Photo Credit: Eric Francis

The 130-Year Journey of Inclusion From George Flippin to Now

November 07, 2022

Erryn Butzke heard about Nebraska before she saw it.

She grew up in a sports family that happily talked her through her college dance recruiting decision. It was the mid-1990s. Her grandfather spun tales of the great Tom Osborne and the dynasty he’d just built. Nebraska remained folklore until she flipped on CBS Sports to watch the NCAA National Championship dance competition. That’s where her eyes met the Scarlets — graceful, fluid and purposeful. A wide shot showed the dancers’ full routine. Quick camera work displayed their athleticism up close. They moved as one. Almost like a united rhythm. One camera pan showed a Black dancer on the largest possible stage. That could be her.

Butzke went to high school in St. Joseph, Missouri. She was the only young Black woman on the dance team. This was pre-social media and, without an onslaught of national videos available with a finger swipe, she saw comfort. Maybe Nebraska could become home.

“I don’t know, there was something about her,” Butzke remembered. “She looks like me, she’s doing what I do, maybe I could go to college and dance too. If she could, I could.”

That moment sparked her interest in Nebraska. She visited Lincoln and loved the energy. The Huskers just won their third National Championship in four years. She applied and never looked back. She loved it so much she returned after a brief NFL stint. Twenty-five years later, she’s the Scarlets head coach.

Nebraska — the flagship university and state in general — is predominantly white. As of 2021, the school’s undergraduate enrollment was 75% white. Over 90% of the faculty is white. But 130 years ago the Huskers boasted team captain George Flippin, the Black son of a freed slave and Union Army veteran. On Nov. 5, 1892, Missouri refused to play Nebraska because of Flippin’s presence on the team. His legacy at Nebraska soured before the school reckoned with its past as part of ongoing initiatives. The school created an active diversity, equity and inclusion outreach initiative so current and prospective minority students could see themselves comfortable at Nebraska. That goes for those in leadership, those heading athletics, the athletes themselves and general student body. Mickey Joseph became the first Black head coach of any NCAA-sanctioned varsity sport in the school’s history when he was named interim football coach on Sept. 11. Exactly 130 years passed since that game and Saturday’s game against Minnesota when Nebraska was led by Black men, one carrying the American Flag and one as head coach. Nebraska’s changed in those 130 years but for some it’s still one constant — home.

Dr. Lawrence Chatters is happy to lay the framework for a home with prospective Nebraska students. One of his multiple roles within the university involves implementing diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives. Those provide resources for hundreds at Nebraska. His intentions include celebrating all who come to Nebraska and helping prepare some of its most diverse students for what they may encounter, good or bad.

“We can sometimes focus on all the negative things happening to us but we can also focus on the positive things and we can focus on our ability to react to those things that are happening, positive or negative in our life,” Dr. Chatters said. “I’m a psychologist by trade, I can tell you that. So a lot of the work that I do with student-athletes and staff is specifically focused on just them helping better understand the psychology of how things work.”

Like most schools across the country, Nebraska has levers in place in the event of harassment. Most notably, perpetrators who are identified and confirmed to harass other spectators at games are removed. Students and spectators alike can reach out with information for support in the event they are subjected to such behavior.

The institution focuses on preventing, rather than reacting.

Dr. Chatters takes pride in bridging gaps among Husker Nation and broadening the perspective of diversity. That’s the goal of the Red Carpet Experience, which creates an opportunity for Husker fans without the financial ability to purchase tickets a way to experience Nebraska football football games. He’s witnessed the motivational and inspirational powers Husker football exhumes. The endeavor breaks down financial barriers so disadvantaged Husker fans can become one with Husker Nation and see themselves beyond circumstance.

“I’m really proud of the Red Carpet Experience but even more than that proud that we have brought inclusion to the center of everything we do here in Nebraska athletics and we’re going to continue to build on that,” Dr. Chatters said.

It’s part of the overarching goal of building bridges of understanding. That’s something he’s personally encountered as a Bellevue native who’s made plenty of trips to rural communities with less diverse populations. His wife’s family is from West Point and Dr. Chatters met the people there and in communities just like it. Sometimes they don’t experience much beyond their home communities. With understanding comes education of the unknown so it’s no longer mythical and scary. Mutual respect comes from the exchange of stories and perspectives so all stories are shared and amplified.

“We’re trying to celebrate individuals from all different types of backgrounds and create a sense of belonging for everyone in Husker Nation so there’s not just certain people who feel like this is their space,” Dr. Chatters said. “We want everyone to believe in what we’re doing here and our cause.”

Runner Sadio Fenner vaguely knew what he was getting into when he visited Nebraska the first time. At his high school in Colorado Springs he was one of many but since arriving at Lincoln he’s often one of the only Black students in each class. It’s just one of the things he’s learned to deal with while reaching out to classmates in a similar position.

Fenner has encountered micro aggressions and learned to utilize what Dr. Chatters and his office teach. He’s carved a space for himself in Lincoln by reaching out and having difficult conversations.

“You can either learn, choose to close yourself off from those people and let them be or you can pull them from those gaps to try and bridge that level of misunderstanding and pull them to a level of understanding some of the things that they say or do can be seen as harmful or negative,” he said.

Fenner received the Shane Osborn Student Leadership Award and holds a leadership position in the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee. He was an active voice on campus in 2020 in the fallout of George Floyd’s death and the nationwide protests that stemmed from it. That followed initial protests against police brutality. Former Husker linebackers Michael Rose-Ivey and Mohamed Barry and defensive end DaiShon Neal received racially charged threats when they kneeled during the National Anthem in the 2016 game against Northwestern. Some threats suggested they be lynched before the following Nebraska game. Gov. Pete Ricketts called their protest “disgraceful and disrespectful.” Gov. Ricketts and Rose-Ivey were scheduled to meet and discuss the topic but Rose-Ivey postponed the meeting until after the season.

Rose-Ivey added during his powerful speech addressing those threats that most comments he received were more positive. Just a few years after a trio of Huskers received threats, a Black man stood at the podium as head coach.

“Whenever he demands the rights of citizenship he is accused of self-seeking,” Nebraska’s first Black football player, Hall of Fame inductee George Flippin said in a speech. Flippin became resented by the most vocal of Husker fans. He was denied services and, on occasion, forced to eat away from the general public. Pressure in Omaha and Lincoln forced him to live in Stromsburg, where he ran a medical practice until his death. The school now celebrates Flippin’s trailblazing career a century after his exile. It’s been forced to reckon with the past — warts and all.

Using the truth of the past as motivation for progress recently emboldened Fenner. Over the summer he went to Selma, Alabama, where one speaker’s words struck a chord. She experienced the Bloody Sunday attacks. Years later she reached out to a younger group of listeners.

“It was my generation’s job to put the unity back in community,” she said, “but it’s your generation’s job to put the human back in humanity.”

That’s his goal this year. He wants to work with the athletic office and do everything in his power to strengthen relationships for one another. Because that’s where the energy is better spent. He and Dr. Chatters share the vision.

Dr. Chatters was in the room when Mickey Joseph was introduced as interim head coach. He saw a young Nebraska alum return to lead his team on the sidelines as opposed to under center after more than three decades. He acknowledged the sacrifices made along the way.

“Considering that he’s had to overcome a significant amount of challenges as a student-athlete here and to go on to be a coach for the last 30 years,” Dr. Chatters said. “It’s just a culmination of that and to stand up there at a podium like that, it inspires everyone.”

Fenner was shocked by the statistic that accompanied Joseph’s hire but not the hire itself. Maybe this could be a landmark step for inclusion, he hoped.

Joseph said at that press conference he didn’t think about what it meant to be the first Black head coach at Nebraska. There was a game to prepare for. He needed not only to coach through it but prove he belonged on that stage. In the weeks that followed he’s led a begrudged, desperate fan base into a humming chorus of believers. More than doubling last year’s conference win output in his first two opportunities, Joseph instilled hope for a fan base that clings to it.

Nebraska fandom is most often engrained during the transformative moments of youth. Butzke see people of all ages in the stands during games — the prideful adults and wide-eyed, awestruck children. She reminds the Scarlets they’re creating lifelong memories. They’re part of birthday and Christmas cards. The cheers last moments but fans immortalize them as memories.

Butzke’s mother was a nurse in the 1990s and beamed about her daughter with one patient who was a Husker fan. He loved hearing about the Husker he never met. Butzke received a subtle hint to send a gift with her mother. She sent a hat, program and poster in a get well package. Butzke didn’t think about it much, even after the patient died. In time, his widow wrote Butzke a letter. The care package was a bright spot during a heart-wrenching time for their family.

Butzke kept that card. When Dr. Tom Osborne interviewed her for the coaching job she handed the card to him. She knew what it meant to people to be part of Husker Nation. He reveled in it.

More minority Scarlets followed Butzke. She’s proud of that. After all, she came to Lincoln because she saw part of herself already dancing for Nebraska on TV. She stays in touch with that inspirational dancer. Now they’re bonded in scarlet and cream.

“I think that it’s that feeling of belonging. To think that I could fit in there or I belong there too,” she said. “That’s something. Even if I want to be available to any young dancers whether they be male, female, Black, white, Asian, Indigenous, whatever cultural background, I think it’s still important to be a woman of color in this position and to be seen.”

The University of Nebraska is a school and a national brand. Those who represent it are immediately elevated onto a national stage whether they’re at the head of the football program, on the sidelines or in administration. But it’s also a place of comfort. Mickey Joseph quarterbacked at Nebraska and, 30 years later, made history leading the Huskers once again. He left his Louisiana home by choice to come back. Butzke followed her NFL dreams upon graduating. She chose to return to Nebraska. Because for some, regardless of identities, there’s still no place like it.

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