ANN ARBOR, Mich. — In his first month on the Michigan campus, Maurice Ways stepped onto an elevator and saw the person next to him look him up and down, studying him.
The older man asked him one question: “Football or basketball?”
At first, Ways — a freshman on the football team — tried to handle it with humor.
“I thought to myself, ‘My parents taught me manners. Hello. How are you? How is your day going,’ ” recalled the receiver, who is now a redshirt sophomore for the Wolverines. “He skipped all that!”
But Ways, an international studies major at Michigan, was taken aback that someone would assume he was only an athlete.
“He didn’t ask me if I was math or science, or medical school,” Ways said. “He saw football or basketball.
“He saw a tall black man on campus at Michigan and said ‘he can possibly only be here for one reason.’ And that was it.”
Ways wasn’t mad about the exchange, he said. Instead, it made him think. Ways’ experience was part of an encompassing dialogue Thursday night at the Ross School of Business: “The Black Male Athlete: Who Is He and What Is He To You?” hosted by Michigan’s Trotter Multicultural Center.
Ways, former Michigan and NFL standout Braylon Edwards, and former basketball players Ray Jackson Jr. and Jimmy King discussed their experiences both on campus and in the world outside of the Ann Arbor campus, and not only as black men but as black male student-athletes. They touched on the perceptions they face, the stereotypes they have to break and the expectations they have not only as black college athletes but as black college students.
Maurice Ways discusses his experiences as a Michigan athlete
In speaking to the audience, Ways pointed out some statistics: Of more than 43,000 students at Michigan, only 740 are black men. Of those, only 100 are student-athletes. And only 51 of those student-athletes are on the football team.
When Ways attended Detroit Country Day High School in suburban Detroit, he heard the refrain even then.
“I was told ‘the only reason you’re going to Michigan is to play football,’ ” Ways said. “And I was insulted.”
Edwards had a similar exchange during his first year at Michigan in 2001, when was one of a handful of athletes in a speech class. “So do you play football or basketball?” a classmate asked him. “I was excited, I was 18, I was at Michigan and I was excited to play football.”
And, he laughed, “The same thing happened a month ago! This time I’m 33!”
As a returning student — he is completing his degree this year at Michigan — Edwards noticed a demographic change at the university. He saw fewer people of color. Fewer African-American students, in particular.
“There’s a lot of misconceptions out there, as to who the black athlete is,” said Edwards, who played at Michigan from 2001-04 and played in the NFL for eight seasons. “We’re trying to give people perspective, to show them things that they wouldn’t necessarily pay attention to. Make people think. The more you give them, the nuggets that you can give them, they can see those things.”
Jackson and King, who were part of Michigan’s “Fab Five” with Chris Webber, Juwan Howard and Jalen Rose, also realized that as black athletes they didn’t have to mold to stereotypes or simply defy them, either. Even in the early 1990s, they had a responsibility to carry. Then, a meeting with Muhammad Ali — the boxing legend recognized the Wolverines — broadened the social conscience of King and his teammates.
“We had the discussions of, ‘What is the legacy we want to leave?’ ” King said during a question-and-answer session with Jackson, who now oversees a nonprofit organization in Texas that assists children through sports. “Meeting Ali, that let us know that we had to be more than just basketball players. We have to embrace it. Educate ourselves and liberate ourselves.”
Ray Jackson discusses the opportunities he had at Michigan
At one point, Edwards was asked to define the black athlete. First, he explained, the black athlete is a walking misrepresentation of stereotypes.
“And stereotypes kill,” he added.
Even in football, Edwards said, black athletes face stereotypes — institutionally and professionally. Historically, Edwards explained, football wasn’t friendly to black players, instead pigeonholing them into positions that required strength and athleticism as opposed to intelligence. Even now, he said, some black football players are described as a “man-child” or “a beast,” while some white football players are described as “intelligent” or “mentally locked in.”
But his final definition came from his own experiences, and his interactions with other black athletes, as well as his return to the Michigan community.
“The black athlete is strong,” Edwards said. “The black athlete is overcoming obstacles. The black athlete is powerful. The black athlete is inspirational. The black athlete is motivational. The black athlete struggled. Because it’s a struggle to find out who we are and have everyone else understand our journey and our process.
“But the black athlete carries on.”
Ways also asked a small favor of the audience.
“Be nice to somebody, especially the black male athlete,” Ways said, smiling. “It’s always good to hear someone say, ‘Keep on pushing. It’ll be OK. What you’re going through, I’ve got you.’ ”