"What they were doing was cutting away Black athletes"

Former Princeton runner Russell Dinkins on how efforts to save men's track at Brown, Minnesota, and William & Mary reflect larger racial inequities in college sports.

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When Brown University announced in May a plan to cut its men’s track and field team along with 10 other varsity squads, the school said the move would help its other teams become more competitive.

Russell Dinkins saw something else: an Ivy League college making itself less diverse by culling rare and valuable admission opportunities for Black athletes.

A former runner at Princeton University, Dinkins subsequently wrote an influential article arguing as much. Titled “Brown University, If You Were Actually Serious About Racial Justice You Would Not Be Cutting the Men’s Track Team,” the piece points out that:

  • While college sports can offer a offer a pathway to higher education and upward mobility, particularly at elite schools such as Brown, most of those opportunities skew toward athletes from middle class and affluent families—who in turn tend to be white;

  • This skew occurs because the majority of sports offered by colleges are relatively expensive and inaccessible at the youth level;

  • By contrast, track is relatively affordable and accessible, making it one of a handful of sports that is relatively racially diverse at the college level—for example, Brown’s track team has more Black male athletes (11) than its lacrosse, baseball, hockey, and crew teams combined;

  • By planning to cut track, Brown was taking away admissions opportunities for Black athletes while preserving opportunities in sports that disproportionately favor affluent White athletes.

Dinkins’ article went viral, bolstering an all-hands effort by Brown track alums to save the men’s team. Twelve days after the school’s initial announcement, Brown reversed course.

We did it! We applied that pressure and we won!!!!!!! Fight for what you believe in. Effect that change!!!!!!
June 10, 2020

Dinkins was overjoyed. But his work isn’t finished. The University of Minnesota and The College of Wiliam & Mary both have announced plans to cut their men’s track and field teams—and Dinkins has joined efforts to save both programs.

To better understand the overlooked racial dynamics of college sports and the opportunities they provide, Hreal Sports spoke with Dinkins, who has worked in education and diversity since graduating from Princeton in 2013 and continues to run at an elite level. 

(The following conversation has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity).


Hreal Sports: What was your initial, gut reaction to the news that Brown was planning to cut its men’s track and field team?

Dinkins: I was just, like, shocked. One of my peer institutions, an institution that I ran against as an Ivy League athlete—I was shocked. And I was angry, because I also knew, without even looking at the data, that the track team has a good amount of Black athletes. So indirectly, what they were doing was cutting away Black athletes. 

Now, I even had some friends push back on me who said, ‘Oh, well, you know, the university can spend resources to get Black students into college in other ways, targeting Black scientists or Black dancers.” And that is true. 

However, if we’re going to have college sports—which we do have!—and if we’re going to have all of these college spots that cater for affluent white communities almost exclusively, and if Brown specifically was planing to elevate sailing to replace track and field—

Wait, sailing? [Editor’s note: While announcing that it was cutting men’s track and 10 other varsity sports, Brown also announced that it planned to elevate club coed sailing and club women's sailing to varsity status].

I mean, the only people who participate in sailing live in Connecticut! 

<Laughing in agreement>

There’s nothing wrong with Connecticut, and obviously there are people sailing in other places. But you can’t sail in Oklahoma, you know? It’s on the coasts, and boats are expensive, right? 

Right—if you’re not somewhere up there on the socioeconomic ladder, the chances are minuscule that you are going to be a coveted college sailing recruit.

Exactly. And so, since these pathways via sport exist, then we should not be enshrining additional pathways for those who already are privileged and taking away pathways for those who historically have not had access to an Ivy League education.

That’s not to say that all Black athletes are from the lower income families. But some are. And historically, the Ivy League has been a place that no matter your socioeconomic status, it has been inaccessible for minorities and for women. Those are just facts.

The other thing that sent me over the edge was the university saying that its decision wasn’t based on financial reasoning, but on an effort to make their teams more competitive. So instead of spreading their athletic budget around to, say, 30 teams, they were cutting seven to distribute the same funds to fewer teams.

That doesn’t sound so unreasonable—

They also said it was to increase and enhance their efforts at diversity across their varsity and club sport offerings.

Um … how does getting rid of a sport where there’s a lot of young Black men participating increase diversity efforts?

The idea was that by moving track down to club status, it would make the club teams more diverse. But club athletics are not the same as varsity athletics—varsity teams get recruiting spots that club teams don’t.

So if I take a varsity sport and turn it into a club sport, I’m basically taking away an admission spot that is essentially guaranteed?

Yes.

You went to school and ran track at Princeton. Not Brown. What made you want to help athletes at a different school?

A few things. One, if Brown can make that decision, who's to say that it wouldn't be made at Princeton—or made anywhere else?

I have a lot of appreciation for my alma mater. But I would’ve been just as happy to have gone to any Ivy League school, to be honest. It’s an amazing opportunity that’s being afforded via athletes, and I didn’t want to see that squandered away.

Educational access and opportunity is something that's very important to me, something that has been instilled in me since I was a kid. I’ve been running track since I was six years old. And my coach, Bob Jackson—who has since unfortunately passed away—conveyed to us that we could use track to get into college. He would even say, I don’t care what you do when you get there. You don’t need to run another step. But if you’re going to be in my program, know that this is a tool that you can use to get in.

Was there a point in your youth when you realized track might not just be a way to go to college, but also a way to go to an Ivy League school?

The Ivy League came to me! I knew that I could run to get into college, so my goal was always to make myself the full package—have really good track results and also really good grades, because I wanted to go to a good school with a good track program. Have the best of both worlds.

To be honest, Duke [University] and the University of Virginia were my targets. But once Ivy League schools reached out to me, I gave them a serious look. And it turns out they have some pretty strong track programs—at Princeton, I was on a distance medley relay team that won the NCAA championship in 2013.

So coming from that background, you see what’s happening at Brown, and it understandably makes you upset. How did you end up writing your article?

A few days after the university made its decision, George Floyd was killed. And after that, Brown made an announcement—just like every place made an announcement at that time—that they were committed to racial justice, that they were going to take a deep look at themselves, that they were committed to thinking about racial inequity and looking at their own processes, systems, and structures to see how they uphold racial bias and things of that nature.

That really set me off, because that came on the heels of them cutting a track program that had 11 Black athletes—more Black athletes than four of their other teams combined! So I was just like, okay, your actions are not matching up with your words and your stated commitments. Your stated commitments are a farce.

So I spent an entire day—when I probably should have been applying to jobs—writing this article, looking up the research, getting the numbers, getting the data. And then I just posted it at, like, around midnight.

I didn't have any intention of going viral. I’m not someone with a big platform. I mean, I’ve been writing on Medium throughout the pandemic, and I would get about 100, maybe 200 views on a piece. One time I got 900 views, and I was so excited! 

I was hoping that this piece would get bigger publications to see that this was an issue they should cover. So I went to bed. When I woke up, I think it had 2,000 views. And then it started gong up by 1,000 views per hour. It was really connecting with people.

What happened next?

The next week was interesting. I was reaching out to as many people as I knew, to try to get the article in the hands of people with a prominent platform. I was trying to get Jemele Hill. I didn't get her, but Malcolm Gladwell did Tweet it out, which was amazing.

A lot of people follow him. 

It also was able to get to letsrun.com.

They have a very interesting forum!

They do. They were great. They featured the piece on their site. That really helped to spur conversation. And I think within a week, the piece had about 30,000 views—today it’s close to 60,000.

What sense do you have that it was being read by people at Brown, or by the people who were working to get Brown to reverse its decision to cut men’s track?

I believe that the school’s administration would probably stay pretty tight-lipped about the direct impact that my article had. But I do know, anecdotally, that it was passed around the Brown admissions office. That makes me think it was likely passed around in other departments. 

The athletic director of Princeton reached out to me and told me it was a great article. That was a crazy six days. I got calls. I spoke to a lot of people via phone and email. 

Let’s talk about the bigger issues that you brought up in your piece. Many people believe that college sports is a pathway to upward mobility and educational opportunity for people of color or people from low-income backgrounds. But you pointed out that this is not always—or even often—the case in many of the sports that NCAA schools sponsor.

I think the NCAA really enjoys propagating this idea. This fantasy of college sports as this pathway for kids who come from really meager backgrounds to play for a university, and then they become doctors and lawyers. I think there is almost a fetishization of that idea. It’s kind of like The Blind Side on steroids.

While that does end up happening, it doesn't happen nearly at the rate that the NCAA likes to promote. When you look at the sports that are sponsored across the NCAA, something like 61 percent of the athletes are white—in the Ivy League, it’s 65 percent. And there are only three sports that are really kind of diverse: football, basketball, and track. I mean, that's it. The diversity numbers slide down pretty precipitously after that.

The Ivy League also sponsors a number of sports that are not official NCAA sports, like men’s crew and squash.

The same principle seems to apply those sports—they’re not particularly diverse in terms of the pool of athletes you'd be recruiting from high schools in the first place, right?

What all of these sports have in common is that they’re not particularly diverse, and also, they’re not particularly accessible. A lot of these sports are pretty expensive to participate in. The kids playing them tend to be more middle class or affluent than people think.

For instance, hockey costs a family, I think, close to $2,500 per year. That's the average via the Aspen Institute's data. Whereas track and field is the cheapest sport, by far. It’s about $200 per family, per year to participate.

When you include both males and females, track and field also has the largest participation out of any high school sport. In terms of female participation, track and field is No. 1. So it’s the most accessible and diverse sport. 

And that’s also true in terms of college recruitment. That’s another layer of this. Getting recruited in track is very easy. There’s a national database called MileSplit. If you go to any track meet that is large enough to have electronic timing—and even many small meets have that—those results get uploaded to it. So coaches can just look at the results, click on them, see that athlete, and contact them. 

You don’t need to go to an expensive sports camp, or a coaches’ clinic, or any of these travel teams and tournaments, or really do any of the expensive other things that athletes in other sports have to do. You don’t have to make a highlight reel or hire a consultant. You can do that, but it’s not required. If you run a good time, or throw a good mark, or jump high, you’ll get noticed. 

That makes things really easy and clean. It takes away another barrier to the college recruitment process. That’s a huge deal!

I'm really glad you brought that up. There’s a youth sports industrial complex in America. It’s kind of a monster, something like a $20 billion industry. And it sounds like track and field is one of the sports that is the least touched by this monetized arms race among families and athletes all trying to chase college scholarships.

Yeah, track is still impacted by it, but just not to the same extent. In other sports, you have to be a part of, say, a certain academy’s soccer team, otherwise you’re not getting recruited.

Okay, let’s zoom out. Everything you just described arguably makes cutting track more consequential—in terms of racial equity—at elite schools like Princeton and Brown.

What I mean is, the opportunity for upward mobility with a degree from those schools is supposedly greater than at other places. The competition to get into those schools is fiercer. And here you have athletic recruits getting rare and coveted reserved admissions spots—more than 10 percent of Harvard Univeritys Class of 2020 is recruited athletes, while 13 percent of Yale University’s incoming class each year is the same.

So now you’re taking away one of the few sports where Black athletes have the most opportunity to compete and become recruitable into those spots, and you’re keeping a bunch of sports where they have far less opportunity.

There was a piece in The Atlantic a few years ago with the headline “College Sports Are Affirmative Action for Rich White Students.” It basically argued expensive sports give families with money, who are predominantly white, one more advantage when it comes to getting their kids into elite colleges. Cutting track would seem to exacerbate that. Is that a fair assessment? 

Yes, I believe that is the case. It’s kind of tough to say, because I’m also someone who understands and appreciate the value of sports and what it can do for students and communities. I think sports have an important place on campus.

However, there are ways in which the college athletic system advantages those who have more means and more access. So we should not be taking away one of the few sports that actually doesn’t do that. And in terms of diversity, that doesn’t just pertain to race and socioeconomic status. It also pertains to gender. What other sport as efficiently and effectively delivers academic opportunities via athletics to female athletes than track and field?

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In your piece, you also wrote that “universities such as Brown, that have directly benefited from American slavery, have an obligation to right a historic wrong and provide opportunities for qualified, talented descendants of American slavery. Brown’s decision to cut Track and Field just took 11 of those opportunities away.” 

How and why did you decide to make that part of your argument, and what kind of reaction and pushback did you get? In America, when you bring up the S-word and this nation’s history, white people can get pretty defensive—just look at our politics right now.

It's funny—that part of the article kind of got glossed over by a lot of people. I think because so many other parts of the article were so inflammatory!

The reason why I included slavery is because I needed people to see that when we think about racism, we think about it as someone acting with malicious intent, someone acting personally against someone else. And that is a form of racism.

But racism functions in a lot of different ways. And to me, it is functionally racist for a school to take away opportunities via athletics, and replace those opportunities with additional opportunities for a demographic that already has a lot of benefits. And those benefits we're talking about, they come from historic wrongs. They all connect back to the founding of this country and the economic system of slavery, chattel slavery, upon which this country was built. 

I mean, the reason why we have Title IX is because there haven't been opportunities given to women, historically. It is really important that women have opportunity in education. So we also need to think about the fact that the schools we’re taking about in sports, many of them benefitted or got rich either directly or indirectly from the slave trade—whether through selling slaves or having bonds connected to it, or different investments, or investing in insurance companies which were connected to it.

When Brown reinstated its men’s track program, the school said that “through Brown’s history, these sports have been a point of entry to higher education for academically talented students who otherwise would not have had the opportunity, many of them students of color.”

What was it like to see Brown explicitly acknowledge the argument that you made?

It was a huge win. And it wasn't just a win for me, but for the entire Brown community, for the entire track community.

Brown’s track alumni were very organized. They had a really tight unit. They did a lot of work behind the scenes. Some of that was elevating the issues that I brought up my article. They created a video where Brown’s president was talking about the school’s commitment to diversity and inclusion, and then it was cut up with clips of Black athletes saying things like, “Am I not worth it? Is my place here? Am I not valued?” They did a lot of great work around these issues. I was one part of a larger effort.

Did George Floyd’s death and this summer’s racial and social justice protests make a difference in terms of Brown changing course? And in terms of there being a receptive environment for your message? Is it just a coincidence that all of these things were happening at the same time?

There was no coincidence at all! It was the right message at the right time. If I had written the exact same article two years earlier, it would have went nowhere. That’s the unfortunate reality.

But this was a time when non-Black people, and particularly white people, saw in stark relief exactly was the issue was. Right in front of their faces. And there was no avoiding it. Sandra Bland? Oh, we don’t know what happened to her in the holding cell. Trayvon Martin? Oh, maybe he charged George Zimmerman. Michael Brown? You know, he was—

There’s always a way to explain things away. But you can’t do that with the George Floyd video, no matter how much you want to try. It’s revolting. Outside of the maybe the hardest-core racist, I don’t think you could watch that and not see it for what it is.

Unfortunately, that's kind of how these things work.

So right now, you're trying to make a similar argument about what’s happening at Minnesota and William & Mary—two schools have announced plans to cut men's track. How's that effort going, and what do people need to know? 

Well, I think there's been some breaking news. Let me see—

Breaking news as we're talking? Awesome.

I know, right? Let's see. According to the Richmond Times-Dispatch, it looks like Wiliam and Mary athletic director Samantha Huge is resigning in the wake of protests over cutting seven sports. 

We don’t know what that means for track yet. But we know it means that there’s some pressure being felt at that university. Meanwhile, at Minnesota, their board of regents is meeting on Friday to vote.

There’s a group of people there who have been very well organized, getting the message out, targeting those regents. But it all comes down to that vote.

So I’ve written a lot about amateurism, especially in big time college football and basketball, and how it acts as a sort of racial wealth transfer system that funnels money upward from predominantly Black athletes doing the work on the field to overwhelmingly white coaches, athletic administrators, facility construction contractors, and non-revenue sport athletes. 

Do you see that as a racial injustice in college sports, even if some of that money is being used to fund track teams?

It certainly is a injustice. I mean, when we look at the non-revenue sports, especially at the major institutions who are part of the Power Five, they are predominantly white sports. So you effectively have Black athletes subsidizing them. And as you mentioned, you have another layer on top of that—the athletic directors, the coaches, the contractors, all of them are getting handsomely rewarded for the labor of the athletes.

That labor is being compensated by tuition and college degrees. But we know the value of that labor is much more than that. So in my view, there needs to be a fundamental rethinking of how football and men’s basketball—and to a lesser extent, women’s basketball—works in college sports. They’re just different, because they make so much more money. The athletes in those sports need to be treated differently, and they definitely need to be compensated with fair payment for their services and have labor rights.

And then for the other sports, we need to ask—what are we actually valuing? Are we valuing sport as an educational opportunity? And if that’s what’s important, then that needs to be what’s important. We don’t need to spend money on these multimillion dollar facilities. That arms race is ridiculous, with palatial locker rooms and lounges with, like, waterfalls. Cut all that crap out. It’s not needed. You need a high school locker, a bench, and a shower. 

There are so many ways college sports have been operated as a business. Even when you think about the way that these decisions to cut sports are made—they always center on the finances. Is this a business? Or is it something to provide students access to an education through sports?

I think sport provides a lot of benefits that are incalculable to a university, such as pride, bringing in more diversity—some of that can mean just bringing in a lot of out-of-state students for the state institutions. 

Speaking of benefits, I’ve always felt that college athletes are almost like marketing employees of their universities. Even those smaller sports, they are still the so-called “front porch.” And that’s not just getting the name of a school out there and creating good feelings around it. It’s marketing in terms of creating future alumni who are passionate about the school, who are going to come back to donate, who are still going to deeply care about their alma maters in 20 years. 

Sports is probably the No. 1 way to create that kind of bond. It creates nostalgia.

It creates that desire to give money back to the school when you get those fundraising letters!

Exactly. And you know, I can even speak to my experience at Princeton when we won the national championship. That made the front page of our student newspaper. There were alums who were contacting us, congratulating us, people who weren’t even connected to track and field. It was a big, galvanizing, exciting moment. And we’re not a sport that people typically care about. We ran a distance medley relay in Arkansas! But that was a big deal, in a way that the debate time or the science competition club can’t be. So yeah, athletics brings a unique value.

Since graduating in 2013, you’ve worked in education and diversity and inclusion. That sounds pretty relevant to our discussion! What kind of work have you been doing in that?

I worked at Princeton for three years as the diversity inclusion coordinator within the school’s office of career services, developing programming for first generation, low-income students. I actually created that position, which was pretty cool! I wrote a proposal to the university, because I was mad at the university for responding pretty poorly to some social unrest that was happening on campus at the time—

Seems like you get stuff done when you’re mad! Do you race angry?

<Laughs> Actually, my best races have been when I’m really calm.

Are you still running?

I've continued running since I've graduated. I've run at an elite level for the New York Athletic Club. I was planning to end my running career this year—but the pandemic hit, and I still want to go to the Olympic trials and have that experience. So I'm focusing on that. I’m also working with an athletic apparel brand on an effort to support track and field teams that have been cut. That’s been an exciting new development.

The pandemic gave me a moment to take a beat. And I decided that I wanted to start writing. I have a lot of ideas—but I've always been a bit tentative to express those ideas. Which is funny, because I express myself very vociferously in speaking to people, and also on my personal Facebook. But writing is a really vulnerable way of expressing yourself. Someone can go back and look at it and be like, ‘hmmm, his period is not in the right place.’

Welcome to my neurotic world!

I'm still thinking about what my next steps specifically will be. I never thought of writing as activism, and that my writing could crate a change. But I’ve been developing a voice and a platform. And one of the things I’ve taken away from what’s happened with Brown—one of the things I really want people to take away—is that we don’t necessarily understand or know the power of our own voices unless we use them. There are ways that we all can be active.

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This has been Hreal Sports, a weekly-ish newsletter written by Patrick Hruby about sports things that don’t stick to sports. If you have any questions or feedback, contact me at my website, www.patrickhruby.net. And if you enjoyed this, please sign up and share with your friends.