SI Vault
July 09, 2012
PARDON ME, I'd like to interrupt your regularly scheduled programming and introduce you to America's rarest athlete: Wonman Joseph Williams. His first name's a Korean word that means full harmony, but you don't need to check his papers. He's a defensive back on a Division I football team. You know, a student-ATHLETE.
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July 09, 2012

Why Don't More Athletes Take A Stand?

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Joseph refuses to be shrunk. That's why he has gotten in trouble in the past for dozing during defensive meetings and twice sleeping through the 6 a.m. alarm he'd set for his 7 o'clock weight workouts. That's why he's stood during meetings and devoured bananas, having heard that they're a more effective energy booster than coffee. He's written essays at 3 a.m. because he wouldn't allow the six hours a day of football commitments to annihilate the rest of his student life and volunteer work. But now, on Day 3 of his hunger strike, it's time to face the consequences. Right or wrong, he has violated one of sports' bedrock values, submission to authority—the one that's not pounded into actors as they grow up, making it so much easier for them to turn and stand against the tide. Heart thumping, he trudges upstairs to the football offices.

But not to coach London's office. This hunger strike's a moral swamp that London has no wish to wade into. He's not a tunnel coach, he's a big-lens guy, an African-American who has felt the same hot breath on his neck as these campus workers; who had a child when he was in college, divorced soon after and drove a Boys & Girls Club bus to get by; who as an undercover detective in Richmond had a gun pointed at his head by a thug and heard the trigger click, the weapon malfunctioning; who beat 10,000-to-one odds when his bone marrow matched that of a daughter afflicted by a blood disorder that often leads to leukemia and death; and who has his players plugged into a multitude of volunteering activities. What muddies it all even more is that London is Joseph's frat brother, a product of community-activist, predominantly African-American Phi Beta Sigma, whose motto is "culture for service and service for humanity," a group fiercely proud of its members' leadership in the famous civil rights March on Washington in 1963, the Selma protest march two years later and the Million Man March in 1995. But now London's receiving $2.1 million a year from the same employer that the hunger strikers are howling at over precisely such vast wage disparities, and he's passed word to his media-relations man that he has no comment for reporters who've begun to inquire about Joseph's hunger strike.

So Joseph's sent to Jim Reid, the associate head coach and defensive coordinator. What will he do, Joseph wonders, if Reid lays down an ultimatum: Give up the hunger strike or give up your football jersey. Will he have the strength of one of his heroes, Muhammad Ali, who walked away from his world heavyweight crown and boxing career for three years rather than accept induction into the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War? Joseph loves Reid, considers him genuine, fair and interested in his players as more than athletes. Didn't Reid invite Joseph to sleep in his office during team meetings in the fall of 2010 when the kid's father was dying in Washington, D.C., and all the traveling back and forth to the hospital, piled on top of his other commitments, pushed Joseph past the brink of exhaustion? Didn't Reid once tell Joseph that he could envision him becoming the president of the U.S. or a Supreme Court justice? But now....

"You can be in sympathy with a cause, but some people shouldn't be doing this," Reid tells him. "You have to be responsible to your rehabbing and to your health. I'm a little disappointed that the people you're with, they're not aware you're at greater risk than they are."

Joseph's mind spins. Greater risk? He's an athlete, for crying out loud—he's the only hunger striker whose blood pressure isn't plummeting! What should he do? Turn and lock his coach's office door, the way Edwards did 51 years ago when his moment of truth came with San Jose State track coach Bud Winter? Glaring down at Winter—Edwards was a 6'8", 225-pound nationally ranked discus thrower—he demanded humane treatment of black athletes who were being flown in from as far as Philadelphia for track tryouts and given no money for lodging or transportation home if they were cut, leaving some to sleep in the team's equipment shed.

Coach Reid's not finished. "There's a way to precipitate change," he continues. "It happens through political solutions, and you work within a certain set of rules. You prepare and convince people, you prepare hard, you work hard, you win—just like football!" And one more thing. Reid doesn't want this hunger strike being linked on the news with the Virginia football program.

Joseph blinks. Should he come right back at his coach the way Bill Walton did 40 years ago on the car ride home from jail when John Wooden—furious that he had to bail out Walton after his center had been arrested for helping take over a campus building during an anti--Vietnam War protest—reprimanded the redhead for working "outside the rules" instead of expressing his beliefs in a letter? "But, Coach, my friends are coming home in body bags and wheelchairs!" Walton fired back, then called Wooden's bluff by marching into his office and using stationery with Wooden's photo on the top to write a letter to President Richard Nixon demanding that he resign and getting all his teammates to sign it.

But Walton had just been named NCAA Player of the Year and led UCLA to a 30--0 record and a national title, and Edwards was so dominant an athlete that the San Jose State basketball coach simply picked up his full athletic scholarship and made him his starting center when Winter threw him off the track team. Joseph has one career tackle ... if you count the Orange-Blue spring game.

He swallows his anger, says little and nods farewell to his coach.

Joseph has learned the hard way—in cop cars, in handcuffs, in courtrooms, in a fluorescent jump suit, in a juvenile detention center—to follow his mother's advice: Watch that hole beneath your nose! But he feels as if his loyalty to the football program and UVA are being questioned, and, wait a minute, are those loyalties supposed to be larger than his loyalty to the human race? No, he can't wait a minute, can't wait till he gets home to respond to his coach. He flips open his laptop on a stool in front of his locker, takes a deep breath and summons every bit of his UVA education to compose his reply.

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