Black Brains Matter

Well, the rock is away. As of this morning the Chamberlin Rock has been hauled off the UW campus to a disclosed location that nobody will be able to find. So, can we get on to something serious now?

For those of you who have had better things to do, the quick story goes like this. For a century or more this huge boulder sat on the side of a hill overlooking Lake Mendota. It was named the Chamberlin Rock to honor a famed geologist and UW president. Then a few years back somebody discovered that it had once been referred to (and I mean literally one time) by a racially offensive term. That one reference goes back to a 1925 newspaper article and, until someone stumbled upon it, it had long been forgotten.

No matter. Controversy ensued. Demands were made. And now, at a cost of tens of thousands of dollars, the rock has been carted off. This made little sense for at least three reasons. The first is that the money would have been better spent on scholarships or other support for Black students.

The second is that, when something is found offensive, we usually just change the name. So, the Cleveland Indians will become the the Guardians, invoking insurance agents, I guess. And the Washington Redskins will become… are they ever going to rename that team? My vote goes to the Washington Swamps, but that’s just me. Of course in this case there was nothing offensive (that anyone has discovered yet) about Thomas Crowder Chamberlin. But the rock could have been renamed for a revered Black professor. That would have saved some money and turned a negative into a positive.

That brings me to my third, and most important, reason that this all made so little sense. Less than a mile away the football Badgers are preparing for their season. As they practice, players are routinely and literally butting heads. Long-term brain trauma is rampant in the sport. And most of the trouble won’t show up for years or even decades, long after their playing days are over and long after players can get any help with medical bills from their college programs.

Moreover, Black players are over-represented on teams and Black fans are under-represented in the stands. College football, especially in Madison, is enjoyed disproportionately by a white, affluent audience. And, as ticket prices — and required contributions just to be able buy season tickets — rise the fans in the stands are only becoming more well-to-do.

To make this all so much worse, all the players, no matter their race, are being exploited. College football is a money machine, producing billions of dollars for coaches, staff, administrators, TV network executives, shoe and apparel companies and on and on. Yet, the players can’t take a dime. They can, as of July 1st, get some money for hawking various products, but that will be limited to the stars. The vast majority of players won’t get those opportunities. They need to be paid a real wage for the vast fortunes they produce for everybody else. Even conservative Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh is open to that argument, inviting a suit that might get us there in his written opinion on a case that struck down some NCAA restrictions on what college athletes can get in the way of expenses.

And, yet, in this activist town, where are the protests about this very real exploitation? Why was all that energy expended on moving a rock, when on the very same campus young Black men are being very clearly taken advantage of while they risk serous, life-altering injuries?

Welcome to the 170th day of consecutive posts here at YSDA. Thanks for reading!


Published by dave cieslewicz

Madison/Upper Peninsula based writer. Mayor of Madison, WI from 2003 to 2011.

One thought on “Black Brains Matter

  1. A great essay, Dave. It speaks to the woke quality of both the hard left and the hard right (to the extent that being GOP insane has its own level of alt-right wokeness) whereby symbolism and empty acts and rhetoric take precedence over actually taking actions that will create a real and lasting intended benefit. So, the rock is removed and hidden, and the social justice warriors can return to their cubicles feeling smug and satisfied. And yet, as you point out, the massive financial resources that surround college football might never be dedicated to education, and post-college planning (including financial and retirement planning) for POC athletes. Just as so much alt-left wokeness (defund the police) and alt right wokeness (racist, religious gun-toting paranoia) do nothing to sole the problems of community violence and justice, so too do these symbolic efforts to hide a rock do anything the meaningfully help the vast majority of POC families, who want safe neighborhoods, reasonable and fair police protection, good education and opportunities for their kids. The Chamberlain Rock represents the stumbling block that Madison and other cities find themselves in, where rational planning and reason have taken a back seat to symbolic wokeness and extreme positions, on both sides of the aisle.


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