I read with alarm The Courier-Journal article Dec. 8 with the headline: “Cheerleaders cleared for Election Night tweets.” It said UofL had issued a statement saying that ‘those involved were not responsible for violations of the Student Code of Conduct,” and they’d returned to practice but UofL expects all student-athletes to be “responsible users of social media and conduct themselves in ways that reflect positively on the university, athletic department and their teams.”
In my opinion, what the students tweeted clearly violated both the letter and the spirit of this policy.
The CJ reported Nov.10 that UofL cheerleader Brynn Baker tweeted on election night that “others should ‘STFU’ — shut the —- up — about racism, sexism, whateverism’ and ‘find the $ to leave America.’” In another tweet, directed toward a black cheerleader, Baker said, “You act like you came off a boat.” The CJ interviewed a couple of professors who said the suspensions were an overreaction, but the reporter neglected to find an opposing viewpoint from any faculty or staff at the university.
As a faculty member at UofL, I believe the tweeting incident is not a matter of free speech — I wholeheartedly support free speech, particularly on a university campus. Instead, it is a matter of how we want to be represented as a university. It is a privilege to be a student-athlete — they are often the face of our school, and, because of that, I hope UofL would set higher standards for anyone representing it. It sets a dangerous precedent to other students to essentially say that this kind of language must simply be tolerated from student-athletes, or other student representatives because it is “free speech.”
The larger issue, in my opinion, is what are we teaching our students these days that would make one of them go to Twitter and rant in such a profane and disrespectful way? Aren’t these statements expressing the kind of intolerance we (the university) are supposed to be rejecting? By acknowledging that they expect student-athletes to use social media responsibly, they implicitly say that there are irresponsible ways to use social media. Where do we draw the line? It is offensive that the athletic department doesn’t find this act as falling into the category of unacceptable.
I am proud of any student who wears a UofL uniform and logo and represents the institution. But, as the athletic department even agrees, I expect them to conduct themselves in a manner that reflects positively on the university. What message are we sending to our football team (a team that is overwhelmingly African American)? Indeed, one of those players said in a Twitter post after the tweets became public, “I definitely don’t want Brynn Baker at any games and definitely not cheering for us.” At a time when the UofL football program is riding a wave of positive media with the naming of Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson, this is not the message we want to send to fellow athletes, alumni, fans, future students, and athletic recruits. Instead why not use this as a teachable moment and face up to our responsibility as a university that values diversity to explain why others may be offended by these comments and that as representatives of the University of Louisville, we expect better.
All of our undergraduate students are now required to take two cultural diversity classes as part of the general education core curriculum — clearly the university regards teaching tolerance and acceptance of diversity as a crucial part of a student’s education. So why aren’t we holding all of our representatives to that standard? •
Dr. Dewey M. Clayton is a political science professor at UofL.