Updated: Vigorous athletics program clashes with activist culture at Guilford College

by Jordan Green

The progressive reputation of Guilford College reaches back before the Civil War, when the campus served as a station on the Underground Railroad where blacks fleeing slavery were given aid and shelter, and later as a center of resistance to the conscription efforts of the Confederate Army.

More recently, the college received publicity last year when a Quaker peace activist with ties to the college named Tom Fox was killed in Iraq. Students and faculty have periodically protested the war there, and members of the Christian Peacemaker Teams, to which Fox belonged, have visited campus to report on efforts to bring peace to Iraq and Palestine.

The alleged assault on three Palestinian students in the early morning hours of Jan. 20, in which members of the college’s football team are reported to have beaten the victims with bricks, brass knuckles, punches and kicks while yelling ethnic slurs, has revealed a fault line of tension between student-athletes and more activist-oriented members of the student body. The incident also revealed to many of those more familiar with the college’s activist legacy that Guilford College has a vigorous athletics program.

The Guilford website takes pains to note that “Fighting Quakers” is not the official nickname of the college’s athletic teams while mentioning that Greensboro’s namesake, General Nathanael Greene, was sometimes called the “fighting Quaker” by George Washington.

Notwithstanding the college’s disavowal of violent sports imagery, five members of the football team are charged with assault and battery, and with ethnic intimidation – including Chris Barnette, the recipient of a 2005 All-American honor.

Barnette, a senior wide receiver from Semora, NC, scored nine touchdowns in the 2006 season and was named the Old Dominion Athletic Conference’s offensive player of the month in November. The football team recently completed its second winning season in a row under head coach Kevin Kiesel, who has had his job for as many years. It was the team’s first set of consecutive winning seasons since 1990 and 1991.

The college has undertaken a multimillion-dollar renovation project for its Armfield Athletics Center, where the football and lacrosse teams play, that includes the addition of a new press box, stadium seating and a multi-function scoreboard. Still to come are new field lights and new field turf. Randy Doss, vice president for enrollment and campus life, noted in a Jan. 27 interview that those improvements, begun in late 2004, came after the renovation of two classroom buildings, and the construction of the Frank Family Science Center and new student apartments.

Much of the funding for the Armfield Athletics Center has come from the textile fortune of the family that is its namesake. William J. Armfield IV, the Armfield Foundation and a group of anonymous donors put forward $1.15 million for the renovation of the athletics center in 2005, according to the college, whose website also states that “the Armfield family has supported Guilford athletics – particularly the football program – for more than 100 years.”

William J. Armfield IV was the president of Macfield, a textile company based in Madison, NC, from the time of its incorporation in 1970 to 1991, when it merged with Greensboro-based Unifi, a major producer of textured polyester and nylon. His family’s involvement with Guilford’s football program dates back to the late 1880s when his great-grandfather William Armfield played on the college’s first team.

The college’s drive to improve athletic facilities has coincided with a perception among some that the level of violence on campus is on the rise.

In a Jan. 24 e-mail to YES! Weekly, Kendal Van Doren of Gainesville, Fla. wrote that freshmen football players helped her daughter move into her dorm at Guilford. Van Doren added that her daughter was friendly with two of the Palestinian students who were allegedly assaulted. At the end of the semester, the first-year student transferred to the University of Florida.

“Guilford pushed their Quaker values, non-violent views, etc. on us when we visited and I guess we fell into that trap,” Van Doren wrote. “The school has become a school that is concerned about money and a better sports program.

“What a shame – or should I say sham,” added Van Doren, who is an administrative assistant for development at the University of Florida Foundation, “that Guilford puts this peaceful, community-oriented, non-violent front out there when that is not the case at all.”

Kyle West, a junior from Maine spoke of a general sense of insecurity on campus and a shortfall of community spiritedness to counteract it during a gathering in front of the Founder’s Hall after students walked out of classes on Jan. 25 to protest the alleged assault.

“For three and a half years I have not seen community here,” he said. “We’ve had women beaten in the bathroom. We’ve had forty cars broken into…. Why aren’t we what the nation seems to see us as – the most socially conscious school in the nation? We’re all political activists, but not here, not enough.”

Nic Brown, a spokesman for the college, said the fight on Jan. 20 should be seen as an isolated incident.

“I don’t think we hoodwinked the nation by falsely presenting ourselves as having a strong social conscience,” he said. “I think it’s the truth. I think this incident, which is a tragic incident, stands in contrast to our core values. “Guilford’s proud of its tradition of social justice and its core values, which include justice, equality, diversity and integrity,” he continued. “We’re proud that Guilford was an Underground Railroad stop. We’re proud that we’re among the handful of colleges that were the first in the nation to become coed. We’re also very upset about this incident and hope that it gives us a chance to reaffirm the core values.”

Doss, the vice president for enrollment and campus life, said the notion that Guilford College focuses on athletics to the detriment of other facets of campus life is misplaced. Academics is the college’s first priority, he said, but donations from alumni or private foundations for any project that fits into college’s plans – whether it be the terrace outside Founders Hall or the athletics center - are welcome.

“We’ve heard from no one from alumni who say they don’t support the institution [because of recent violence],” he said. “Mature individuals understand that there is an investigative process. The key is communication. We’ve tried to communicate all we can through the website. We sent an e-mail out to alumni.”

Brown said he believes the divide between athletes, who make up about a quarter of the student body, and those who do not participate in intercollegiate sports may not be as pronounced as it might appear from afar.

“We have socially-conscious students who are also athletes,” he said. “There is sometimes a divide. It is not a clean divide. Guilford is very proud that many of our students defy stereotypes.”

A campus culture of respect for differences was on display during the walkout as TJ Beroth of Pilot Mountain addressed fellow students.

“I am a senior and a football player at Guilford College,” he said, as cheers erupted. “I’m proud to say that. I hope that does not drive us apart.

“It tore my heart apart to hear that these people who I have worked with would do something like this,” he added. “We have to be a community of love. We all have made mistakes. We all have fallen short. We all have sinned…. As a football player, it shames me. I hope it is not taken as hatred of a group, but hatred of an act.”

Vernie Davis, a professor of anthropology and director of the college’s Conflict Resolution Resource Center, said the tensions within Guilford’s student body are complex.

“It’s like the issues of division by race, by religion, by ethnicity and nationality,” he said. “It’s the same thing. That comes to us from outside of here. Athletes are frequently treated different before they even come to college, when they’re in high school, aren’t they?”

Wearing a crimson armband, Davis was one of a few faculty members who stood with students during the walkout on Jan. 25. The action took place at a time when he would normally be holding his Introduction to Peace and Conflict Studies class. Davis said his students informed him in advance that they would be deserting his class, and he took it as an invitation to join them.

He was proud of the way student organizers addressed the situation.

“Part of it is to really love someone, is to say that some things are not okay, and we can love you and embrace you while we hold you accountable,” Davis said. “If we really love them, we don’t have to stand by and watch them do something harmful.”

The college acknowledged what it calls “hard feelings” between the two groups in an update posted on its website on Jan. 26, and committed to “taking steps to unite” them, including involving student athletes in campus activities more often, and encouraging the rest of the student body to attend athletic events.

Meeting on Jan. 25 with students who expressed dissatisfaction with the college’s treatment of the Palestinian students involved, President Kent Chabotar assured them that Guilford was taking steps to integrate the two groups.

“There were two admission tours until the fall of 2005: one for athletes and one for non-athletes,” the president told the students. “Everybody takes the same admission tour now. That’s not easy to enforce.”

Doss gave a conflicting account in an interview two days later. He said the college has a limited number of prearranged tours, and if a prospective student shows up at another time the college must improvise with whatever staff is available.

“Every time somebody’s able to make a prearranged tour, it’s the same tour,” he said. “If someone comes in at a time when there isn’t a prearranged tour, sometimes the coach has to do that. What everybody’s referring to is how can we better do it on Sunday at two o’clock or Friday at four? How can we make that tour as beneficial as possible? As far as separate tours, that is not the case; it never has been the case.”

Doss said in the past athletes whose sports take place in the fall received less orientation that other students.

“Fall athletes – football, men’s and women’s soccer, cross country, volleyball – for years really did not have orientation because they were already in practice,” he said. “This year, 2006, for the first time we did have an orientation. We had a video from the director of campus ministry on Quakerism. We had speakers discussing Quaker values. We had a diversity discussion. We had study skills, time management. We have taken a big, big step. This year we did a much better job, and we’ll do better in the future.”

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