Professor of Higher Education and Student Affairs at Ohio State University Matthew Mayhew apologized after writing a column called "Why America Needs College Football. Mayhew argued that the return of college football could bring the country through "unusually difficult times of great isolation, division and insecurity". That didn't go well with some at university, and Mayhew posted Why America Needs College Football – Part 2 asking for forgiveness for the damage it had done. The column and its denominational follow-up are troubling to many scholars in the current debate about free speech on campus. It is entirely appropriate and commendable for an academic to reconsider his views and withdraw those he now deems to be racist or insensitive. Withdrawing such views as inherently harmful, however, raises questions about the realm of acceptable language today. There are clearly good reasons to support the return of college football and good reasons to oppose it. The question is whether it is unacceptable for a professor or university student to express the former. Despite being a sports fan, I am concerned about the return of college football during the pandemic. I have welcomed the publication of the first column as the beginning of a possible (and necessary) debate on the issue and the underlying economic, social, racial and academic issues.
In the original column, Mayhew and graduate Musbah Shaheed wrote:
This election season has shown how stifled, polarized, and dangerous our political differences have become, and college football can remind us of respect – even after deep differences of opinion. We can put down roots for different teams, yell at the players, argue with the referees and question the coaches, but win or lose, at the end of the day we leave the stadium, watch the party or the tailgate with a sense of respect for the game and the athletes who train so hard and leave everything on the field every time. When a player is injured, the entire stadium usually applauds, not just the fans of a team.
Many have found the return of soccer and baseball to be a great emotional boast during this long isolation. However, the column apparently sparked the backlash and Mayhew's apology for it "I was wrong. And worse, I was ignorant, ignorant and harmful."
I struggle to find the words to communicate the deep pain for the damage I've done. At no point do I want to write anything that further deepens the pain of my ignorance about black male athletes and the black community, especially in the face of national racial unrest. Also, I don't want to write anything that suggests anti-racist learning is quick or easy. This is the beginning of a very long process that began with learning the empirical work related to college black football athletes.
Mayhew then thanks academics Donna Ford, Joy Gaston Gayles, and Gilman Whiting for "their willingness" to work with him on these topics and his education.
There are very compelling arguments against resuming college football during the pandemic. This includes concerns that the college environment lends itself to riskier or less compliant behavior. Indeed, Mayhew and Shaheed stressed that they will only support returning to the season if it is done safely:
To be clear, we are not suggesting that athletes put their lives or health at risk for entertainment reasons: players, coaches and fans should strictly adhere to safety guidelines. And to be clear, we honestly hated writing this piece. As experts in higher education, we regularly review and criticize colleges and universities for putting too much emphasis on athletics, and it pains us to admit that college football could play a major role in the political theater of American life.
As an academic, I am concerned about the inherent conflict in schools that precludes group meetings and events while allowing football games and practice. I am also concerned about whether these students will come under pressure to participate or forfeit their scholarships or achievements if they fail to do so. There are also compelling arguments that the risks can be addressed, as Major League Baseball and National Football League have done. However, academics should be free to write on either side. A professor might view the football season as something that is of great value to society at this time and that is also safe to do. This view should not be "harmful" even if others disagree.
From the point of view of freedom of speech, the characterization of such a column as harmful is important. In particular, the second column was only authored by Mayhew, which placed student Musbah Shaheed in a difficult, if not precarious, position not to withdraw a column that Mayhew now says is harmful. As someone who might want to apprentice, there is an apparent concern that given the position of his co-author, this could be used against him in finding positions. Many colleges and universities have restricted freedom of speech or excluded controversial speakers by claiming that opposing views are detrimental to some students or faculties. The greater harm is the deterrent effect on language and the increasing intolerance of opposing views.