The three young men who were shot and killed last Sunday on the campus of the University of Virginia were students there. D’Sean Perry described himself as an “artist” on social media. Devin Chandler had declared American studies as his major. Lavel Davis Jr. was the sort of attentive student who made a point of introducing himself to his professor on the first day of class to quietly signal that he was eager to engage and not simply let lectures wash over him — a fact that was noted by that very professor after his death. When they were killed, they were on a charter bus returning from a field trip to the nation’s capital where they’d seen a play. They also happened to play football.
None of these things are especially unusual for people at the beginning of adulthood, although all of them are remarkable. Yet in so many of the reports about the tragic shooting, the identifying feature that blared the loudest was the fact that the three who were killed played football. They were three football players who had been shot. Football players were mourned.
Their connection to the school’s football team is relevant in painting a full picture of who these young men were, and the fact that the accused shooter was once a member of the team may prove to be significant. But the way in which their athleticism has been highlighted, underscored and lionized, one might have thought that football was their profession rather than a hobby or a passion. At the very least one might have assumed that the tragedy occurred in direct relation to a game or a practice or a workout. But it did not.
So many of the headlines specifically screamed that three football players had been the victims, as if that designation gave them a slightly more important status than that of a mere student, as if athleticism was the most important lens through which to see three young Black men, as if football’s loss is the greatest loss of all. One wonders if three debate team members had been killed whether the headlines would have mourned them as debaters?
The heartbreaking death of these students — along with the wounding of two others — in yet another mass shooting at a school is an affront to everything Americans tell themselves about how life should unfold for the young. But the default description of the dead as football players first and students somewhere thereafter, gets at cultural conundrum: the complicated knot in which sports, race and achievement are bound.
These young men are Black. Football led the description of them in many of the stories as a kind of signal of success, wholesomeness and acceptance. Their Blackness did not necessarily cause the latter. But stereotypes and cliches can be suffocating for young Black men and one of the enduring tropes has them excelling on the field or the court but all but invisible in the classroom, the science lab or the artist’s studio. The culture is quick to lionize young Black men with fast feet or nimble hands but those with quick and creative minds too often have to slog it out in the shadows.
Being football players was not the victims’ headline achievement. The glory was in their status as students.
To describe them as students is to imply wide open possibility. It’s to paint them as inquisitive and thoughtful, and yes, possibly impetuous and noncommittal as well. There’s an element of idealism in that title. To be a student is to exist in a place of heady optimism and belief in a promising tomorrow. It’s the act of delaying gratification and investing in something unseen. Labeling them as football players first underscores the fraught business of college sports in which the mythical student-athlete is really just an athlete. It suggests that who they might ultimately have become had already been decided. It’s specific. It’s limiting. It’s short-lived.
This is not to imply that quarterbacks and running backs aren’t admirable. They are. Athletics can unite a campus. They create bonds. But when addressing all that’s lost in the death of Chandler, Davis and Perry, the hole is vast. People like to describe the leadership skills and integrity that can be learned and demonstrated in sports, but those same characteristics are bound up in what it means to be an accomplished student: to contribute to the scope of knowledge in a classroom, to move intellectual inquiry in a new direction, to inspire constructive debate through the charisma of an open mind, to create something out of nothing.
The photographs of Chandler, Davis and Perry that were released to the public by the University of Virginia came from the athletic department, but the students are dressed in sport jackets and ties. Their smiles are so wide and open; they’re the definition of blinding. Their youth is evident. Their tie knots are imprecise; their dress shirts look a tad too big. One can still see the little boy in these young men, even through Perry’s goatee. The pictures are of young men whose lives have yet to be defined, lives in which football may well have ended up as just a data point. Defining them in big bold letters as football players, allowing that to be their epitaph, asks those who didn’t know them personally to inscribe them into their memory in a way that makes their lives feel even more truncated.
Under the heading of football player, what might the world imagine for them? Making an NFL team? What might the world imagine for a striving student? Almost anything.
Encouraging people to remember these young men as students is to force a reckoning with the unfathomable amount that has been lost. The unknowable heartbreak of it. It’s more than can even be imagined.