PARDON ME, I'd like to interrupt your regularly scheduled programming and introduce you to America's rarest athlete: Wonman Joseph Williams. His first name's a Korean word that means full harmony, but you don't need to check his papers. He's a defensive back on a Division I football team. You know, a student-ATHLETE.
He's a 19-year-old who stands up during team meetings at Virginia so that he won't fall asleep, but not because he's sluggish or disengaged. You see, he's attempting to do something that's nearly impossible at a college in the U.S. today. He's trying to be a student, an athlete and a human being. He's trying to live in full harmony.
Lotsa luck, kid! See you around!
Wait. That's him again, darting through a frigid rain and dripping into UVA's Alderman Library. His eyes fix on a student whose head has sagged onto a table amid the laptops, books and coffee cups. "That's one of the hunger strikers," murmurs a classmate. "He's two days in. They're doing it for the Living Wage Campaign."
Full Harmony stares in puzzlement. He has attended Living Wage rallies on campus, has friends in the crusade. He knows what's at stake for the thousands of campus workers barely scraping by, many on incomes at or near minimum wage. He knows the scrapers too: the old black dudes who scrape the snow and dog crap off this gorgeous green playground for the mind that Thomas Jefferson wrought nearly two centuries ago, the women who scrape the gravy and mayo off the plates in the dining-hall kitchens. Full Harmony's not another one of those students who cross campus with their eyes locked on their smartphones. He sings out greetings to total strangers, popping the bubble wrap around his school's elite matriculants, slicing at the distance between the students and the townies who serve them, perplexing all who've yet to perceive what he and they share. So how—besides the fact that he's a student-ATHLETE, one of 444,000 young American men and women who annually turn over their lives because they wish to play a college sport—has he missed hearing about this hunger strike?
He flashes a text to one of the Living Wage campaigners, a classmate named Hallie Clark: I didn't know y'all were hunger striking.
We sure are, she replies.
A thought and a nervous tickle run through him: He needs to join them. He needs to stop eating and watch the muscles on his 5'10", 207-pound body begin melting away so that Mama Kathy, the woman he hugs when she swipes his ID card at the dining hall, and Miss Mary, the lady he always chats with at the convenience-store cash register in the basement of Newcomb Hall, and all of their coworkers can.... But, c'mon. He's busy rehabbing the surgically repaired ligament in his left ankle, the one that wiped out most of his second season, so he'll be ready when spring ball starts in a few weeks ... and besides, imagine what his coaches would say ... and really, sports and social justice, they just don't mix anymore. Who in the last 40 years, in the wave after wave of American student-ATHLETES—not to mention the 4,100 young men on the rosters of the four mainstream professional sports each year—has made a stand like this?
Good. He can't hear that bitter cackle in the distance. It's one of the old, gray warriors from the front lines of the 1960s and early '70s who'd be willing to bet what this kid's going to decide. It's John Carlos, the bronze medalist in the '68 Olympic 200 meters, who raised his black-gloved fist on the medal stand to bring attention to racism in the U.S. and brought all hell down upon his head. "Athletes today?" he cries. "They don't know history! They don't want to come out of their box and risk people taking away their lollipops!"
Full Harmony whips out his cellphone again. Coach can't say no if Coach doesn't know. Count me in, he types.