Burlington native and former CFL running back John Williams has written an open letter in support of current Toronto Argos defensive lineman Fabion Foote regarding his allegations of systemic racism suffered while playing at McMaster University.
First and foremost I want to say that I stand with my brother Fabion Foote and commend him for his brave and strong voice. This young man has taken a stand and has chosen to speak out about his experience as a young black athlete on a predominantly white campus by highlighting the dismissiveness he and other black athletes were shown by McMaster Athletics.
As a former black student athlete, a former Grey Cup Champion, and an ex-employee of McMaster University, I can no longer stand by and listen to McMaster athletics go to enormous lengths to ensure that plausible deniability is firmly in place in the form of “thoughts on racism” and “external reviews.” The following passage details the measures McMaster Athletics took to deflect and side track myself from the real issues happening around race within the department.
On March 3, 2017, I met with associate prof Ameil Joseph and Vilma Rossi who was the senior program manager from the office of Equity and Inclusion. During our 60 minute meeting I presented to them a program entitled “EMPOWER.” The initiative was a series of programs created to support BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color) student-athletes while at McMaster University Athletics. At the end of our meeting, Ameil and Vilma communicated to me that many of the black student athletes on the McMaster football team were very upset with how they were being treated and that a program like this was precisely what athletics needed. Former athletic director Glen Grunwald, current Associate Director of Athletics Mark Alfano and current Associate Vice-President and Dean of Students Sean Van Koughnett were all aware of this issue on the football team and had not taken any sustainable action toward helping the situation.
Ameil and Vilma both understanding how important this was, suggested that they send emails to Glen and Sean regarding how my program could assist in helping with the issues on the football team and why they should meet with me ASAP.
Following the meeting I took it upon myself to conduct an independent series of interviews with former Black and Indigenous McMaster athletes to hear from them just what kinds of issues they had to deal with during their time at the school. After speaking with a number of BIPOC athletes I was not shocked to learn of some of the discrimination and lack of support they had faced during their career. And although the sport may have been different, the issues remained the same. One former athlete detailed how a certain post-practice locker room day of the week was entitled “White Boy Wednesdays.” Where only “white music” was allowed to be played. Another athlete spoke about how when the team travelled to Toronto the other white teammates asked them if they were “going to be shot by any of the brothers?” Another Black former female athlete spoke about her feelings of isolation while being on the team and how she felt treated differently by coaches.
On March 28, 2017, Ameil wrote a lengthy email to Glen Grunwald and Sean Van Koughnett detailing his role as the PACBIC Chair (President’s Advisory Committee on Building an Inclusive Community) and how it would be in their extreme best interests to meet with me as I have “the capacity to address problematic issues in a respectful and engaging way while working to build inclusion.” Dr. Joseph also invited me to come speak at the next PACBIC meeting and even went as far as to suggest that I write up a job description for athletics that would show how I could help with some of these racial issues taking place.
On March 31, 2017, I received an email from Glen Grunwald saying that I had been recommended by Ameil and Vilma and asking me to meet him for breakfast at the Wafflehouse.
On April 7, 2017, during a meeting at the Wafflehouse I told Glen that I was very aware of the issues that were happening with the Black athletes on the football team and that as a former pro and college Black athlete, I had faced the same kind of discrimination myself at college, which had all fallen on deaf ears by university administrators. I also communicated to him that I had been speaking with former BIPOC athletes and that they had made it very clear that this was not just a football issue.
Glen seemed open to my suggestions and even asked me to send him a copy of the deck detailing, among other things, a program entitled the Bernie Custis Black Leadership Program. I made it very clear to him that there would be no short term or easy solution to some of Mac Athletics equity issues and that real change takes sustainability, resources, and a long term approach. I was very hopeful that the department was serious about working towards some of these issues.
On April 10, 2017, I received an email from Glen Grunwald saying that he’d like to move forward with the athletics department “gradually” as he was very “cognizant of the limited time, facilities, and budget that our student-athletes, coaches, and staff have available to them.” He then put forward a series of steps, which at the time seemed plausible, but now looking back were just the first of many ways to deflect from the issues at hand. These steps included:
– A presentation to the football team
– A presentation to coaches and staff coordinated by Mark Alfano
– Implementation of the EMPOWER program for BIPOC athletes
On April 11, 2017, I was sent another email from Glen in regards to a screening of my documentary Gridiron Underground. The movie details the racism faced by Black American football players and their eventual progression to the CFL. Glenn suggested that we screen the film for the football team on May 24 at Theatre Aquarius, and though I was skeptical as how this would help the Black athletes at McMaster in the interest of solidarity, I agreed to go along with it.
It wasn’t again until April 30, 2017, that I heard from Glen who wanted to meet in his office with Mark Alfano regarding a number of issues including: the May 24 screening; the opportunity to create a scholarship for Black athletes named after Bernie Custis; me doing a presentation on building a more inclusive community in athletics for Mac coaches and staff; AND the implementation of the EMPOWER program for BIPOC athletes. During that meeting it became clear that Glen and Mark were only interested in showing the documentary and were not committed to implementing any other program or support to combat the real issues that Black athletes were facing. This shifting of focus is typical of individuals looking for a quick fix to issues of equity. During the meeting, I continued to bring the focus back to issues revealed to me during my interviews with Black athletes. I repeatedly communicated my concerns about many of the Black and Indigenous athletes at Mac and suggested how they might be better supported but the conversation was repeatedly deflected and returned to talks about the documentary.
Once again against my better judgement I agreed to do the presentation focusing on racial issues for coaches and staff in hopes that athletics would then agree to implement my support program. In addition to the agreement to screen the documentary, I asked both Glen and Mark to make a commitment to these issues and ensure that this wasn’t just a box that would be checked and then forgotten. This wasn’t going to be a quick fix. Both men assured me that it wasn’t and that it was just the first step in changing the culture in McMaster Athletics.
On March 29, 20I7, I gave a presentation to a poorly attended room of Mac coaches and staff regarding how these coaches and staff could better support Mac athletes of colour and why a full-time program was needed. At the completion of the program not one of the coaches spoke to me regarding the issues I had addressed. There was no follow up regarding my EMPOWER programs from either Glen or Mark. I had yet to hear anything from Sean Van Koughnett.
Sometime after this I received a call from a Mac athletic administrator asking me if I would be interested in speaking with head football coach Greg Knox about a football administrator role. I once again took this as deflecting the true issues happening with the Black students athletes. I took the meeting with Greg Knox who was immediately dismissive regarding some of the issues that had happened with the Black players and even went as far as to say that the true issues revolved around the support being shown for the Black football players by the Coordinator of Athlete Services, Claire Arsenault. Ironically, Claire Arsenault was someone that many ex-Black athletes spoke of as being one of their only supports at Mac.
After this meeting with Greg Knox, I was not contacted again by Glen Grunwald, Mark Alfano, or Sean Van Koughnett regarding my support programs or any of the other suggestions made by Mac Athletics to help combat the systemic racism taking place in the department despite the repeated attempts by myself to contact and follow up with each of them. The evasiveness continued up until September 2018 when myself and then Indigenous Student Services Director, James Lamouche met with Glen in his office to discuss creating a dual role between Indigenous student services and Athletics for Black and Indigenous athletes. Glen once again quickly closed the door on the suggestions citing a lack of finances within athletics.
It was then that I assumed a part time role within Indigenous Student Services running a program of my creation entitled the Youth Movement. The program’s focus was to create more access, retention, and recruitment of Indigenous student athletes at McMaster. The program also uses the medicine of sport to drive social justice, encourage reconciliation and abolish racial discrimination in the Six Nations community. In running the program for two years, I continually had little or no support from athletics. Many of our initiatives which included running sports camps with Six Nations youth were hindered due to athletics inability to provide sports equipment and/or make it very difficult to use McMaster sports facilities.
In August 2018, in another attempt to get McMaster Athletics to take notice, together with Dr. Ameil Joseph I met with Associate Vice President, Equity and Inclusion Dr. Arig al Shaibah in her office. During the meeting we discussed the concerns I had for the treatment of BIPOC athletes in athletics. I also communicated to her my extreme frustration in regards to the dismissive nature I felt coming from Glen, Mark, and Sean. We discussed how imperative it was to have supports in place for these BIPOC athletes, especially given some of the issues that had transpired with the football team and what had been communicated to me by other black and indigenous athletes. As Dr. Arig was new to her role as VP, we decided to give her some time to get to know the lay of the land. In the meantime, I continued my work with the Youth Movement and Indigenous student services.
On October 22, 2018, I attended a meeting with former Six Nations Chief Ava Hill in the office of President Patrick Dean. The meeting was at the suggestion of Dr. Dawn Martin Hill who had arranged my initial introduction with Chief Ava Hill. Dr. Hill who founded the McMaster Indigenous Department and whom is a tireless supporter of the Youth Movement Program, and a legendary activist for Indigenous Rights, understood how important the program was to the health of the Six Nations community. Also present in this meeting was associate VP and Dean of Students Sean Van Koughnett and interim Indigenous Student Services Director Josh Dockstator. The meeting was to discuss a new program entitled the Bridge Through Sport initiative. The Program was a collaboration between Six Nations of the Grand River and McMaster Athletics that was based on a program running at that time at UBC. The program used a combination of mentorship and access to Mac resources to help combat the systemic racism in education and health that the majority of Indigenous communities are affected by. And though both Chief Ava Hill and myself spoke passionately about why this program was needed, Sean Van Koughnett continued with what had become a common place action with so many white administrators which was to deflect and dismiss the opportunity by saying he wanted to wait for the new Director of Student Services role to be filled. Once the role was filled nothing ever materialized with the program and the new Director of Indigenous Student Services decided to abandon the Youth Movement Program.
I bring these stories to light not to shame, but because if we are to move forward, people and institutions must first take accountability for what they’ve done or not done in the past. I can’t stay silent any longer and listen to institutions like McMaster pretend they had no knowledge of these issues, but instead had ample opportunities to help yet decided to ignore and deflect the problems. Sports is sometimes viewed as this inclusive sanctuary but through who’s viewpoint? McMaster black athletes make up less than two percent of the student-athlete population, while I would hate to even speculate how much indigenous athletes make up. Institutions like McMaster have to understand that it’s not a one size-foot approach to every student-athletes experience. As a former NCAA athlete, I existed in a world where the minorities were the majority in athletics. I cannot even fathom to know what it feels like to be a minority in the minority! I stand by Fabion Foote and commend him for speaking out on these issues and hope that we are able to move forward with what appears to be a deeply rooted systemic issue within the university culture.
Wrote this letter with the support of:
Associate Prof Dr. Ameil Joseph Faculty of Social Sciences McMaster
Associate Prof Dr. Dawn Martin Hill Faculty Social Sciences McMaster
Vilma Rossi former Senior Program Manager Equity and Inclusion McMaster
James Lamouche former Director of Indigenous Student Services McMaster
Sincerely John Williams