Duke Energy & North Carolina officials claim Dan River cleanup finished, only cleaned up 8% of toxic coal ash



As we at Campus BluePrint covered in February, a Duke Energy plant spilled 39,000 tons of coal ash slurry into the Dan River near the North Carolina-Virginia border. Now, with only about 3,000 tons cleaned up, Duke Energy and North Carolina state regulators claim the work is done. Dianne Reid, water sciences chief at the NC Division of Water Resources, actually told the Charlotte Observer that they would “do more damage trying to remove all the ash than leaving it in place.” The state and Duke Energy say they will continue to test the river’s levels of coal ash.


While continuing to clean the river may release coal ash that has been trapped under sediment (the state’s main argument for halting cleanup), not cleaning will eventually bring more problems. The ecosystem is a fragile, interconnected thing, and any substance present in the river may eventually seep into the groundwater and be spread around in a number of ways based on complex underground flow paths. The Dan River flows up into Virginia from the spill site and then back down to North Carolina, so the coal ash slurry could continue to affect a number of counties in both states. Also, a hydroelectric dam upstream releases irregular surges of water that make the Dan River sediment prone to remixing anyways.


Local groups have stepped up where the government and the corporation responsible fail to act. Two local environmental groups, the Dan River Basin Association and the Roanoke River Basin Association, will continue testing local water for toxic heavy metals that the coal ash spill brought into their lives. The local groups made this decision after the EPA decided that Duke Energy’s responsibility to clean was completed. While we in the major urban centers of North Carolina may be able to put this out of our minds, the people in small towns in the area will bear serious economic damages caused by the spills, which have caused up to $700 million in damages and hurt the burgeoning tourist industry that had sprung up along the Dan.

Pat McCrory is not just any other guy


Pat McCrory is not your average Joe. He’s a controversial figure in North Carolina, one whose name garners powerful reactions in a politically divided state. He and his administration have faced increasing scrutiny as Moral Monday protests continue to gain media attention and his approval ratings continue to drop.


More recently, Governor McCrory witnessed the realities of this public disapproval in an unsuspecting place – while grocery shopping at Reid’s Fine Foods in Charlotte. A huge uproar resulted from the firing of an employee in the affluent Myers Park neighborhood of Charlotte due to a complaint from Governor McCrory’s security. The governor was shopping at Reid’s Fine Foods when Chef Drew Swope asked if he needed help. Upon realizing he was speaking with the governor, Swope refused to help him, saying, “Thanks for nothing.” McCrory and his security detail complained to owner Tom Coker in the parking lot after the incident, after which Swope was fired. Coker later stated that his decision was not influenced by McCrory’s position and that it was simply “an inappropriate comment to a customer.”


McCrory, however, is more than just another customer, and he’s not even just another governor. He’s a governor who was elected for two reasons: to bring both parties together and to create jobs in North Carolina. When dealing with a disgruntled employee, he was unable to separate his identity as a customer from that as a governor. People are studying the governor’s actions under a microscope, especially those who believe he has swung the state too far to the right with legislation that has harmed the working person.


The Reid’s Fine Foods incident is not the first food-related controversy McCrory has faced. Last July, the governor responded to a mostly female abortion legislation protest with a plate of cookies. Protesters saw the move as sexist, chanting, “Hey, Pat. That was rude. You wouldn’t give cookies to a dude.” The governor has found through these incidents that his support base is not as bipartisan as it used to be.


As mayor of Charlotte, McCrory was a Republican in a largely Democrat area. As governor, he is working with a far-right General Assembly and struggling to rein in their agenda. McCrory was elected as a moderate, but he has signed several controversial pieces of legislation, including a motorcycle safety bill that contained abortion restrictions. This has especially led many lower-income North Carolinians to believe McCrory does not understand their needs.


McCrory has come under fire for a number of cuts to working class benefits. In 2013, he rejected large portions of the Affordable Care Act, preventing 500,000 low-income workers from receiving health care coverage. He signed away tenure for teachers and salary increases for masters or doctoral degrees. While cutting public education funding, McCrory’s government attempted to create a private school voucher system using taxpayer money. North Carolina is now 49th in the nation in public school funding. Amidst these benefit cuts to the working class, McCrory signed legislation to lower the corporate income tax to a 6% flat rate, benefiting large corporations. These measures have alienated his lower-income support base.


North Carolinians who disagree with the governor have not been silent. Created by the NAACP, Moral Monday protests have garnered a steady audience of 2,500 members – including low-income workers, minorities, and women – disillusioned with McCrory’s governance and the various pieces of legislation he has signed. Around 1,000 arrests have been made in connection with the Moral Monday protests.


Protests against the McCrory government shed light on a larger belief held by many:  the notion that McCrory has trouble understanding the needs of the common man simply because he is not one. He has lived a classic success story. Before he was North Carolina’s governor and before he was Charlotte’s mayor, Pat McCrory spent 29 years with Duke Energy. After graduating from Catawba College, he joined Duke Energy and rose through the ranks to arrive at the role of training director. Along with his position as governor, he currently serves as a Partner at McCrory & Company, a sales consulting firm, and as a member of Catawba College’s Board of Trustees.


A long-time manager and, later, training director at Duke Energy, McCrory is predisposed to think like a businessman, in terms of numbers instead of individuals. On March 6th, the governor appeared on Fox Business’ Opening Bell, where he explained that “government has to look for streamlining and efficiencies just like business.”


He also clarified his reasoning for cutting unemployment benefits – that the state owed too much money (on the order of $2.5 billion) to the federal government. He claimed that North Carolina’s unemployment rate has dropped the most in the past three months due to these cuts, stating, “The major variable is the one decision we made [on] unemployment.”


While beneficial in reducing North Carolina’s debt to the US government, the common person may be wondering whether McCrory understands his or her challenges and needs. In response to whether his unemployment benefit cuts would deepen the income inequality gap, McCrory clarified, “we did have a certain number of people who were […] turning down jobs.” He continued, “In our lives, we’ve all had to take a job that maybe wasn’t our dream job but we had to take it because we had to put food on the table and fill those jobs.” Drew Swope expressed a similar idea in February after he was fired, an idea that many lower-income individuals might agree with. “I don’t make a lot of money,” Swope said, “Life is hard. Everyone needs work.”


McCrory will try to raise his approval ratings in the next few months as midterm elections approach, and a key group to sway will be lower-income voters. According to Public Policy Poll, a liberal polling group, 39 percent of voters now approve of his work as governor, down from 42 percent in December. Elon University Poll, a university-funded non-partisan group, rated his approval at 35.6 percent with 43 percent of North Carolinian voters disapproving.


McCrory was known as a moderate during his tenure as Charlotte’s mayor. As midterm elections approach, he must return to that image to mend his relationship with liberal and swing voters. While McCrory’s term as governor will last for another two years, his name is closely tied to discussions of Thom Tillis, current Speaker of the General Assembly and US Senate hopeful. These mid-term elections are crucial to determine which party controls the Senate moving forward, and incumbent Democrat Kay Hagan will be a tough competitor. As the governor’s – and the General Assembly’s – approval ratings drop, it becomes more important for McCrory to appeal to swing voters.


McCrory has already begun this task. While raises are generally not announced so far away from the budget process, he recently proposed boosting the starting salary for early-career teachers from $30,800 to $35,000. This would benefit the 42,000 teachers who have up to 10 years of teaching experience. He also recently visited Franklinton Elementary School and Franklin Academy to discuss this proposal, highlight the importance of education, and gather feedback about long-term teacher payment. It is clear the governor will push for a more moderate North Carolina in the next two years, one in which he reconnects with lower-income groups and the unemployed. In the meantime, Charlotte mayor Patrick Cannon has called up Drew Swope and asked for a resume to help him find a new job.


Underpaid, Undervalued and Many on the Way Out: North Carolina’s teachers struggle with limited means


Teachers are one of North Carolina’s most undervalued assets.  The state ranks 46th in the nation for teacher pay—with teachers making approximately ten thousand dollars less than the national average—and Governor Pat McCrory has stated that raising teacher compensation is one his top goals for 2014.  The state has already made some large changes to the education budget, but not all of the changes have been met with widespread approval.

        While teachers in North Carolina are receiving some of the lowest of salaries in the education sector, those across the nation are faced with compensation problems.  Teachers make considerably less than people in other professions with the same level of education.  According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers, teachers make an average of $14,000 less than people entering other careers with the same amount of training.  This wage gap has grown larger over time.

        North Carolina is starting to lose teachers in two ways—current teachers are switching professions and fewer college graduates are choosing to go into the education field.  The poor compensation of teachers has much to do with it.  North Carolina has seen the most severe drop in teacher salary rankings than any other state in the past ten years, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.  Most North Carolina teachers have seen stagnant or decreasing salaries.  Salaries are not just failing to rise with inflation; they are failing to rise at all.  Fifth year teachers make less than they did five years ago, even on a nominal scale.

            Teacher pay has had a few negative unintended consequences that decrease the quality of education for North Carolina students.  First, class sizes are growing.  North Carolina has 4,000 fewer teachers than it did prior to the 2008 recession due to cuts in the education budget and decreased teacher wages.  On the other hand, the student population in the state has grown by 16,000 students in the same time period. Growing class sizes make both teaching and learning more difficult. The second unintended consequence of decreased teacher pay is a decrease in student achievement.  Student achievement is directly correlated to teacher experience, and higher teacher retention rates are linked to better compensation, according to the Journal of Public Economics.  With poor compensation and empty promises from both former Governor Bev Perdue and current Governor Pat McCrory, fewer teachers are choosing to continue teaching.  Since fewer teachers are staying in the education field and gaining experience, students in North Carolina may be less likely to achieve as much or get as high grades as they once did.

               The General Assembly has changed more than teacher pay in the past year.  They voted to end teacher tenure, remove salary bonuses for teachers holding masters degrees, and eliminated the cap on class sizes.  Additionally, they altered the education budget, taking $50 million out of the public school system and putting it towards private school vouchers.  Removing this money took away seats in pre-K classrooms, and led to fewer teaching positions and fewer classroom materials.  However, the voucher system is currently in court, and a North Carolina Superior Court judge ruled that it is unconstitutional to spend taxpayer money on private or religious schools.

        There has been an overwhelming amount of public outcry about the education budget.  Teacher pay has been put on the Moral Monday agenda, and teacher morale is incredibly low.  Public Policy Polling, a liberal leaning firm, reported that 79 percent of North Carolinians want to raise teacher pay to meet the national average over the next four years.

            As a result, state Senate and House leaders have admitted that removing the bonus for teachers holding masters degrees was a mistake, and they hope to re-implement it in the future.  In an attempt to retain more math and science teachers, McCrory has announced the possibility of paying math and science teachers higher salaries to make up for their higher opportunity costs for choosing teaching over high-salaried science and tech jobs.  While this rationale makes sense, many dislike it because sends a message that liberal arts teachers are less valuable.

           Between the clear constituent opinion and low teacher morale, the state decided to make some lofty financial changes far outside budget-writing season.  On Feb. 10, top state lawmakers promised to add $200 million to the education budget over the next two years to increase the starting salary from $30,800 to $35,000.  This will improve the state’s teacher pay rankings significantly, especially compared to other Southern states.  However, the pay increase only affects teachers who have been in the profession for less than ten years, or about 25,000 of the state’s 95,000 teachers.  NCSU’s Institute for Emerging Issues hosted a two-day forum in February discussing teacher pay, and many at the forum were unhappy with the pay bump going to the teachers in the profession with the least amount of experience. Policy makers have said they hope to raise salaries for teachers with more experience later on in the process.  While many people feel the pay raise is unfair, it does make some policy sense since the goal was to increase teacher retention, and the likelihood that teachers will leave their field decreases every year that they stay in education.  Statistics differ significantly by subject, but on average 17 percent of North Carolina secondary school teachers leave after one year, and nine percent leave after two years.

          Many North Carolinians blame McCrory for North Carolina’s low teacher pay.  The issue has become yet another polarized party debate.  While McCrory and the current state legislature are responsible for big budget cuts and a far below average teacher compensation rate, they entered office with this problem.  Granted, the recent removal of the masters degree pay bump as well as cutting teacher tenure exacerbated the compensation problem. Former Governor Bev Perdue proposed pay raises that the state legislature could not put in the budget, and she cut the education budget in the aftermath of the recession.  Teacher pay in North Carolina has become a polarized issue with blame to be thrown around between the two parties, but with few plans to solve the compensation problem ever coming to fruition.

Christopher Browning: After Four Decades of Holocaust Scholarship, Academic Luminary Prepares to leave UNC


The Frank Porter Graham Professorship, one of the many distinguished professorships at Carolina, was created in 1991 to encourage academic prestige at the university.  In 1999, Professor Christopher Robert Browning accepted the position.  As one of the foremost scholars on the Holocaust, Browning holds an important key to the way historians understand one of humanity’s most horrifying events.  One of the many classes he’s taught, History of the Holocaust, focuses on the “origins and implementation of the Nazi genocide during World War II, as well as reactions of and realities for European Jews.”  Every semester it’s offered, history majors and non-history majors alike scramble to get a seat.  After this semester, however, Browning is retiring from his professorship at Chapel Hill.  We’ve taken a look back at his entry into the field of Holocaust history and his accomplishments thus far.

An Unexpected Path

Graduating with a Master’s degree in French diplomatic history in 1968, Christopher Browning had not originally planned to devote himself to the study of the Holocaust.  At that time, research on the Holocaust was at a very early stage, and few historians had attempted to make sense of the tragedies that happened just two decades earlier.  It wasn’t until he read Raul Hilberg’s book, The Destruction of the European Jew, published in 1961, that Browning began to turn his attention to the study of the Holocaust.  “It covered a topic that had been totally ignored in the European history courses that I had taken as an undergrad in the mid-1960s,” Browning recalls.  “I was fascinated by the book, and decided to switch the research area for my PhD to some aspect of the Nazi persecution of the Jews.”

        Hilberg’s book was the first widely read publication to acknowledge the Jewish Holocaust as a departure beyond the regular atrocities of war.  It propelled scholars to engage in a broader discussion of racial genocide under the Third Reich.  Since his entrance into the historiography of the Holocaust, Browning has contributed immensely to one of the primary debates within Holocaust research concerning the Final Solution as an early intentional policy of Nazi leaders or simply a function of German war and conquest.  Browning believes these two school of thoughts, called intentionalism and functionalism, to be a “false dichotomy,” and has labored to recognize both the ideological and situational factors of Nazi policy.  In interpreting the motivations of Holocaust perpetrators, from Adolf Hitler to the everyday man, he has shed a bright light on the nature of human depravity.

         During his professorship at Pacific Lutheran University, in 1992, Browning published his most famous work, Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101.  The book explores the story of one Nazi police force, tasked with the mission to exterminate and deport Polish Jews to death camps in 1942.  In choosing his subjects, Browning attempted to diverge from the typical view of Nazi perpetrators: radical party members and top-ranking leadership.  Instead, the focus of Ordinary Men, is a unit of “average, middle-aged Germans” of mostly working-class backgrounds.  Yet as the book progresses, these “ordinary men” become cold-blooded killers, committing the murders of tens of thousands of Jews.  Through his work, Browning forces his readership to confront the humanity of Holocaust perpetrators and the banal nature of their atrocious crimes.  In a 2006 interview with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Browning explained that “once you start treating the perpetrators as human beings, then you are faced with that uncomfortable awareness that: Are they fundamentally different than I am? And, in that situation, what would I have done?”

Scholar in the Spotlight

        Since its publication, Ordinary Men has become a landmark in Holocaust historiography, placing Browning at the top of his field and garnering him world recognition.  In 2000, David Irving, a notorious Holocaust denialist, sued Deborah Lipstadt for her words on him in her book, Denying the Holocaust.  As the case amassed publicity, Christopher Browning was called as an expert witness and cross-examined by Irving.  In one stunning moment of the case, Irving attempted to legitimize his denialist revisionism by asking if “the last chapter on the Holocaust” had yet to be written.  “We are still discovering things about the Roman Empire. There is no last chapter in history,” Browning responded. While Irving may have been searching for validation, it is the assertion that understandings of history must be continuously revisited that threatens the thin groundwork on which Holocaust denial stands.

Finding a home at UNC

       In his professorship, Christopher Browning has cherished the opportunity to share this outlook with his students.  Throughout his four decades of teaching, Browning has invested his time in ensuring that future generations of Holocaust scholars may follow in his path.  He hopes to prepare future history teachers “to teach a course on the history of the Holocaust, or at least to incorporate Holocaust materials into the other courses on European history that they will teach someday.”  Though the history of the Holocaust may be emotionally heavy, many students find themselves enthusiastic to learn.  Junior history major Scott Nelson feels that Browning’s lectures are engaging because they lack the pedantic tone of a lecture.  “Rather, he is telling a 70 year old story that, due to his clarity and knowledge of the subject, seems like it could have taken place yesterday,” Nelson says. “He knows precisely what happened on what day to whom and where.”

     Students taking his class find themselves inspired and deeply affected by the material.  For senior global studies major, Stephanie Sistare, taking History 262 with Professor Browning was a perspective changing experience.  Before taking the class, she had a one dimensional understanding of the Holocaust, she says.  Yet by studying the varying actors, actions, and interests of Nazi Germany, she has gained insight into an event that many high school history classes can only skim the surface of.

        How does genocide on the scale of the Holocaust happen in the modern era?  It is this question that Browning has devoted his life to understanding and teaching to undergraduate college students.  In his words, he hopes each of his students will walk away from his class with the knowledge that “the Holocaust was not an isolated aberration or freakish event but had its origins deep in European/Western history and reflects basic vulnerabilities of the nation state, modern bureaucratic society, and human nature.”


Five things you ought to know about poverty and wealth inequality in North Carolina


Do you know how much income the top fifth of North Carolinians make? Think not in terms of a yearly salary, but in a fraction of all the dollars earned through work in North Carolina in any given amount of time. Well, the top 2 0percent couldn’t be earning only 20 percent of the income; some jobs earn vastly more money than others. So, what is it? 30 percent of the income? 40 percent?

Actually, it is 51 percent, according to the North Carolina Justice Center (NCJC), a non-partisan research organization. Does that surprise you? It may not, given all of the recent coverage on wealth disparity and the lack of social mobility in our country, never mind the fights on how to tax people of different income levels. President Obama even touched on them in a speech last December, calling them “the defining challenge of our time.” So you may not be shocked by these high levels of income earned by the top fifth of North Carolinians. But, of course, that leaves only 49 percent of the income for the remaining 80 percent of our state. What do you think the number is for the bottom fifth? These five points attempt to shed light on inequality and social mobility in North Carolina, and, more broadly, the entire country.

1.     The bottom fifth of North Carolinians earn 3 percent of all income earned in the state. The GINI coefficient of the state, which measures inequality of income (and therefore is higher to signify more inequality) is 0.464. This number is tied for 15th in the country with New Mexico and New Jersey, and so marks North Carolina as a more unequal place than over half of our fifty states. Southern states in general tend to be more unequal, partly due to historical processes, and the Midwest is the most egalitarian. The United States as a whole has a GINI coefficient of 0.469, as states with lower GINI coefficients like Utah (coming in last with 0.419) have lower populations than states like New York (ranked number one at 0.499), which tend to bring the whole country’s ranking up.

2. North Carolina’s cities aren’t that high up when compared country-wide for income inequality. In a study released this February by the Brookings Institute, U.S. Census data was used to compare the 50 largest American cities by income inequality. To do this, researchers used the “95/20” ratio, comparing yearly income earned by the households that earn more than 95 percent of others in the city with those that earn more than only 20 percent. This puts people in the highest rung of income earners, those that have reached the top 5 percent, in comparison with those in the bottom fifth of all earners. Some American cities were deemed very unequal, like San Francisco (ranked third), due to the richest earning very high amounts in relation to low earners at a ratio of $354,000/$21,000. Other cities, like Miami (ranked second), come in high onto the list due not to astronomical wages for the rich but to rock-bottom earnings at the 20 percent level. Its ratio is $164,000/$10,000. Of the two major North Carolina cities on this list, Charlotte comes in the top half, though near the middle, at number 21 and with a ratio of $22,000/$219,000—its citizens earn above average at the lowest level but much above average at the highest level. Raleigh is low on the inequality list at number 42. Its 95 percent-level earning households make $200,000 per year, and households at the 20 percent level make a healthy $24,000.

3.    But, that could be because poverty in the state is concentrated in suburbs and rural areas. People in the urban centers of Charlotte and Raleigh do pretty well for themselves, but North Carolina still has persistent centers of poverty. However, unlike urban poverty that many imagine to be the US’s main problem, poverty in our state is more likely to take the less visible form of rural poverty. Many rural parts of the state, especially eastern parts, have persistent generational poverty and low social mobility, and are also far removed from growing economic sectors that might bring more employment and money. (To illustrate, four out of five of the poorest counties in North Carolina are in the eastern part of the state and have less than 100,000 people—Pitt, Robeson, Wilson and Wayne.) Studies, like an additional report done by the Brookings Institute in February, also show that low-wage workers are increasingly seeping out of expensive cities to live in the suburbs. Suburbs are now home to over 70 percent of sales employees, the largest low-wage sector in the country.

4. While social mobility and wealth or income inequality can be correlated, they are not the same thing. Social mobility is the ability to move up or down through different levels of income relative to the level where you were born. Wealth or income inequality refers to the stratification of wealth or income across a population, and is quantified by how concentrated the money is at the top level of earners. While they may be correlated, not every city or state with high income inequality has low social mobility. Returning to our poorer counties in eastern North Carolina, it is interesting to note that they have fairly average levels of social mobility, according to the NCJC. The part of the state with the lowest levels of social mobility is the central part of southern North Carolina, especially counties lying on the North Carolina/South Carolina border.

5.    American wealth and income is much less evenly distributed than we think it is. In work done by Harvard University professor Michael Norton, 5,000 people were asked how they thought America’s wealth was distributed. They guessed the top 20 percent of the population had about two-thirds of all the wealth in the country. In reality, the number is above four-fifths. (This number is higher than the proportion of income earned because rich high-income earners tend to accumulate additional wealth through stocks and property.) They guessed the bottom fifth had about one-tenth of the wealth. They really have less than 5 percent. This shows that Americans generally are ignorant of how skewed wealth distribution is across all states. In fact, when asked, people generally wanted a more equal distribution of such wealth, citing the top 20 percent being in control of 30 percent of wealth in the country as ideal.

The Unacceptable Decline in North Carolina’s Support for Education


Today, along with teachers, students and community members, I’m taking part in a civil disobedience to highlight the constant attacks on our public education by the North Carolina General Assembly.

I’ve always believed that education is a true equalizer that can lift people up economically and socially – that even if you come from a working-class family, like me, getting a good quality education can offer you unique opportunities. I want my nieces and nephews, who are currently going through the education system, to have a good quality education like I did.

It is unacceptable that teachers will get an 11 percent pay raise if they give up their tenure. It is unacceptable that up to 7,400 teacher assistants could lose their jobs if the NC Senate budget is adopted. Instead of taking away benefits, we should be giving our teachers and teacher assistants more incentives to stay and teach in North Carolina. While other states are re-investing in classroom resources, we are underfunding ours. For example, in North Carolina funding for textbooks is only 25 percent of what the Department of Public Instruction determined was needed. All of this translates to inadequate funding and resources, which compromises the educational experience of students in our state.

Nationally, support for public colleges and universities rose by an average of six percent in 2013-14. But in NC, we’re still cutting. Instead of joining Texas, Virginia, and 38 other states who recognize the value of higher education, we’re joining Louisiana and West Virginia in further cutting our higher education budget. Since 2011, the UNC system has had its budget cut by almost half a billion dollars. These continued cuts are not sustainable for the future of our public universities and the future of our state. Universities are forced to grapple with these budget cuts by increasing their tuition. UNC Chapel Hill Out-of-State students face a potential 12.3 percent increase in tuition for this up-coming year. These continued increases are unacceptable as it makes UNC less accessible to students.

Elizabeth City State University was recently targeted as a possible school to shut down because of its decline in enrollment. While the Senate budget dropped the provision that would have eliminated Elizabeth City State University, it is unacceptable that our public universities, especially our historically black colleges and universities, are feeling the full effects of budget cuts. The NC General Assembly shouldn’t be treating our colleges and universities as business investments that need to turn a profit.

Our education system brings so many benefits to the communities they serve and cutting away funding affects the state as a whole.

I’ve thought that engaging in resistance via civil disobedience should always be a last resort. Think about it; something must be that bad for people to risk arrest for what they believe in.

I’m doing this because I believe education – from K-12 and universities in the UNC system – should be accessible to ALL North Carolinians. I’m doing this because I love North Carolina.

Now is the time that we must make our voices heard! Join us online by using the hashtag #schooltheNCGA.

Sporting Different Sexualities: Why Orientation & Gender Matter in Athletics


“This is an area where no one in sports should be too proud. Sport has led society in so many critical areas…this is one where we fell behind.”

        So said NBA Commissioner Adam Silver while discussing the signing of Jason Collins with the Brooklyn Nets. Recently, Collins became the first publicly gay athlete to play in any of the four major North American pro sports leagues.

       Despite being proud of and excited for the seven-foot, 35-year-old center, Commissioner Silver had mixed feelings about the historic moment. “This is so long overdue that I don’t think this should necessarily be on the list of the greatest accomplishments of the NBA,” he said. Silver does however recognize that the Collins signing is definitely a move in the right direction.

        “It is a big deal for this league, and hopefully, in the way that sports can uniquely impact society, that this is an area where, for the next Michael Sam, they feel that much more comfortable coming out,” he said. “ And, more importantly, the next high- school player feels comfortable being public about his or her sexuality with his or her teammates.”

        While Collins is an off-the-bench role player in the NBA and sufficiently in the terminal part of his career, Michael Sam, an All-American and SEC Defensive Player of the Year from the University of Missouri, enters NFL Draft this May. If he is signed by a NFL team — and by analysts indication he will be — he would become the first active NFL player to have publicly declared his homosexuality.

     Sami Jorgensen, a junior at UNC from Pawling, NY, is a varsity athlete in both cross country and track and field. When asked about Collins and Sam, she explained how their actions were brave considering the stigmas that tend to surround professional sports.

      “I think they made it pretty clear when they came out that, for a long time they feared that their status in their sports, as well as their reputation in general, would be tainted if they had revealed themselves sooner,” she says.

Jorgensen continues, “ I honestly think it’s kind of sad that people have to be afraid and hide their true identities when they’re in the limelight because they’re afraid of how their reputation will be affected. Everyone should have the opportunity to be true to themselves.”


Heteronomativity, Homophobia, and Gender in Sports

Between the macho environment of locker rooms and the promotion of hypermasculinity of sportscasters, it can be both uncomfortable and difficult for a player to come out. As the dominant paradigm in sports culture, heteronormativity promotes the intolerance of homosexuality. A recent study by sociologists Osborne and Wagner examined this homophobic attitude in adolescents and showed that males who participated in core sports (football, baseball, basketball, and/or soccer) were nearly three times more likely to hold homophobic attitudes than other peers their age.

The use of masculinity and machismo when describing sports culture further perpetuates the idea that sports are part of a man’s world. While Collins was the first active publicly gay male to come out in major American sports, he was more than 30 years behind pro tennis player Billie Jean King. King, who won 39 Gran Slam titles over her career, paved the way for WNBA players such as Sheryl Swoopes and Seimone Augustus, and soccer players such as Megan Rapinoe. A month before Collins came out, Brittney Griner, the top pick in the WNBA draft, came out informally, and the sports world hardly blinked an eye.

      The dichotomy of the reactions to Griner and Collins/Sam is telling of the way that the media and society perceive sports, masculinity, and sexuality. A physically strong, heterosexual man who excels at sports and has relationships with women is socially aligned with traditional views of sexuality and masculinity. Change his relationships with women to relationships with men and the notion that masculinity and heterosexuality are inexplicably linked is challenged.  As it turns out, being gay does not make a man passive or athletically feeble.

       If, in society’s eyes, it is not feminine to excel at sports, then the equation for normality is flipped. A woman who participates in sports defies gender norms, and a woman’s success in a male-dominated field makes her subject to assumptions about her sexuality based on her body and skill. While Collins and Sam challenge the strict adherence to masculine gender norms, Griner’s orientation only confirms the idea that successful athletic women deviate from the physical and sexual assumptions associated with being feminine.

       In the media, a male athlete’s sexual orientation is often more likely to be a bigger story than what he does on the court or field; for female athletes, the understatement of coming out and its resulting acceptance is sign of greater tolerance, but it is not without lingering and unfair stereotypes.

      The different issues that men and women’s sports have with homosexuality are both rooted in heteronormativity. The idea that being gay makes it impossible to be an athlete and that being an athlete, whether gay or not, makes it impossible to be a woman are equally false.

LGTBQ Athletes at the Collegiate Level

For a perspective on how sports and culture are integrated, look now further than the Dean Dome, Franklin Street, or the Carolina blue t-shirt that a student passing by is inevitably wearing.

      In addition to being hailed as a basketball “Mecca,” Chapel Hill is know as a welcoming place of great tolerance for the LGBTQ community. As an institution, UNC includes sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression in it Non-Discrimination Policy. So why are there so few college athletes out?

    “I think it’s just a carryover from the stigmas of professional sports that influences collegiate athletes… I hope that with the general shift in acceptance within society that athletes are feeling more comfortable with coming out if that’s what they would like,” Jorgenson explains.

     Some would point to the NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association) as the real problem. Former NBA player John Amaechi, who came out after his pro career ended, has been outspoken about this issue. “[The NCAA] maintain separate behaviors for sports that we would never deem acceptable anywhere else,” Ameachi said, “Colleges are complicit. College sports are a space where homophobic slurs, physical and psychological abuse are not only acceptable but considered normal.”

      Take Rutgers University, where head basketball Mike Rice was fired after video surfaced of him physically and verbally abusing his college players, including using homophobic slurs. In light of such events, the NCAA has recently started to focus on LGTBQ inclusion, however the organization still has no power to enforce sanctions over homophobic behavior. If a student-athlete feels he or she has been discriminated against then they can either take legal action of go through their universities administrative process. NCAA guidelines for inclusion of LGTBQ student-athletes are solely voluntary and administrators, coaches, and players are not mandated to follow or even read the guidelines.

     But UNC is taking strides towards acceptance and equality. At the end of last semester, UNC joined the You Can Play Project (YCPP), a movement dedicated to ensuring equality, respect and safety for all athletes, without regard to sexual orientation. The YCPP focuses on judging athlete on what they contribute to the sport and their team’s success, promoting that “if you have a skill, if you have work ethic, if you can skate, pass, shoot, run, hump, hit, row, or play – then you can play”

      The video features a diverse group of varsity athletes, including J.P. Tokoto and Nate Britt from men’s basketball and football players Shakeel Rashad, Allen Champagne, Jon Heck and Jarrod James. “It is important for all LGBT students athletes to be accepted by the people they spend most of their time with,” Britt says in the video.

If You Can Play You Should Play

Slowly but surely, a new generation of open-mindedness is granting civil rights to persons identifying as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ). In fact, a majority of Americans see gay and lesbian relations as morally acceptable; this is a substantial shift from what was a minority view at the turn of century.

      With this newfound tolerance comes some adversity. While same-sex marriage in now legal in 17 states in the US, it is officially banned in 33. Despite this imbalance, a majority of Americans support same-sex marriage, indicating the direction of its impending legality nation-wide.

     Culture, like sports, is an individual and collective process, and it continually being remade. Inseparable from politics, religions, and even biology, sport culture is an excellent indicator for a social mindset, and it clear that with regard to homosexuality, the tide is beginning to turn.

Clay Aiken: A New American Idol?


If you told me a year ago that Clay Aiken would run for Congress in North Carolina in 2014, I would have thought you to be audacious; maybe even ludicrous.

And I would be wrong. Clay Aiken is officially running to represent North Carolina’s 2nd District, which includes some of the suburbs surrounding Raleigh, as well as Smithfield, Sanford, and Dunn. Aiken is not the first celebrity to run for Congress, but his candidacy could have major implications for North Carolina. Aiken’s campaign has the potential to bring positive national attention to a state that as of late has produced nothing but bad political news. Aiken will face a challenging slog, though, as North Carolina’s 2nd District has voted in favor of Republican candidates in recent Presidential and Congressional elections.

        Renee Ellmers, a Republican, has represented the Second Congressional District of North Carolina since 2011. Ellmers defeated former Congressman Bob Etheridge, a Democrat, by less than 1,500 votes in the 2010 Congressional Election, The election was so close, it had to be verified by a recount of the votes.  In the four previous Congressional elections, (2002-2008) Etheridge never received less than 62 percent of the vote. Conveniently for Ellmers, the district lines were redrawn to favor a Republican candidate, which allowed Ellmers to garner 55.9 percent of the vote 2012, defeating Democratic challenger Steve Wilkins. When the federal government shut its doors for just over two weeks in October of 2013, Ellmers initially insisted on taking her paycheck, while thousands of government employees were sent home with no pay. Ellmers’ actions caused a firestorm among her constituents, causing her to quickly change her stance, and deny her pay. One resident, as quoted in the News and Observer, went as far as to say: “Next election, I’m going to send money to her Democratic opponent.” Be careful what you wish for.

        Congressional incumbents usually have an advantage against their challengers when it comes to name recognition and fundraising. Congresswoman Renee Ellmers may face a recognition competition, as one of her Democratic challengers has roughly 40,000 more followers on Twitter. Ellmers also has to compete for the support of her own party. Frank Roche, a radio talk show host and professor of economics at Elon University, has decided to challenge Ellmers in the Republican Primary, which will take place on May 6, 2014. With donations, as well as voters potentially split between two Republican candidates, Clay Aiken has a chance to seriously contend for the Congressional seat.


        Clay Aiken is not the first celebrity to run for public office. Sonny Bono, notable for his part in the singing duo Sonny and Cher, represented California’s 44th District from 1995, until his death in 1998. Arnold Schwarzenegger, famous for appearing in countless action movies for almost 40 years, served two terms as California’s governor, from 2003 until 2011. Also, as millions of Americans know, Ronald Reagan, the 40th President of the United States, was an actor before he became a politician. These men proved that a celebrity could be elected to public office, if his or her political views align with the district or state he or she wishes to represent.

        So far, the only people making a big deal about Aiken’s past appearance on American Idol and recording career are those not involved with Aiken’s campaign. On Feb.  3 of this year, Politico reported that Congresswoman Ellmers said: “As we all know he doesn’t always fare all that well. He was runner-up.” Ellmers was referring to Aiken’s appearance on American Idol, and perhaps overstepped her boundaries with her comments. Even if Ellmers is not a fan of Aiken’s singing, there is no argument to be made against Aiken’s success. A multi-platinum album, a New York Times best-selling book, and an appointment to the Presidential Committee for People with Disabilities (Aiken was a special education teacher before American Idol). Clay Aiken is no pushover, and it may benefit Congresswoman Ellmers to remember that.

Nothing says “‘MERICA!” like a Congresswoman’s husband reporting a military-grade assault rifle missing from their home. It’s almost too good. It forces me to ask why Ellmers is not receiving donations from gun-related PACs? Ellmers clearly values security, attention to detail, and large magazines, what else could gun-friendly donors want?

Aiken’s Chances

        Contrary to what many experts say, this seat is more of a toss-up than it seems. The incumbent’s own party is not united behind one candidate, and a very well known challenger is gaining momentum in the district. Clay Aiken is developing stances on key issues like education, the economy, and veterans issues that show that he is committed to progressive reform, and to finding a solution to partisan politicking in Washington. Aiken’s views seem to reflect a solution the voters of North Carolina’s Second District are looking for. Many voters in the Second District disapprove of Ellmers’ transformation into a Washington politician, and not a North Carolina politician. Voters want solutions to the problems they face at home, and unlike the Congressmen representing them, are not tied to the needs of a political party. Voters have the power to change what party or which candidate the vote for, and if the voters become alienated from a candidate, that candidate will not be reelected.

        Clay Aiken represents change. His views on jobs, education, and veterans are progressive, and reflects the simple fact that Clay Aiken cares about the people of North Carolina’s Second District. I say, forget about his past, for it has little bearing on his political career. Renee Ellmers is not scrutinized for working as a nurse before becoming a Congresswoman, so why should Clay Aiken be scrutinized for being a singer. Clay Aiken is running for Congress, and he seems to have applicable solutions for the state of North Carolina. Clay Aiken has a good chance to win North Carolina’s Second District, because the thing about North Carolina is, it is never quite as conservative as it may seem.

Will North Carolina’s new conservative laws be repealed?

An update on some of the legal challenges to be brought before the North Carolina Supreme Court.


In the past few years, North Carolina has seen the passage of a stunning number of conservative laws. However, our government is set up with a system of checks and balances, and these laws are subject to one final check: the judicial system. Lawsuits have been filed to stop many of the laws. Here’s an update on some of the key legal challenges.


        Every ten years, the General Assembly re-draws the state’s legislative districts to account for population growth. In 2011, the Republican-dominated General Assembly drew complicated maps (splitting neighborhoods, voting precincts, and even houses) that were designed to give Republicans a huge electoral advantage. These new districts made a big difference– in 2012 Republicans won 9 of NC’s 13 US House seats, even though 51 percent  of voters actually voted for Democratic candidates.

        While it’s arguably unfair, redistricting for partisan gain isn’t actually illegal. However, what might violate the law is the way the new maps concentrate African-American voters into just a few districts. As the argument goes, the maps “pack” black voters into districts that will inevitably be won by Democrats, so that other districts will be more competitive for Republicans. This dilutes African-Americans’ overall political power. Republicans counter that these districts were actually legal under the Voting Rights Act, which allowed packed majority-black districts to be formed to help African-Americans if a black candidate wouldn’t be able to be elected in a mixed-race district. Opponents of the new maps argue that African-American candidates had been getting elected even in mixed-race districts, so that part of the VRA didn’t apply. “One can’t honestly look at this and say it’s an effort to benefit African-Americans. Every African-American in the General Assembly voted against it, and there have been no African-Americans of any stature in the state speaking up in favor of what was done,” said Adam Stein, a lawyer representing the NAACP.

        Two legal challenges were filed against the maps: one by state Democrats, and one by a coalition of community groups, including the NAACP. Those challenges were eventually consolidated into a single case. Last year, an initial three-judge panel found that the maps were legal. Stein called the verdict “shocking,” saying that he believes their case is “extremely strong.” They appealed, and the case is now before the NC Supreme Court, which leans conservative. It is unclear whether the verdict will come before the 2014 elections. Regardless of who wins, the case is expected to be appealed to the US Supreme Court. The Court gets to decide whether they hear the case, but “if they take it… I would say we’d win nine to nothing,” says Stein. “Usually in these cases they’ve got an argument and we’ve got an argument. But here, I don’t think they have an argument.”

Voter Suppression

        Last year the General Assembly passed new voting rules, which included dozens of measures that will make it more difficult for North Carolinians to vote. These restrictions are purportedly to combat voter fraud, although many Democrats argue that the goal is to make it more difficult for key Democratic constituencies, like African Americans and young people, to vote.

        Last summer, the US Supreme Court struck down a section of the Voting Rights Act that would have required NC to pre-clear voting changes with the Justice Department to make sure that they did not have a disproportionate effect on African-Americans. This ruling will make it much more difficult to stop the law. However, several lawsuits have been filed under a different section of the Voting Rights Act, which requires that plaintiffs prove that the General Assembly was intentionally discriminating against black voters. This is a much tougher bar to clear. The suits also depend on the 14th and 15th amendments.

        Three suits have been filed about the law. Notably, one suit was filed by the Obama administration. The two other suits were filed by affected voters and organizations, including the NAACP. The lawsuits fight similar provisions, like requiring voter ID and shortening the early voting period, and mostly make similar arguments. Some measures, like ending the ability to vote straight-ticket, have not been contested. On the state’s side, in an atypical step the General Assembly appointed a private law firm to argue the case alongside Attorney General Roy Cooper, because Cooper has publicly come out against the law.

          The cases will be all be heard at the same time in federal court, under a judge that Stein says is “very able and bright,” but a “conservative judge from a conservative law firm.” The plaintiffs just won a ruling that will force legislators to turn over their emails related to the law, which could be a big help in proving intentional discrimination. The sides also battled about the pace of the proceedings: the plaintiffs tried to get the case decided by the next election, but the state balked at a fast-paced trial schedule, so the full case will be argued next year. However, in July the court will hear arguments about whether the plaintiffs show a “strong likelihood of success,” in which case the judge will issue an injunction so that the law does not go into effect for the next election. Whichever way the judge finds, the case will probably go before the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals, and then potentially the Supreme Court.


        In January, federal judge Catherine Earles struck down parts of a 2011 anti-choice law (the ‘Women’s Right to Know Act’) that was passed by the Republican legislature over previous governor Bev Purdue’s veto. Earles halted a provision that would have required doctors to show an ultrasound to women seeking an abortion, and verbally describe the fetus in detail. The law made no exception for victims of rape and incest, or those who were seeking an abortion for medical reasons. Earles ruled that it violated doctors’ First Amendment free-speech rights, saying that the state did not have the power to “compel a health care provider to speak, in his or her own voice, the state’s ideological message in favor of carrying a pregnancy to term.” The lawsuit was filed by a host of organizations, including the ACLU and Planned Parenthood, on behalf of several physicians. However, several other provisions, like a 24-hour waiting period, remain in effect. Attorney General Roy Cooper, despite being personally opposed to the law, is appealing the ruling on behalf of the state.

        In February, a federal appeals court also unanimously ruled unconstitutional a law that would have offered an anti-abortion license plate without providing an equivalent pro-choice option. The General Assembly passed a law that approved license plates saying ‘Choose Life,’ while rejecting proposals to offer plates saying ‘Trust Women,’ or ‘Respect Choice.’ The court wrote that this was “blatant viewpoint discrimination squarely at odds with the First Amendment.”            AG Roy Cooper has not yet released whether he plans to appeal the ruling.

Gay Marriage

        In 2012, the ACLU filed a lawsuit in federal court in Greensboro on behalf of six same-sex couples, challenging NC’s ban on second-parent adoptions. These adoptions allow one person in an unmarried same- or opposite-sex couple to adopt another’s child. Last year, in the landmark case United States vs. Windsor, the US Supreme Court found that the Defense of Marriage Act, which banned same-sex marriage on a federal level, was unconstitutional. Two weeks later, the ACLU amended the North Carolina lawsuit to also challenge Amendment One, the NC constitutional amendment that defined marriage as between one man and one woman. They are hoping that the US vs. Windsor verdict will bolster their case. It’s uncertain when the verdict will be released. Of course, same-sex marriage may be legalized nation-wide by the US Supreme Court before it is legalized on the state level.