Freshman safety Javon Hagan and freshman defensive lineman Sam McKnight pose for a portrait after practice in the Walter Fieldhouse on Mar 29, 2017.
When Sam McKnight was looking at colleges to attend, his coach at Ginn Academy, an all-boys public school in Cleveland, told him Ohio University was split in terms of race.
“I really didn’t even know about it (Ohio),” McKnight said. “My coach told me it was like 50-50.”
Well, not exactly.
In Spring Semester 2016, 4.87 percent of 38,651 enrolled students were black. Those low numbers are expected, particularly because Ohio is a predominantly white institution (PWI).
But McKnight and other black players on the football team were not concerned about coming to a campus that didn’t have a lot of people who looked like them.
Despite the potential challenges of being a black student-athlete at a predominantly white school, McKnight and others on the team have adjusted well.
“It’s not really different to me,” McKnight said.
Javon Hagan, a native of Jacksonville, Florida, wasn’t worried about going to college in Athens, a markedly less diverse area than his hometown.
He was just focused on playing football for Ohio and receiving a good education. He didn’t want to dwell on the lack of diversity in town. And as a noticeable figure, he didn’t want to worry about the parties or bars on Court Street, either.
A member of Omega Psi Phi, a predominantly black fraternity on campus, Hagan has good distractions around him: his fraternity, and most importantly, his football team.
“On weekends, I’m never here in Athens,” Hagan said. “I just leave. I either go to Columbus or go to Cleveland with my fraternity brothers.”
Though Hagan has obligations outside of playing football, his place on the team is important. The Bobcats are more diverse than the university. Despite the low number of black students on campus, black players on the team aren’t uncomfortable, nor is anyone else on the team, for that matter.
Because for the most part, players on the team hang out with one another.
“Rarely unless they’re in class, they’re pretty much with their team,” wide receivers coach Dwayne Dixon said. “And which their team is pretty diverse.”
With the team’s diversity, the players aren’t shocked. When the players are with their teammates, they feel comfortable, their race not being noticed.
One way the Bobcats have eased the transition for all players — not just black players or other players of color — is by creating a unity council. Each position group selects two players to act as leaders. The leaders help new players adjust and tell them the team’s core values and expectations. The unity council helps the team maintain its cohesiveness.
As the unity council helps keep the team together, Ohio also focuses on making recruits feel welcome. The Bobcats haven’t struggled to persuade black players to come to a school that isn’t as diverse as some of their hometowns.
“The guys who want to have success, you go where you can have success and got a chance to get on the field,” Dixon said.
When Ohio was recruiting freshman wide receiver Cameron Odom, Odom wasn’t concerned about the school’s lack of diversity. He felt like he belonged.
“We all treat each other like we’re the same color,” Odom said. “We’re brothers, so you never get any of that diversity mix within the team.”
Though players like Odom and Hagan enjoy the unity of their team, life on campus is different.
Sure, the football players can be together on campus, too, but at some point, even teammates have to break away from each other. That’s why Hagan is never here on weekends. If he stays, he could be distracted, potentially succumbing to the party culture.
He doesn’t want to have to deal with drunken people on Court Street.
“You never know what could happen if someone was to just throw up on you or something like that,” Hagan said. “You never know how you would react.”
As a football player, he knows that people pay more attention to him and others on the team. Skin color does not matter in situations where a football player is out on a Saturday night.
They aren’t regular college students. Most regular college students can drink whenever and not receive criticism. But athletes are criticized if they drink at all.
“If I’m, like, out somewhere at a party, I can’t be acting crazy and everything,” defensive lineman Keith Key said. “I can’t be acting crazy in public because everybody knows ‘oh, that’s a football player.’ ”
Key is a member of Omega Psi Phi as well, and part of his adjustment involves being active in black student organizations.
When he’s not with his team, he’s not trying to indulge in the party culture, either.
“It’s really good to be involved with the black people here because you don’t want to get too involved in the modern culture,” Key said.
The black student organizations on campus are in place so marginalized groups are properly represented. The organizations exist so black people and other minorities have a voice on campus.
Hagan said Omega Psi Phi recently had a women’s appreciation event. The fraternity is also hosting an event April 17 called “Men of Black Excellence,” which will award black men who are succeeding in the classroom.
The adjustment the black players have made isn’t something to ignore, but it’s also not something to dwell on.
Playing football and achieving in the classroom is Hagan’s and others’ main focus. But players like Hagan are also concentrating on not losing focus in a college town that is full of distractions.
Being black only matters to a point.
“You gotta be able to adapt to the circumstances if you want to have success in your life,” Dixon said. “Everything is not going to be the way you always thought it would be.”