Caught Between Tradition and Transformation: Princeton University’s Black Athletes in 1985

Princeton University is an institution self-consciously steeped in tradition, sometimes to an extent that even relatively recent innovations can feel like they’ve been going on for centuries. Yet it has also tried to break free of traditions that have not served it well, like discriminatory admissions policies. Holding these things in tension with one another is at times difficult. Today, we look back at a prior generation’s reflections on what it meant to get caught in the middle between tradition and transformation.

On December 12, 1985, Pat Thompson and Sean O’Sullivan considered the awkward position of Black athletes on campus for the Daily Princetonian’s “Thursday Magazine” feature. They interviewed four athletes: John Thompson ’88, Butch Climmons ’86, Jim Anderson ’86, and Debbi Saint Phard ’87. In opening a conversation about race on campus through the lens of Black athletes, they brought attention to some of the ongoing problems Princeton faced regarding systemic racism, though this was not a term they used. However, not everyone who entered the discussion thought about racism as part of a system, rather than a flaw within individuals.

Princeton University’s varsity football team, September 1985. Office of Communications Records (AC168), Box 165.

Princeton had eight Black football players that year. Anderson articulated the problem succinctly:

Alumni say, ‘Look, the tradition of Princeton football is this, and the tradition of Princeton football is that, and we have got to do it for the tradition of Princeton football.’ But the tradition has been white, and as a black athlete you try to say, ‘Yeah, I’ll try to make that my tradition.’ But that’s not our tradition. We’re just getting into Princeton football and establishing ourselves.

Climmons agreed. “It’s difficult to get into the tradition of Princeton,” he said.

After getting the blanket for the Big Three, I just felt something missing. … For me playing football for Princeton University was just another aspect of my life. It was just a very empty feeling when I sang ‘Old Nassau.’

John Thompson ’88, 1980s. Undergraduate Alumni Records (AC199).

For Thompson, meanwhile, the issue was magnified because, according to the Prince, he was the only Black player on the basketball team. But he didn’t feel that it was his position on the basketball team itself that made him aware of his race, so much as the small size of the minority population on campus as a whole. “You could say the same thing about the person who goes into class and he’s the only black in precept.”

Princeton University’s men’s basketball team, 1985. Athletic Programs Collection (AC042), Box 22.

Climmons also said that Princeton needed to expand the population of minority students for the sake of everyone, not just athletes. Yet that would only partially mitigate the disconnected feelings they had, because as Anderson observed, they didn’t have the alumni support system in place that white athletes had.

A lot of the alumni come back, but you don’t see any black alumni come back. There’s no sense of pride. … That’s the biggest difference for a black athlete, you have people come to you and talk about pride and the tradition of Princeton…but none of the alumni that come back are black.

He said it was hard to convince Black alumni to come back to support the Black students because they hadn’t had a good sense of connection to Princeton, either.

Gerald “Butch” Climmons ’86, ca. 1985. Undergraduate Alumni Records (AC199).

On the other hand, Anderson said that being on the football team had strengthened his connection to Princeton, and for that he had the friendship of his teammates to thank. He was especially close to a white student, Joe Harvey. “When I’m already feeling isolated because I’m a black athlete it helps when someone who’s not a black athlete comes over and shows their concern too. … Him (Joe Harvey) being white and coming over to me and telling me to keep my head up is important.”

James Anderson ’86, 1984. Undergraduate Alumni Records (AC199).

Saint Phard felt differently. She said it was because her background was Haitian and she didn’t have the same perspective as an African American. She had been the only Black student on the soccer team her freshman year, but she said she never gave the matter much thought. What mattered in athletics was performance, she said. “I don’t see race at all.” It may be worth noting, however, that for Saint Phard, tradition would likely also have had a different feel; women’s athletics were a newer development for an institution that began admitting female undergraduates only about 15 years before. Football players contended not only with an institutional football history well over a century old, but also one that extended to the foundations of the sport itself. Within Princeton’s storied history, after all, it is often repeated that the first American football game was played on its campus.

One of the topics Climmons brought up in his interview sparked an ongoing controversy among undergraduates. He noted that he hadn’t been a starter in his junior year, and there had been two white athletes ahead of him. This had made him wonder if it had anything to do with his race. A white teammate, starting quarterback Doug Butler ’86, took offense at the comments, saying “I’m sorry Butch is still bitter over some of the lower points of his football career here at Princeton; it does nothing but tarnish his fine accomplishments of this past season…” For Butler, it appeared racism was a matter of attitudes and actions of individual people, rather than something that more generally plagued American culture. To wonder about how race might have influenced decisions made by the coaching staff, Butler thought, would be to specifically accuse those staff members of racism. He asserted, “individuals should not look at the race issue as a means of explaining their own personal situations at the expense of another’s integrity.”

Climmons responded that he was not making accusations, simply reflecting on his own experiences and doubts. “One of the burdens that all black people now carry is that they can never be sure they are being judged on their merits. … If rather than the few black football players who now compete for Princeton there were substantial numbers on the team, race would not occupy so prominent a role in the minds of either blacks or whites.” Here, Climmons pointed to racism as systemic, though he did not use those terms.

A local resident, Ethan C. Finely, entered the discussion to support Climmons and the ideas he expressed about racial discrimination existing within a system, citing his long experience of watching Black Princeton athletes be benched in the past, even if they were excellent players. Some, Finley wrote, had been treated fairly; others had not. But it was reasonable, in his view, that Climmons might have had questions about it. “When you come from a world where as a kid and as an adolescent you were well provided for, and you always had your fair share of material possessions, then it is hard to see things from the other side of the fence.”

Donna Nuttall ’86, a board member of the Organization of Black Unity, also responded, using the term “subtle racism” for what we might be more familiar with today as “systemic racism.”

It is particularly irritating to me, personally, to be requested by a white person to prove that my allegations of subtle racism are valid. Subtle racism is not something which can be easily identified or verbalized to someone who has no concept of what it is! … If it can be said that Butch is paranoid, it is you (if not you personally, then your white counterparts) who is responsible for that paranoia.

A Prince editorial followed in February 1986, after nearly two months of letters to the editor on the subject of race and athletics on campus. The editorial board’s entry into the conversation, despite expressing support for minority students, still implied that these students were outside the mainstream, and the solution would be for the dominant culture on campus to assist with their assimilation. It did not consider the possibility of Princeton itself being transformed.

The battle for minority students does not end when they gain admission to Princeton. Many minority students come from backgrounds quite foreign from the upper-middle class perspective that a majority of students here know. … Princeton—its administrators, faculty, and students—have an obligation, once it lures these exceptional students here, to ensure that their transition from the world that they know to Princeton is as smooth as possible.

What we see in this mid-1980s discussion reflects the problems of an absence of tradition for some groups on campus when the majority had a lengthy and storied past to draw upon, as well as a lack of a shared understanding about the nature of racism. Rather than seeing the possibility that minority students could reshape what it meant to be a Princetonian (which would necessitate a critical view of tradition), instead most hoped that being a Princetonian might become easier for Black students in the future—that rather than reshaping the institution’s heritage and legacy, they would somehow adopt Princeton’s existing traditions as their own in spite of all that might have meant to them. A meeting of the minds apparently did not occur, as one side pushed for assimilation, and another asserted their need for a new sort of Princeton altogether. The questions remained: Could Princeton maintain its sense of tradition while absorbing those it had long excluded? Or was the attempt to merely absorb them, rather than to undergo a more radical transformation, in itself exclusionary?

 

Sources:

Athletic Programs Collection (AC042)

Office of Athletic Communications Records (AC206)

Office of Communications Records (AC168)

Papers of Princeton

Undergraduate Alumni Records (AC199)

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