The University of Wisconsin BIPOC Coalition, an account sharing the experiences of Black, Indigenous and People of Color at the UW, recently expressed concern over Barstool Sports affiliate Instagram account @badgerbarstool’s call to make former UW football coach Barry Alvarez the 2021 commencement speaker at graduation.

Badger Barstool posted their petition on Instagram asking to “Make Barry Alvarez the Commencement Speaker for the Class of 2021” instead of UW alumnus and actor André De Shields on April 7, receiving 10,181 likes. The petition no longer exists on the website.

The @bipocatwisco Instagram account responded with a statement saying the petition is “extremely problematic” in trying to “replace the well-accomplished Black commencement speaker with a white man.”

“Why is it that when Black people are finally somewhat being recognized on this campus, white centered organizations find it necessary to move to rescind these opportunities,” the statement read.

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Their comment on the Badger Barstool post saying it’s “really interesting how a Black man gets a chance and y’all are rushing to take it away” received 377 likes.

This exchange — and Badger Barstool’s lack of a response to the BIPOC Coalition — show how people of color face implicit bias on the UW campus. Badger Barstool’s inability to recognize how their actions can restrict Black voices reflects how color blindness reinforces racism at UW.

Badger Barstool didn’t appear to intend to block André De Shields’ opportunity with explicit racism. But, their dominant sports focus prioritized a football coach over a well-accomplished Black actor who’s spent years on Broadway and endured racism while doing it.

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De Shields said in a Daily Beast article racism is a commonality for people in his industry and any Black person living in America.

“We have to be twice as good to get half as much,” De Shields said, talking about his experience on Broadway. “Once you live the dream, you have to change the reality that is the result of living the dream. Because the dream is segregated. The dream is racist.”

De Shields also described this racism as non-confrontational, usually through denying him opportunities he was qualified for.

“The explanation always is ‘We’re going in a different direction,’” De Shields said. “You want to say, ‘Just explain to me why I’m not getting this gig, so I can understand and do my homework. But it’s never explained.’”

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The hidden racism De Shields speaks about is done when others mask the decision with qualifications, almost directly parallel to how Badger Barstool says Coach Alvarez is more qualified than Shields because he “transformed our athletic department into a nationally respected and relevant program over the past three decades” in the petition.

Badger Barstool’s ignorance in failing to recognize the issues with their post highlight the dangers of color blindness. Color blindness is a phenomenon where people or organizations claim to not see color when making decisions — like choosing a commencement speaker — but reinforce historic disparities. 

These historic disparities at UW include the school failing to employ more than one Black faculty member in the political science department any year since 1970 and having only 2.06% of students identify as Black or African American.

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A 2020 New York Times article covering UW’s homecoming video where almost everyone was white shows how apparent these disparities are. The article also includes interviews with students who feel the video represents the school’s non-inclusive treatment of students of color.

UW’s large student population, football program and diversity of extracurricular activities creates a deceiving sense of unity when in reality many students feel left out. Badger Barstool’s 110k followers add to this illusion and their attempt to remove André De Shields under the guise of sports popularity is concerning.

People might think Badger Barstool had no bad intentions with their petition and were simply posting content that follows their sports-themed page. This is a perfectly reasonable position if their parent company Barstool Sports didn’t have a history of racism.

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Barstool Sports founder Dave Portnoy questioned Colin Kaepernick’s opposition to the National Anthem in 2020 by saying he thought Kaepernick was Arabic and playing into Islamaphobic stereotypes in a conversation with UW alumnus Dan Katz.

This incident and a number of other offenses — like Portnoy casually using the N-word — led one employee to quit, but has gone largely unpunished given Barstool’s devoted following.

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When the company that owns your account has explicitly racist tendencies, it’s necessary to wonder how subconscious these Badger Barstool’s posts that threaten to silence Black voices really are. The account’s wide reach makes these possibilities even more dangerous.

Badger Barstool wasn’t directly racist when calling for Barry Alvarez to replace André De Shields as commencement speaker. But their actions threaten to reinforce the exclusion people of color have long faced on a campus that lacks diversity and could be led by racist attitudes unseen to the public.

UW students need to hold Badger Barstool more accountable — even if they are known as a large and popular media account on campus. Implicit bias can often go unnoticed but has consequences when reinforcing historic disparities. The BIPOC Coalition’s strong response should serve as a model for students to challenge Badger Barstool in the future.

Will Romano ([email protected]) is a freshman studying economics and journalism.