Ex-Georgia player at center of Missouri protests

Being at the forefront a movement wasn’t something Reuben Faloughi planned on. But it turns out having the intelligence of an honor student and the tenacity of a walk-on can be a lethal combination in real world issues.

“I’m doing the exact same thing I did as a walk-on at Georgia,” Faloughi said Tuesday by phone. “Going hard. Walking into a room with a chip on your shoulder. But instead of trying to prove you’re good enough to play football, you’re fighting for social justice.”

College athletics never will be the same because of recent events at Missouri. The resignation of the University of Missouri system president Tim Wolfe and chancellor R. Bowen Loftin came in the aftermath of protests resulting from a string of reported racist incidents on campus, a hunger strike by Faloughi’s friend and grad student Jonathan Butler and — the knockout punch – a threatened boycott from the football team, fully endorsed by the university’s $4 million-a-year coach, Gary Pinkel.

It doesn’t take a Ph.D. candidate like Faloughi to recognize the obvious.

“It’s power. Money talks,” he said.

The power is with college athletes. This is something university presidents and athletic directors haven’t wanted to acknowledge in recent years. They balked at increasing scholarship values and allowing student-athletes to capitalize on their likeness. The position of university administrators would’ve been more understandable if they hadn’t long ago stomped on the concept of amateur athletics. So they were stomped in the court of public opinion and real court.

But it’s not just about money now.

University presidents created this monster of college athletics. When they elevated the stage, they elevated the players. If this can happen at Missouri, where the football program generates $37.9 million in annual revenue, it can happen at Georgia, where football brings in $86.7 million.

It doesn’t mean protests will become commonplace. But the door is wide open now and one would be naive not recognize the potential for more.

“When we speak of power today, a lot of times it refers to the amount of wealth accumulated,” Georgia wide receiver Malcolm Mitchell said. “Football teams accumulate a lot of wealth. You have no choice but to pay attention.”

Faloughi expects and supports more student-athletes using their platform.

“College athletics have become exploitative, particularly to black males. So to see them stand up and confront an institution now is powerful,” he said. “We need to bridge the gap between the general student population and student athletes, especially in predominantly white institutions.”

Administrators are suddenly reaching out to Faloughi. Among them: Carla Williams, Georgia’s deputy director of athletics, who sent an email of support.

Not bad for a special teams player.

Faloughi is from Augusta area and was a walk-on linebacker at Georgia in 2009. He earned scholarships the next three years with academic honors along the way.

He said he frequently encountered overt racism in Athens, from being called the “N” word – “I never kept a running count,” he said when asked how many times – to being denied service in a bar. (Worth noting: “General Beauregards,” a Confederate-themed bar in downtown Athens, closed recently after it was accused of having a version of a Margarita called a “N*****ita” on a drink menu.)

Athletes were “privileged” and “catered to” at Georgia, he said. “But if they didn’t know you played football, you were just another black guy and you might not get into the bar.”

On campus, Faloughi said, racism was more “covert. … Some professors viewed me as a black athlete, not a student. They had low expectations. I told them I wanted to get into a Ph.D. program for psychology and they said I wasn’t prepared for that. Obviously they were wrong.”

He went to Missouri because it had one of the nation’s top graduate programs. Becoming an advocate on issues had long appealed to him. That interest grew after the shooting of Michael Brown in August 2014, which led to demonstrations in Ferguson, Mo.

“That shook my world,” he said.

He got involved with a group: MU4MikeBrown. He started a campus group, “Student Coalition for Critical Action,” to help create and promote an inclusive campus. He organized two “Racism Lives Here” protests in the wake of several reported incidents. He felt push-back from officials and students alike. “Fraternities and sororities sent out a message to turn out the lights and close your blinds,” to ignore demonstrations, he said.

“I knew I had the skills to do this but I never saw myself being in the middle of it,” he said. “When I led a demonstration last December, I never saw so many people rallying around an issue. It was empowering.”

But it wasn’t until the football team threatened a boycott and Pinkel sent out a team picture on Twitter with the message, “The Mizzou Family stands as one,” that the heat became too much for the administration.

This is the new campus reality.

“Athletes see the power they have now,” Faloughi said. “This won’t be the last time something happens.”

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.