In a Class of Their Own 

On the football field, Cal has shown it has few equals. But in class, student athletes are separate and unequal.

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Van Rheenen tries to provoke his students by opening up the Tuesday and Thursday discussions with a commonly held but provocative statement about men being stronger than women, or African Americans being hardwired for athletic achievement, or something of that ilk. When the talk veers into thorny issues such as race, sexuality, or gender, inevitably someone in the back makes a snide remark, and others chime in. Then the offended parties yell back at them, or shout imprecations at Van Rheenen.

The majority of the ninety students enrolled in Education 75 this semester are athletes. A big cluster of football players always sits in back with a couple flirty females, and doesn't seem interested in class. But some athletes respond to the lectures. Van Rheenen said defensive tackle Albert Ma'afala e-mailed him in the middle of the semester, saying, "I'm really getting excited about this Gramsci stuff." A few weeks ago, Marshawn Lynch started sitting in the front of the room, away from his teammates, so that he could concentrate harder on the lectures. "I just wanted to let Professor Van Rheenen know that I'm interested in the class," he said.

Still, many students resist Van Rheenen's efforts, and adamantly defend the stereotypes the instructor is trying to subvert. In one lecture featuring the guest speaker Jere Takahashi, who screened Justin Lin's short documentary, Crossover -- about a Japanese-American basketball league -- Van Rheenen had one of his graduate assistants write on the blackboard: "How have Japanese Americans used the sporting practice of basketball in response to issues of race marginalization in larger society?"

After the film, Takahashi opened up the discussion. One student raised his hand and said, "Black people may have the ability to jump, but those Japanese guys are really shifty, you know. You see them bobbing and ducking up and down on the courts, because they have some skills that other races don't have -- plus they add to the flavor of the team."

Words like "shifty" came up a lot, as students tried to describe a style of play by enforcing stereotypes. Some class members criticized the teams in Crossover for seeming "too American," and "not playing their own style of basketball." One girl asked what are the criteria for being Japanese American -- "Is it genes, or facial characteristics?" Takahashi addressed all these questions in the most diplomatic way possible.

On another day, Van Rheenen wrote the sentence "Blacks are naturally better athletes than whites" on a PowerPoint screen and projected it in front of the class. He passed out index cards so students could write whether they agreed with the statement, and why. He remembered that class members "defended the statement, and utilized the same tools that journalists and people have done for decades, trying to prove the differences between these groups -- like, you know, a longer heel, or slow-twitch, fast-twitch muscles." He shrugged his shoulders in recollection. "The frightening thing is that people desperately want to believe these things."

About half the students rejected the statement outright, saying that it was grounded in stereotypes, and that it is absurd to polarize the world into "black" and "white." But several others cited ideas of natural selection, saying that, in the words of one student's card, "Blacks' genetic makeup changed as a result of being slaves for hundreds of years." Another student wrote: "Blacks are bigger, faster, and naturally stronger. This could be due to the lifestyle which blacks lived compared to whites, and their bodies had to adapt to the demands. Today that shows on the athletic courts and fields." Another student wrote: "Blacks have a natural rhythm or smoothness that whites don't have. Whites have power in weights, but blacks dominate in the efficient use of their bodies." Someone else suggested that black folks have an extra tendon in their legs that makes them run faster. One girl said that, because she's white, she's "intimidated by black people's genetically stronger muscles and faster limbs." Consequently, she added, she's "more satisfied beating a black girl on the court."

Teaching assistant Laura Neustedter said Van Rheenen would have liked a more heated discussion, but that no one would have the guts to say aloud what they'd written on their cards. At least people knew they were making offensive statements, she said.

A couple weeks later, Van Rheenen screened a clip from the film Pumping Iron, featuring Arnold Schwarzenegger. The class oohed and aahed as they watched a young, beefy Schwarzenegger sashay before a line of prison inmates and then tell an interviewer that bodybuilding puts him in a state of perpetual arousal: "I'm cumming day and night," the star cooed, his eyes wide as dinner plates.

"Ooh, he said 'cum,'" somebody jeered.

Simmons sat in the back of the class with Ma'afala and two other members of the football team. Once David Ortega, the director of student athlete development, left the room, the players sank lower in their seats and tittered at the images onscreen. Van Rheenen loaded a new clip of a women's bodybuilding contest from 1985, which was supposed to be the female equivalent of Pumping Iron. "Ooh, she's nasty. She looks like a man," Simmons said, pointing to one of the contestants as his colleagues giggled. Ma'afala sleepily put his head on his desk and started to snore.


The Academic Gameplan

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