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UNC women’s basketball players are entitled — and that’s a good thing

Instead of bemoaning Sylvia Hatchell’s resignation, admire the actions of the UNC student-athletes. Tar Heel women’s basketball players’ willingness to stand up for themselves contributes to long-needed changes in the culture of sports.

While Sylvia Hatchell led UNC to triumphs during her 33-year tenure, her treatment of players required that she resign.
Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

Last week, Sylvia Hatchell resigned as head coach of the University of North Carolina’s women’s basketball program, a position she had held for 33 years. Her decision followed an approximately month-long investigation into instances of insensitive conduct, including use of racist language and demands that injured athletes play.

As detailed by the Washington Post, players and their parents alleged that Hatchell:

... made a series of racially offensive remarks — including one suggesting her players would get ‘hanged from trees with nooses’ at an upcoming game if their performance didn’t improve — and that she tried to force players to compete through serious injuries.

The Post also reported:

Hatchell also has been accused of trying to get her players to engage in a ‘war chant’ to ‘honor’ the Native American ancestry of an assistant coach.

For some, the apparent player-parent coup is an insult to Carolina Blue: Players seem to be overly-sensitive Millennials, failing to appreciate the hard-won legacy of Hatchell; they are unwilling to sweat, sacrifice and suffer to achieve success.

They are entitled.

Yes, they are. As they should be.

Re-imagining entitlement can make a better college sports culture

Sociologist Aimee Meredith Cox re-theorizes entitlement as “an empowered statement that disputes the idea that only certain people are worthy of the rights of citizenship and the ability to direct the course of their lives.”

In her 2015 book Shapeshifters, Cox studied the experiences of black girls at a Detroit homeless shelter, appreciating the intelligence and awareness of young women who, more often than not, are cast as adrift and undeserving. She recognizes that these young black girls realize they cannot “rely on socially determined assessments to define their self-worth.”

Importantly, Cox frames their actions as admirable. She celebrates black girls’ willingness to defy social scripts and prioritize their well-being.

She, thus, encourages readers to understand entitlement not as a pejorative, but as a positive.

Similarly, the actions of student-athletes at UNC should be celebrated. These young women refused to suffer indignities abetted by the traditional hierarchy of college sports. They instead claimed their entitlements, choosing to “define their self-worth” and “direct the course of their lives.”

Unsurprisingly, Chiney Ogwumike gets it

In a recent interview on ESPN’s Golic and Wingo, Chiney Ogwumike validated the entitled actions of the Tar Heels. She also called on coaches to embrace a new generation of players willing to hold them to different, higher standards.

As Ogwumike put it:

The game has changed and coaches have to adapt to that change.

Articulating the mindset of today’s student-athlete, she stated:

We’re not here to just be serviceable engines to your program. We are human beings as well.

Hatchell’s racially insensitive comments signal a lack of respect

Hatchell, however, did not always seem to see her players as human beings.

While she certainly should be condemned for her racist comments, her words are the ugly extension of a deeper failure to recognize and respect the humanity of her players.

It doesn’t matter if Hatchell’s body contains only non-racist bones — an imaginary evaluation that (I guess?) could allow her to re-assume control over the Carolina program.

Rather, her actions reflect an outmoded imitation of what a coach has been imagined to be — the absolute authority who is empowered to treat players harshly in order to teach them the “hard truths” needed to win titles.

Hatchell, it should be noted, is not the only one clinging to this older system of authority.

For Geno Auriemma, entitlement only is the right of coaches

Prior to this year’s Final Four, Geno Auriemma suggested:

The majority of coaches in America are afraid of their players. The NCAA, the athletic directors and society has made them afraid of their players. Every article you read: ‘This guy’s a bully. This woman’s a bully. This guy went over the line. This woman was inappropriate.’

Auriemma continued:

Yet the players get off scot-free in everything. They can do whatever they want. They don’t like something you say to them, they transfer. Coaches, they have to coach with one hand behind their back. Why? Because some people have abused the role of a coach.

His fellow Final Four coaches offered more measured, modernized responses.

Nonetheless, Auriemma’s sense of regret, while not nearly as problematic as Hatchell’s behavior, is an expression of a similar worldview. Coaching requires disciplining players. Coaching requires making players uncomfortable. Coaching requires the freedom to act without fear of consequence.

For Auriemma, only coaches can be entitled.

This viewpoint should not be valorized. It finally should be understood as an unfortunate remnant of athletics’ darker past.

Sports no longer should be used as form of social control

Sports long were used as part of a system of subjugation.

The settler colonialism of white Americans was aided by athletics. Beginning in the late 1800s, the American government condoned the relocation of young Native Americans to industrial schools, where sports were part of an Americanization process that sought to extinguish Native youth of their cultural heritages. In the Caribbean, the British Empire also used sports to create perfect colonial subjects, attempting to inculcate the black and brown young men of Jamaica, Trinidad and other islands with appropriately British values through the game of cricket.

The belief that coaching contemporary college basketball demands “tough-love” tactics is a re-formulation of this ideology, envisioning sport an institution of social control where a figure of authority instructs an appreciation of discipline into a presumably undisciplined group of often younger (and darker) subjects.

In the 21st century, sports should abandon this mentality.

UNC’s women’s basketball players show the progressive power of sports

The entitled demands of the Tar Heels are part of this needed process.

Like many athletes before them, UNC’s student-athletes are taking advantage of the duality of sports. Social control can become social empowerment.

At the 1912 Olympic Games, Jim Thorpe established himself as one of America’s greatest athletes, representing the United States through the body of a Native American man. In the Caribbean, brown and black men would claim the sport of cricket, introducing new styles of play that had ramifications beyond the boundary of the pitch.

The student-athletes at UNC again are tapping into sports’ progressive power, accessing athletics as a space of self-determination.

Rearranging the coach-athlete relationship in order to require equability and understanding should not inspire exasperated sighs for the way it was “back in my day,” but excitement about a better future. The ability of college athletes to call for a coach that always and fully respects their humanity should be celebrated as a positive development, including by the NCAA.

Entitled athletes fulfill the stated priorities of the NCAA

The NCAA proudly promotes participation in collegiate sports as endowing student-athletes with skills that transcend the court, field or track. If this is the case, the NCAA should applaud the demands of the Tar Heels and the decision of UNC.

In particular, Tar Heel women’s basketball players are demonstrating the determined and disruptive attitudes needed to succeed in the contemporary late-capitalist economy.

Economic success no longer requires daily donning a gray flannel suit and forever remaining in a single career. It, instead, involves a willingness to make one’s own way in an increasingly precarious, ever-changing economy.

Coaches that cultivate confidence and creativity, rather than demand deference, best situate their student-athletes for success, especially those that are “going pro in something other than sports.”

So, let’s hope UNC hires a coach who honors and encourages the entitled rights of her athletes.