At Inside Higher Ed, a Professor Matthew J. Mayhew of Ohio State University has managed to pen a piece of craven absurdity so perfect in scale and composition that it is difficult to imagine how it might ever be topped. Mayhew’s essay has it all. It possesses the quality of a confession extracted under torture. It contains a generous smattering of the meaningless academic buzzwords that have so adroitly corrupted our universities and our thought. And, most important of all, it clings desperately to the pretense that one can meaningfully describe “being told what to think by a mob on pain of being canceled” as “learning.” Mayhew is the writer of our age. His is a tale of grievous sin, of newfound scholarship, and, ultimately, of redemption. In his range, he is almost biblical.
Mayhew’s mistake was to argue in public that college football might “help get us through these uncharacteristically difficult times of great isolation, division and uncertainty.” Worse still, it was to contend without any respect for norms that “college football holds a special bipartisan place in the American heart” — especially at school such as Ohio State — and that the return of the game might help Americans remember to “respect” one another. “Football players,” one of Mayhew’s most shocking passages reads, “become beloved community figures beyond the boundaries of the stadium or campus.” Indeed:
Football gives players a platform to make statements about issues they care about. We have seen student athletes taking part in protests and making demands for racial equity. We have seen student athletes kneel to protest police brutality. Colleges and universities should take many more steps to empower athletes to engage with the community. Depriving them the opportunity to play doesn’t accomplish that goal.
It’s egregious stuff.
The good news is that Mayhew now sees what an absolute fool he was for thinking that the return of college football might be welcome in Ohio, where “everyone is a Buckeye.” Where once he clung hatefully to idea that college football highlights the “community values that underscore higher education and by extension America itself,” he now understands that this “was uninformed, ignorant and harm inducing.” Before having been “educated” in the matter, he happily spewed bile about the “role that college football may play toward healing a democracy made more fragile by disease, racial unrest and a contested presidential election cycle”; now, in the midst of new learning, he acknowledges that he must say “sorry for the hurt, sadness, frustration, fatigue, exhaustion and pain” such ideas inevitably cause.
Mayhew himself seems to be experiencing physical pain as a punishment for his perfidy. He has, he says, a “deep ache” — the product of the “damage” he has done. And why wouldn’t he, given that his viewpoint on the utility of college football at Ohio State was the product of “uninformed and disconnected whiteness,” which “positions student athletes as white property,” places “the onus of responsibility for democratic healing on Black communities whose very lives are in danger every single day,” and asks “the Black community” to “benefit from ideals they can’t access”? As Mayhew explains, by suggesting that people of all races and political persuasions enjoy college football, he had aggressively failed to comprehend that he had “harmed communities of color” with his “uninformed, careless words” — words that served only to “express an ideology wrought in whiteness and privilege.” For those who doubt that Americans can change, consider that before his education, Mayhew was under the impression that Americans at Ohio State and beyond enjoyed watching Ohio State play football, and that they would continue to do in the future, but that afterwards he is aware that his “commitment to diversity has been performative.” Absent our network of universities, this is a trap that any one of us might have fallen into.
Understandably, Mayhew seems unsure as to how he can continue on in the world of academia after having done something as genuinely appalling as to write on the Internet that Americans enjoy football and would probably benefit from its return. He “hates” that his “students have to carry my ignorant racist energy with them at all times.” He is worried that he has ruined the future of his similarly disconnected friend, Musbah Shaheen, who wrote the piece with him. And he is sorry that, by begging them to tell him what to think about all topics and praising them as keepers of the correct opinions, he has potentially damaged the reputations of such beloved and crucial academic luminaries as Gilman Whiting.
But Mayhew is brave, and he is not going to give up. On the contrary: His mistake has instilled in him a determination to engage in a long and arduous process of “antiracist learning.” He is “designing a plan for change.” He is “moving Black Lives Matter from a motto to a pathway from ignorance and toward authentic advocacy.” And, most vitally of all, he intends to “center the question: What can I do to unlearn patterns that hurt and harm Black communities and other communities of color?” This is obviously the key inquiry, and, given the depravity of Mayhew’s past, some readers will be forgiven for worrying that he will not be up to answering it. But they can relax. As it turns out, Mayhew’s “center is as a learner,” which, as he confirms, means that “movement for me will involve unlearning and relearning by listening, reading, dialoguing, reflecting and writing as a means for increasing my awareness and knowledge.”
Those who are aghast at what Mayhew did should stop to recognize just how lucky he has been in the long run. Not everyone’s “center is as a learner,” as his is; not everyone can “unlearn and relearn” by “listening, reading, dialoguing, reflecting and writing”; and, of course, not everyone can recruit to his side a set of minds as notoriously dazzling as those belonging to Donna Ford, Joy Gaston Gayles (yes, that’s the Joy Gaston Gayles), and Gilman Whiting. Mayhew is a fortunate man, indeed. We must hope that the new America is populated by men of his character and fortitude, rather than by the rest of us here on Planet Earth, who have never read anything so stupid in our entire lives.