Matthew Mayhew is sorry. Very, very sorry.
“I am sorry for the hurt, sadness, frustration, fatigue, exhaustion and pain this article has caused anyone, but specifically Black students in the higher education community and beyond,” writes the Ohio State University professor. “I am struggling to find the words to communicate the deep ache for the damage I have done.”
Yet finds them he does—in a lengthy article for Inside Higher Ed so hyperbolic and servile in tone that it verges on parody. Indeed, I emailed the professor to confirm that his apology was sincere; he did not respond to a request for comment. Perhaps he is busy with the “long process of antiracist learning” that he has pledged to undertake.
“I am designing a plan for change, for turning the ‘I am sorry’ to ‘I will change’—for moving Black Lives Matter from a motto to a pathway from ignorance and toward authentic advocacy,” Mayhew writes. “To do this, a colleague of mine asked me to center the question: What can I do to unlearn patterns that hurt and harm Black communities and other communities of color? My center is as a learner, so movement for me will involve unlearning and relearning by listening, reading, dialoguing, reflecting and writing as a means for increasing my awareness and knowledge about systemic racism and the experiences of people of color and people who hold marginalized identities different from my own.”
At this point, you’re probably curious about what crime Mayhew committed. You’re thinking, at the very least, this guy wore a heck of a lot of blackface 30 years ago.
Mayhew’s transgression is this: Last week, he penned an article for Inside Higher Ed titled “Why America Needs College Football.” It made the apparently controversial, venomously hateful, and insidiously racist claim that Football Is Good:
As college campuses attempt to find a new normal suitable for the COVID-19 realities, college athletics, especially college football, have garnered much attention. Debates continue about whether players should be required to play this fall season. Although many people have been outspoken about the financial and health ramifications of allowing—or requiring—players to gear up, few, if any, have addressed the essential role that college football may play toward healing a democracy made more fragile by disease, racial unrest and a contested presidential election cycle.
Essentializing college football might help get us through these uncharacteristically difficult times of great isolation, division and uncertainty. Indeed, college football holds a special bipartisan place in the American heart.
Mayhew’s piece—co-authored with a graduate student named Musbah Shaheen, who has YET TO ATONE as far as I can tell—is too bland and mawkish for my tastes. It’s filled with platitudes about how we may root for different teams, but deep down, blah blah, you get the idea. There’s little in the way of original analysis or research here. Criticizing the piece is perfectly fine.
It’s also true that the college football industry does not always put players first; that black athletes face unique challenges, including in terms of their health, and especially during the COVID-19 pandemic; and that the college athletics industry too often renders education a secondary mission of universities. In light of all that, I would accept Mayhew’s piece as a tad naive, or out of its depths.
But his apology goes well beyond that:
I learned that I could have titled the piece “Why America Needs Black Athletes.” I learned that Black men putting their bodies on the line for my enjoyment is inspired and maintained by my uninformed and disconnected whiteness and, as written in my previous article, positions student athletes as white property. I have learned that I placed the onus of responsibility for democratic healing on Black communities whose very lives are in danger every single day and that this notion of “democratic healing” is especially problematic since the Black community can’t benefit from ideals they can’t access. I have learned that words like “distraction” and “cheer” erase the present painful moments within the nation and especially the Black community.
I am just beginning to understand how I have harmed communities of color with my words. I am learning that my words—my uninformed, careless words—often express an ideology wrought in whiteness and privilege. I am learning that my commitment to diversity has been performative, ignoring the pain the Black community and other communities of color have endured in this country. I am learning that I am not as knowledgeable as I thought I was, not as antiracist that thought I was, not as careful as I thought I was. For all of these, I sincerely apologize.
I know it’s not anyone’s job to forgive me, but I ask for it—another burden of a white person haunted by his ignorance. To consider the possible hurt I have played a role in, the scores of others whose pain I didn’t fully see, aches inside me—a feeling different and deeper than the tears and emotions I’ve experienced being caught in an ignorant racist moment.
And those are just the highlights! Mayhew even thanks three academics who had evidently called him out initially for helping him come to terms with his racism.
“I know they are taking a risk by partnering with me on this pathway,” he writes, sounding very much like Winston Smith after a visit to Room 101. “I know that they are carrying a burden by even taking any time with me. I want to thank them.”
Is this real? Are James Lindsay, Helen Pluckrose, and Peter Boghossian up to their old tricks again? Can a person really be this sorry for… um… liking football?
Mayhew is a real person, according to OSU’s website. I emailed him to confirm that the apology is sincere. “Were you held hostage while you were writing it?” I asked. “Blink twice if this is actually you.” Alas, he did not respond.
On Twitter, New York magazine’s Jonathan Chait notes that such a dramatic public apology is obviously weird and bad. “The obsequious tone of the groveling should be a red flag that there’s something seriously awry with this mode of discussion,” says Chait.
Indeed, I find it odd that Inside Higher Ed‘s editors published it. Maybe they, too, are sorry. So very sorry.