been very limited, until he read a book on it after the bus incident. Pettit told Striker that if he had known lynching's gruesome history, he wouldn't have participated in the chanting.

Striker forgave Pettit and thinks others can learn from Pettit's actions.

"That's all it takes," Striker said. "Regardless of your race or color, you should know that history, and that's something that he lacked. He did not know. At the end of the day, what's wrong with learning about different cultures? You just gained knowledge."

Striker's response to the SAE video sparked reaction around the country, but also on OU's campus. He heard from many Oklahoma athletes, thanking him for voicing how they had felt for years. His schedule began filling with meetings, as he huddled with Greek organizations, black student organizations, other athletes and university administrators, including president David Boren.

One meeting took place with SAE leaders, who apologized to Striker and several other Oklahoma players.

"Eric's the first one to jump out of his chair and hug them all and told them he forgives them," coach Bob Stoops said. "Hugged every one of them."

Freshman athletes are now required to participate in Camp Crimson, a three-day orientation during which they meet nonathlete students and learn about each other. Although the video brought negative attention to OU, the school has used the opportunity not just to initiate but also to continue a dialogue on race.

"The expression was really helpful to know how people thought," said Oklahoma athletic director Joe Castiglione. "Fair or unfair, right or wrong, they never had a forum to ask it. It was illuminated. It could be something as simple as, 'Well, I had thought that. Now I feel better that I asked, and the answer, I understand and agree with. Now we move on.'

"That's the most important thing, the follow-up to the event itself."

Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason is calling for similar forums at campuses around the country to discuss racial tolerance and issues affecting student-athletes. Stanford coach David Shaw said it's the responsibility of universities to be proactive and ensure everyone is accepted.

"It's something you need to handle quickly," Notre Dame defensive lineman Romeo Okwara said. "All these kids in this frat, they go to the football games. The majority of the football players are African-American. These are the same people you're cheering for."

Hawkins said he thinks the NCAA should work more with university administrators to deal with episodes of racism better and ensure players have an outlet to express their frustration. The last thing the NCAA wants, he said, is black players to decide they won't play football until changes are made.

"We are very clear on most college campuses about issues centered around alcohol," Ross said. "We're clear about individuals bringing firearms to campuses. On most campuses we're very clear about plagiarism. The one area on our campuses across this country where we're not very clear is when we have behavioral issues around racial, intolerable actions. What concerns me: Are we really committed to dealing with those kinds of behaviors?"

All groups must pitch in, but it starts with a dialogue, which, thanks to Striker, is underway.

"You got to get it out," Vanderbilt defensive lineman Jay Woods said. "You have to have a voice and a say in this. If not, nobody's going to know how you feel or the standpoint from African-American males. You got to speak up. Point-blank. Period.

"Eric Striker did the right thing."