Column: The View From Here: Meleia Willis-Starbuck and the Sociology of Sports By P.M. Price

Tuesday October 18, 2005

I hadn’t planned to write another column about Meleia Willis-Starbuck so soon but things change and this is about more than Meleia. No sooner did I write my last column saying I hoped that John Burris, her accused murderer’s attorney, wasn’t attempting to lay the foundation for blaming Meleia for her own death with his statement that Christopher Hollis’ bringing of the gun to the scene of the crime was an example of his being “too dependable,” than Burris was quoted that same week stating that he knew that Meleia asked Hollis to “bring the heat.”  

Those closest to Meleia insist that she would never make such a request nor would she use that phrase. So, who says she did? Her accused murderer? Some unnamed Cal football player? Who? It is so easy for the public to take rumor and innuendo and make it fact, as evidenced by a letter to the editor printed in the Oct. 11 edition of this newspaper which does exactly that, taking it as fact that Meleia requested the gun and unjustly blaming her for her own demise. 

And so it goes.  

Having spent many years working in television and advertising, I know something about using words and images in order to sway a society full of non-readers to specific opinions, whether those have to do with which detergent to buy, car to drive or politician to vote for. As a law school grad, I know a bit about legal maneuvering as well. 

Only those who were at the scene of the crime know what was said and done, and even then, opinions and perspectives will vary. We bring our life experiences and biases to every situation. Objectivity is more of a goal than a reality. My own opinions concerning the sensitivities of the sports world are based in growing up in a household of men—three brothers and a father, sports fans all—and having worked in television news and observed first-hand the predominance sports coverage has always been granted over other issues much more important to society as a whole.  

My objections to the deification of sports and to the plantation-like treatment of athletes was heightened after taking an undergraduate course at UC Berkeley taught by Dr. Harry Edwards, “The Sociology of Sports.” Through Dr. Edwards’ lectures and related readings, I came to understand sports as industry and athletes as commodities. 

Dr. Edwards likened the sports industry to slavery, drawing stark parallels between the buying and selling of young men who are then beaten up and battered on the playing field before they are discarded or traded in for newer, younger models. 

Of course, the athletes’ participation is voluntary, unlike slaves who had no choice. But the similarities remain. Most of these recruits are from working class backgrounds; undereducated and poorly skilled. Growing up in a society which measures one’s worth by the quantity and quality of one’s material possessions, these young men see few options that will bring them the money, women and other toys they’ve been taught to crave. It’s no secret that many of these athletes are coddled through college, placed in less challenging courses and provided with tutors to help maintain their eligibility and strict schedules to keep them out of trouble until their contracts are signed and their able bodies delivered.  

Does this picture describe the Cal football players who disrespected Meleia and her friends? Perhaps. We cannot know for sure because not a single one of them has had the courage to speak up and hold himself accountable, no matter how small his role.  

Predictably, their handlers will say that; 1) they are cooperating with the police and; 2) they have been instructed not to say anything until the investigation has been completed. Of course. But, nothing is keeping them, as individuals, from stepping up and expressing their sorrow for what happened to a woman whose company they desired, then argued about, then disrespected until she lay there dead on the streets of Berkeley. Self-respect, morals, values and courage turn to cowardly mush when money is concerned. That’s the way the game is played.  

I attended Meleia Willis-Starbuck’s birthday memorial Oct. 10, the day she would have turned 20 years old. I looked over the crowd of about 150 or so people to see if any one of them could have been a beefy Cal football player, come to pay his respect.  

Hard to tell. There were a couple of big guys there but who knows? Most likely, none of them showed up, content to keep their mouths shut in hopes that it will all soon go away; that no one will ever know which of them called Meleia a bitch, which of them listened while she tried to explain why that term was so offensive, which of them felt any remorse as she lay bleeding to death at their feet. Instead, they keep their eyes on the real prize; the contract, the check, the bling, the temporary glory. That’s what a winning team does. Nothing else matters.n