Black athletes at CU: Darian Hagan, players see progress, room to improve

  • Cliff Grassmick / Staff Photographer

    Colorado basketball player Xavier Johnson, left, and volleyball player Alexis Austin join their classmates in song during the commencement ceremony at Folsom Field on May 7.

  • Cliff Grassmick / Staff Photographer

    Colorado football players Derek McCartney, right, and Sean Irwin talk before commencement at Folsom Field on May 7.

  • Kira Horvath / Staff Photographer

    Xavier Johnson came to Colorado to play basketball, but now has a degree and will play next season while working toward a graduate degree.

  • Cliff Grassmick / Staff Photographer

    Colorado football player Michael Adkins II walks to Folsom Field among fellow students before the CU commencement ceremony on May 7.

  • Cliff Grassmick / Staff Photographer

    Colorado running backs coach Darian Hagan jokes with Michael Adkins II during practice. Hagan said the campus environment has improved for black student-athletes from when he played from 1988-91.



Campus diversity

Since 1988, the University of Colorado has become a more diverse campus. A look at the diversity in the fall of 1988 compared to the fall of 2015 (includes all undergraduates and graduate students):

Year 1988 2015

Total students 23,750 30,789

White 82.48% 68.94%

African-American 1.54% 2.25%

Asian American 3.94% 7.01%

Hispanic 3.92% 9.82%

International 3.82% 8.31%

Native American 0.49% 1.43%

Pacific Islander N/A 0.48%

Unknown 3.80% 1.76%

Note: CU did not starting counting numbers for Pacific Islanders until 2010.

Source: CU Office of Data Analytics

Late one night after a party near the Colorado campus, Buffaloes basketball player Xavier Johnson and a couple of his teammates stood by their car and chatted for a while with a few female students.

Eventually, the women left and Johnson and his teammates — all of whom are African-American — got into their car to go home.

“Before we even start the engine, two police officers come and walk up to our windows, as if they were sitting on the corner across from us waiting for us to get done talking to these ladies so they can arrest us,” Johnson said.

The players didn’t get arrested, but they were told to get out of the car and were questioned by police and asked to present their IDs.

“I kind of felt a little discriminated against in that situation,” said Johnson, who also spoke of positive interactions he has had with Boulder police.

Boulder and the University of Colorado have always been places where the African-American population has been a small minority group, bringing with it a set of challenges with which others don’t have to experience.

However, despite a few isolated incidents, such as the one described by Johnson, CU and the Boulder community have come a long way in the past quarter century in giving CU’s black athletes and general students a more comfortable and inviting environment.

“It’s really nice because it shows progress,” said Darian Hagan, who quarterbacked the Buffs from 1988-91 and is now an assistant coach for the football team. “It shows that people change, things change; nothing stays the same.

“To see the progress and to see there’s not the same bigotry that was once here is awesome.”

Tough times

Hagan, 46, first arrived in Boulder in fall 1988 to play quarterback for the Buffs.

Growing up in the hardened streets of South Central Los Angeles, in the same gang-filled neighborhood where the 1988 movie “Colors” was filmed, Hagan had never experienced a community like Boulder.

In 1988, blacks made up only about 1 percent of Boulder’s population, and only 1.54 percent of CU’s student body.

“You knew people were going to say certain things: ‘The only reason why you were here was to play football. You didn’t deserve to be here. And, why are you here?’ ” Hagan said.

Last fall, ESPN debuted a 30 for 30 documentary titled, “The Gospel According to Mac.” It was mainly a feature about legendary CU coach Bill McCartney, but it also profiled the 1990 national championship football team. Among the sub-stories was the struggle that the black athletes had in Boulder during that time.

“These kids have come into Boulder and they’ve come into a foreign land, and the people there are treating them like foreigners,” McCartney was quoted as saying during the film.

At the time, CU’s football team was criticized locally and nationally for the high volume of players getting arrested. A Sports Illustrated article in 1989 wrote about more than two dozen football players who had been arrested in about a three-year span. Many of them were the black players who, according to accounts in the 30 for 30 documentary, retaliated after racial slurs and discrimination directed at them.

Local police actually carried CU game programs with them to help them identify the players, according to the SI story.

Hagan said he never really experienced the hate many of his teammates did, but said, “It was bad.”

It was bad enough that backup quarterback Charles Johnson said during the documentary that many of the black players went to McCartney and requested a transfer to another school.

The players stayed, as McCartney backed his players and called for change in the community.

Time for change

After a while, Hagan said, the black players began to stick to themselves when they wanted to have fun. Linebacker Chad Brown often hosted house parties for black players and students.

“That kept us out of the spotlight; it kept us amongst ourselves,” Hagan said. “Chad Brown’s house became our club scene and it kept guys out of trouble.”

For the black athletes and students to truly succeed at CU, however, more had to be done. McCartney was an advocate for his players and pushed for a culture change.

“In order for us to be successful at the University of Colorado, we first had to be successful in Boulder,” Hagan said. “We had to be able to walk around our community and be involved in our community without being targeted.

“We had to transform; (the community) had to transform, and as a result, Boulder it is what it is today because of it.”

American society, in general, has changed since the late 1980s, and Boulder is no different.

“I think the acceptance part is awesome,” Hagan said. “You can be who you want to be and do anything you want to do, and that’s what this thing called life is all about.

“Our guys can go anywhere they want to go, and nobody targets them.”

Living in comfort

More than a quarter century after the struggles experienced by CU’s black athletes, today’s Buffs paint a picture of a campus and community that is comfortable.

“I haven’t felt any real hate on this campus,” Johnson said. “I feel pretty comfortable on campus.”

African-Americans still make up only about 1 percent of the Boulder population, and CU still has a low number of African-American students (2.25 percent this past fall), and that presents some challenges.

In the fall of 2014, CU conducted a climate survey, with about 18 percent of the student body participating. In that survey, the response from black students was that only 8 percent agreed CU was a diverse campus, 26 percent felt valued on campus and 38 percent felt like they belonged on campus.

The black athletes interviewed for this story gave a different view of campus life, however. They spoke of small incidents where they might get looked at a certain way, but echoed Johnson’s sentiments about feeling welcomed and comfortable.

Women’s basketball player Brecca Thomas said, “Boulder is so warm and welcoming. People are just generally nice out in public.”

Thomas said she has never felt discriminated against during her time at CU and after watching the 30 for 30 documentary, she said, “It’s nice to see how much it’s changed.”

Football player Afolabi Laguda grew up near Atlanta. He has been at CU for about a year and said his white teammates certainly blend in more around town than he and his black teammates do, but he has loved his time here.

“It definitely was a culture shock,” he said. “At this point I’m very comfortable in Boulder. People are very friendly out here.

“I feel like I’m more of a cultured person coming to CU than I was when I left Atlanta.”

Like the rest of his teammates, Laguda watched the 30 for 30 episode in the fall, and he has heard many of Hagan’s stories from those days. He’s thankful that CU is no longer like it was at that time.

“Some people’s opinions will never change, so you’re always going to live with that,” he said. “We live that still to this day, but it’s very rare.”

In fact, Laguda believes the community looks up to the players and hopes the team can find success on the field.

“I feel like people in Boulder kind of see you as a pillar in the community and they’re just waiting for us to be back on top,” Laguda said. “That’s what everybody is anxious about.”

Campus diversity

While the percentage of African-American students at CU has not changed much since 1988, CU is a more diverse campus than it was at that time. In 1988, 82.48 percent of CU’s enrollment was made up of Caucasian students; last fall that was number was down to 68.94 percent.

Over the years, CU has seen a dramatic spike in Asian and Hispanic students. CU didn’t even start counting Pacific Islanders until 2010; that year, just 19 were enrolled, but this year there are 148.

A week ago, Johnson graduated from CU with a degree in ethnic studies and psychology, and he said the overall diversity has been a great benefit to all the students.

“There’s a mixture here and I think it’s better to see that,” he said. “With more diversity at this school, better and different educational programs will arise. That will help bring even more diversity to the school and bring even more culture.

“This school, no matter what, is probably going to be predominantly white, but if we come to this school and we can learn from different cultures and different ways of living, then we can improve on so many different things.”

The raw number of black students at CU has risen from 365 in 1988 to 693 this year. That indicates that more non-athlete black students are coming to Boulder, and that brings a smile to Johnson’s face.

“It makes my heart feel good to see a black man or person of color who doesn’t play sports be at the University of Colorado,” he said. “It’s good to know that you can’t point at this African-American or black man and say, ‘He’s just here because of sports.’ No, he’s here because he earned his education; he earned a scholarship here for his degree.”

In many cases, it’s both. Johnson came here to play basketball, but now has a degree and will play next season while working toward a graduate degree.

Room for improvement

By most accounts, CU has become a much more inviting campus for the black student-athlete than it was a quarter century ago. It can certainly get better, though.

Johnson said he would like to see more black students come to CU, and Hagan would like to see more diversity among campus leadership. Johnson and Hagan also pointed out that Boulder merchants can help.

“In Boulder you still don’t have a place for African-Americans to go and get their hair cut, go and get products they need on a daily basis,” Hagan said.

Johnson and many of the football players have to go to Denver to get haircuts or buy the types of oils and brushes they need.

More than anything, though, CU athletes said the main thing the campus can do is to continue to increase its diversity and help students of all colors feel comfortable as Buffaloes.

Athletes, in fact, come to CU with the advantage of having a built-in support system from their teammates and coaches, and Laguda believes CU could help those who don’t have that support.

“For somebody else who doesn’t play a sport, it kind of feels lonely and it’s just interesting to see what they say and hear,” Laguda said. “I feel like that’s for any student. Even some white students in my classes feel the same.”

CU’s current black athletes have learned, however, that when they embrace the school’s diversity, it makes for a better college experience, and helps to produce more well-rounded adults.

“I would say I’ve definitely grown as a person,” Johnson said.

Hagan also grew as a person during his time as a CU athlete. Now, as he sits in a position of leadership with the Buffs’ football program, he’s pleased to see CU has also grown up.

“Totally different place,” he said. “But, it’s still beautiful, still a great school and institution.”

Brian Howell:, on Twitter: @BrianHowell33.

Pac-12 diversity

Percentage of African-American undergraduate students at each school in the Pac-12 Conference. Statistics taken from the Common Data Set collected during fall 2015, unless noted:

Stanford 6.09%

UCLA 4.33%

*Southern Cal 4.31%

Arizona State 3.78%

Arizona 3.77%

Washington State 3.40%

Washington 2.51%

California 2.12%

Oregon 1.93%

Colorado 1.60%

Utah 1.38%

*Oregon State 1.37%

(* Statistics from fall 2014)

Comparing CU to other in-state schools: Northern Colorado is at 4.03%, Denver is at 2.41% and Colorado State at 2.30%.