New play probes student-athlete psychology

“Redshirts” tells of how pressure and attention can combine to set up student-athletes for a fall.

Jake Grovum

Since sexual assault charges were filed against former Gopher football standout Dominic Jones, student-athlete conduct has been on the minds of students, fans and administrators alike.

And while there might not be anything more real than the difficulties – and now stigma – facing student-athletes, a group from Penumbra Theatre in St. Paul is using fiction to examine reality.

“Redshirts” is a play that looks at the world of college football. The action follows 18-year-old Dante Greene as he is brought into the fold.

In the play, Greene is a talented running back, but a questionable student.

He soon finds himself faced with the accusation of plagiarism by an English professor.

The issues surrounding what led Greene to cheat are examined in “Redshirts” and also the subject of a symposium held at the Gibson-Nagurski Football Practice Facility on Monday night.

“It is just so topical, we’ve been through our own bout of dealing with this stuff at the University of Minnesota,” Lou Bellamy, “Redshirts” director and associate professor of theatre arts and dance, said.

“Anyone who can’t afford to go to school on their own, who happens to be athletically gifted, are faced with these issues,” Bellamy said.

The symposium brought in a wide array of perspectives to examine college athletics and the culture that surrounds them.

“It isn’t the staked-out area of a sports psychologist,” Bellamy said. “We all interact with all these young men and women who are singled out, sometimes in eighth grade.”

Associate sociology professor Douglas Hartmann was one of the panelists for the discussion and spoke on the social implications of sport.

“They think they’re entitled to be special (and) by putting so much emphasis on their athletic skills we create that entitlement,” he said. “We need to do right by them by trying to help them out.”

Sports are an arena where a lot of racial dynamics are played out in front of viewers, yet most people don’t even seem to realize it, Hartmann said.

“We often don’t want to talk about those things,” he said. “Either because it doesn’t seem polite or because we don’t want it to mess up our entertainment.”

Racial issues in sport, Hartmann said, are simply too important to bypass.

“You can’t ignore the race stuff,” he said. “Not that there’s any right answers, but to force us to talk about these social realities that are too easy to ignore.”

The play itself does not ignore the racial aspect of college athletics, panelist and associate athletics director Leo Lewis said.

“They did a real good job of really highlighting some of the issues,” he said. “How race is kind of just thrown out there and not really dealt with seriously.”

While people often only look at the misconduct with issues confronting student-athletes, Lewis said it’s also important to look at the structure surrounding the competitors.

“The mainstream media seems to focus on the person, instead of the system Ö bureaucracy Ö (and) politics of sport,” he said. “It frames what each individual does who is a participant.”

Graduate student in theatre design Kalere Payton, who designed the costumes for “Redshirts” said difficulties are not simply a product of student-athlete negligence.

where to go

Redshirts
what: A play about a “vulnerable student” who is an “impressive athlete” but gets into trouble with the school.
when: Wednesdays at 10:00 a.m. and 7:30 p.m., Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m., Sundays at 2:00 p.m. and 7:30 p.m.
where: Penumbra Theatre 270 N Kent St., St. Paul
For more information go to: www.penumbratheatre.org

“Athletes in particular are put in these really high-stake positions,” she said. “They’re not given the tools to deal with those situations.”

Payton said the play not only brings these issues to the attention of the general public but can force student-athletes to think about them on their own.

“It talks a lot about campus as a whole and academia,” she said. “Even (the professor in the play) feels like she’s playing along with this charade and they aren’t really getting the education they need to get.”

Discussion about the play was not limited to broad, widespread analysis, as panelist and former Minnesota Viking Matt Blair spoke primarily about his experiences as a college football player at Iowa State.

Blair said the play “was about as realistic you can be.”

“Every athlete that goes into a university or a college, they’re really on top of it because (of) the training (and) the way they’re brought up now,” he said. “When they fail, they just fall all the way back down to the bottom and that’s the part that I wish these athletes would understand.”

Blair said the allure of fame and fortune can lead student-athletes to forget about academics.

“To be a CEO at a company, when you come out of college and you’re starting to go that direction Ö it takes you 30 years sometimes to get to that point,” he said. “When you’re an athlete, to get to CEO money, it takes only one year.”

Another difficulty facing student-athletes, Blair said, is their attempt to deal with success on the field and failure off it.

“They can turn on a dime, they can run fast, they can lift weights, they can do all these things,” he said. “Then the education side does not match with their game play and some of them are lost.”

Blair said ultimately the key to making it is to weigh athletics with academics.

“You got to be balanced,” he said. “Your dreams are good, but you got to be balanced.”