McMaster University athletics has clear culture of systemic anti-Black racism: report

A report reviewing Black students' experiences in the athletics department of McMaster University's in Hamilton shows 'a culture of systemic anti-Black racism has existed and continues to exist.'

Review reveals 'extremely concerning experiences' from student-athletes at the Hamilton university

Black student-athletes at McMaster University in Hamilton described racist experiences during a review of the school's athletics department. (Bobby Hristova/CBC)

A report reviewing Black students' experiences in McMaster University's athletics department has found "a culture of systemic anti-Black racism has existed and continues to exist."

The newly released report said the review "revealed extremely concerning experiences" from student-athletes at the Hamilton university.

"This culture has been harmful and traumatizing to current and former Black student-athletes, many of whom continue to struggle with the impact of their experience long after graduation, including through reports of long-term mental health impacts," the report said.

The review comes after John Williams, a former Hamilton Tiger-Cats player, and Fabion Foote, a defensive lineman with the Toronto Argonauts and a former football player at the university, shared their experiences of racism within the department on social media.

Students share experiences of racism

The review included students who attended as early as 2010 and group interviews with current and former Black student athletes. Other student athletes and staff, including coaches and administrators, were also interviewed. 

Examples of racism noted in the report included a "jail-break" themed party where "white players dressed up as 'criminals' with cornrow braids in their hair," and racial slurs and derogatory comments directed at Black athletes.  

"My coach once called me King Kong or Donkey Kong. I kind of laughed it off because I didn't know how to react, but when I got home, I cried about it because I felt like an animal. It hurt a lot because I felt weak, and I felt like I couldn't do anything about it because this is my coach. This is the person that determines whether or not I play," read a participant's comment.

More examples include involvement with police. In one instance, administration allowed police access to a student-athlete for a crime investigation the student-athlete wasn't linked to, the report said.

Another instance includes campus security staff breaking up a pick-up basketball game organized by an NBA star after the team asked for 20 minutes of extra court time.

Black-student athletes added they didn't get the same quality treatment or opportunities as white athletes. They also emphasized an absence of mental health supports aimed at Black student-athletes and the issues they face.

Seventy per cent of the 72 people who participated in the review were current students or staff.

The task force overseeing the review included:

  • Lead researcher Dr. Ivan Joseph, vice-president of student affairs at Wilfrid Laurier University.
  • Task force chair Dr. Bonny Ibhawoh, director of the school's centre for human rights and restorative justice.
  • Aaron Parry, a McMaster student and member of Black Students Association
  • Faith Ogunkoya, vice-chair of the President's Advisory Committee on Building an Inclusive Community and the team lead at Student Services in the registrar's office.
  • Marlice Simon, an administrative research co-ordinator at McMaster and part of the school's African Caribbean Faculty Association.

Athletes 'harmed and traumatized'

The report says the department's culture has "harmed and traumatized" student-athletes.

"This culture is evident in explicit and implicit examples of anti-Black racism. It is also evident in a widespread lack of awareness, education, understanding, empathy and of an all-important systemic view of issues related to race and inclusivity that impact the experience of Black student-athletes."

"And, while systemic anti-Black racism is an endemic problem in McMaster's Athletics Department, there seems to have been very little done to change the culture, and many missed opportunities and refusals to address it as this culture still exists today."

Some of the primary gaps include:

  • A lack of leadership focused on creating an inclusive culture.
  • A lack of representation, understanding and awareness.
  • A lack of engagement around issues of racial equity.
  • A lack of supports and recruitment for Black student-athletes.
  • A lack of intentional anti-racism programming, training and education.
  • A lack of proactive policies, procedures and systems.

School president apologizes

Staff and coaches in the report acknowledged more needs to be done.

President David Farrar issued an apology in a letter to students.

"On behalf of the University I apologize for the anti-Black racism you experienced. I am deeply sorry that effective action was not taken to prevent this; there are no excuses for the behaviour you endured," his note said.

"I assure you that we are listening and that action is already being taken to implement the report's recommendations and to begin the work with the Department and the broader university community to help us eliminate systemic racism."

McMaster has five-point plan to address issues

The school has an action plan to address the issues.

The pillars of the plan include:

  1. Increasing representation through talent development and hiring processes.
  2. Creating a culture of accountability through updating policies and forming a Black Student-Athlete Council.
  3. Establishing targeted supports and scholarships by creating a Black Student Services Advisor role and providing them an office.
  4. Implementing advocacy roles and mechanisms.
  5. Fostering and supporting training and education.
For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.
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