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Following racist post from 2019, UW-Eau Claire study finds more diversity needed, but no systemic leadership problem in athletics

Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel logo Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel 8/31/2021 Devi Shastri, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
a group of people wearing military uniforms: The UW-Eau Claire football team takes the field at a homecoming football game vs. River Falls at Carson Park in 2017. © Courtesy of UW-Eau Claire The UW-Eau Claire football team takes the field at a homecoming football game vs. River Falls at Carson Park in 2017.

A study of student athletics released by the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire last week found that despite an overall culture of acceptance, student-athletes of color face disproportional amounts of stereotyping at the school.

The university commissioned the study in response to a racist incident on social media from November 2019 in which five football players sent messages via Snapchat that appear to be mocking a student organization on campus called Black Male Empowerment, or BME.

The students, whose names were not released by the university and were not published by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, joked about a meeting of "WME" — presumably playing off the acronym, replacing Black with white — followed by a black-and-white photo of the Ku Klux Klan burning a cross.

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An investigation by the university found the students did not violate the state administrative code that governs UW schools. They were allowed to return to the roster in 2020 pending the lifting of an indefinite suspension, but as of the 2021 season they are not on the team, according to university officials.

Still, the incident prompted the university to hire a consulting firm, Stan Johnson & Associates of Kansas City, Mo., to take a closer look at diversity, equity and inclusion efforts in the department. 

After reviewing team and university policies, running focus groups and surveying students and staff, the study ranked the department's progress on 15 "standards."

a man wearing a suit and tie: Dan Schumacher is UW-Eau Claire's athletic director. © Bill Hoepner Dan Schumacher is UW-Eau Claire's athletic director.

The review found that the department fell short on six of those, including: having "significant" representation of diversity on all levels; having an active advisory committee on equity issues; and having an explicit emphasis on equity, diversity and inclusion throughout all internal policies.

The department met four of the standards: strong and visible commitment to diversity from leadership; the overall understanding that diversity and equity are a shared responsibility among everyone in the department; a robust, ongoing feedback process; diversity representation in promotional materials. 

Athletic Director Dan Schumacher said the study was reassuring to him in the sense that the study found a commitment to diversity and equity within the department's leadership.

RELATED: UW-Eau Claire suspends five football players for racist Snapchat conversation that used KKK image

He said the 2019 incident led to accusations of a "culture of racism" within UW-Eau Claire's athletic department, a characterization he said he disagreed with and the study's findings refuted.

"That just really took me back. When you say the word 'culture,' that means it's being taught. It's being preached and being practiced. That is not the case whatsoever," he said.

Still, he admitted there was room for the department to improve. He said several of the areas outlined in the study as falling short of the consultant's standards, such as the establishment of an advisory committee, would be complete before school starts this fall.

But — policies, committees and leadership aside — the study found one area of vulnerability that will require a deeper look: High percentages of student-athletes of color reported hearing stereotypes, including jokes and perceived slurs.

Addressing 'locker room talk'

The survey asked specifically about comments that were racist, homophobic, sexist or anti-immigrant.


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Schumacher acknowledged inappropriate "locker room talk" can seem like an ubiquitous reality in sports environments. But he contended those incidents aren't systemic, rather they are isolated and need to be dealt with on an individual level.

The key is creating an environment where such comments are addressed head on, the director said. Following the 2019 incident, Schumacher said he met with the student leaders on the football team and was told unequivocally that they did not feel comfortable having the five players in question on the team.

"You have a right to an education. You don't have a right to be on the team. It's a privilege and you need to earn it everyday," he said. "So, the locker room, in some senses, took care of itself there because it was a unified approach. They came to us and said 'This is unacceptable for us and we do not want to be associated with this.' "

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The consultants' survey found both students and staff agreed that the department's leadership would stand up for them if they faced discrimination. Both also said they were comfortable talking about issues with administrators and staff. 

Olga Diaz, UW-Eau Claire's vice chancellor for equity, diversity and inclusion and student affairs, said with constant student turnover, the work to address inappropriate comments on and off the field, has to be ongoing.

"Coaching them not just in sport, but in life, and making sure that they realize their words matter and where they're used matters, whether its social media or the locker room or just among friends," Diaz said. "They have to learn to find the boundaries of appropriateness for their time."

Diverse rosters, diverse campus

The survey also asked students and staff what they would like to see change an UW-Eau Claire athletics. One of the top recommendations was diversification.

"While I recognize that there are other ways that a group of people can be diverse, besides just race, I wonder if that may contribute to some problems that we have had in the department," one respondent said.

Students of color represent 13% of UW-Eau Claire athletes, Schumacher said, slightly higher than the campus' overall rate of 12%.

Schumacher said recruiting more diverse talent is a top priority for the department.

a person smiling for the camera: Olga Diaz is the vice chancellor for equity, diversity and inclusion and student affairs at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. © Courtesy of UW-Eau Claire Olga Diaz is the vice chancellor for equity, diversity and inclusion and student affairs at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.

In the past two years, the department hired its first African American head coach, Charles Bolden, in men's baseball. Schumacher said to his knowledge, Bolden is the first and only African American baseball head coach in the 100-year history of the Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference, of which UW-Eau Claire is a part. 

"I'm hoping that with some of these recent hires, we're going to see more diversity from a student-athlete standpoint, from the recruitment, because they're seeing people like them, and that's big for relatability," Schumacher said.

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There are also several LGBTQ+ coaches and staff in the department, who increase representation and help support students who are LGBTQ+. 

Diaz and Schumacher said diverse recruitment in athletics also holds important implications for UW-Eau Claire's broader efforts for diversifying campus and increasing student success. 

Though not a focus of the study, student-athletes of color still face the largest gap when it comes to graduating on time.

Only 28.7% graduated within four years, compared to 44% of all student-athletes and 43.1% of the campus overall. Half of student-athletes of color graduated within six years, compared to 72% of all student-athletes and 67.4% of UW-Eau Claire students overall.

In that sense, both Diaz and Schumacher said, the study was just a first step, albeit an important one.

"I think the (study) was very valuable not only to set the record straight about the culture within the athletic program, but also to give us tangible things that we need to accomplish in order to be better, and we always want to be better," Diaz said.

Contact Devi Shastri at 414-224-2193 or DAShastri@jrn.com. Follow her on Twitter at @DeviShastri.

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This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Following racist post from 2019, UW-Eau Claire study finds more diversity needed, but no systemic leadership problem in athletics

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