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Ex-Georgia player Faloughi at center of Missouri protests

Three members of the Missouri football team, J'Mon Moore, Ian Simon and Charles Harris, are surrounded by supporters of the student protest group Concerned Student 1950 as they speak to reporters. (New York Times photo)

At the center of several protests that prompted Missouri’s school president and chancellor to both resign in shame is a former after-thought of a football player from Georgia.

Being at the forefront of a movement wasn’t something Reuben Faloughi planned on. But it turns out having the intelligence of an honor student and the tenacity and determination of a walk-on can be a lethal combination in real world issues.

“I’m doing the exact same thing I did as a walk-on at Georgia,” Faloughi said Tuesday by phone. “Going hard. Walking into a room with a chip on your shoulder. But instead of trying to prove you’re good enough to play football, you’re fighting for social justice.”

College athletics never will be the same because of recent events at Missouri. The resignation of the University of Missouri system president Tim Wolfe and chancellor R. Bowen Loftin came in the aftermath of protests resulting from a string of reported racist incidents on campus, a hunger strike by one of Faloughi’s friends, grad student Jonathan Butler, and — the knockout punch – a threatened boycott from the football team, fully endorsed by the university’s $4 million-a-year coach, Gary Pinkel.

It doesn’t take a Ph.D candidate like Faloughi to recognize the obvious.

“It’s power. Money talks,” he said.

Reuben Faloughi was a walk-on player at Georgia from 2009 to 2012.

The power is with college athletes. This is something university presidents and athletic directors haven’t wanted to acknowledge in recent years. They balked at increasing scholarship values and allowing student-athletes to capitalize on their likeness. The position of university administrators would’ve been more understandable if they hadn’t long ago stomped on the concept of amateur athletics. So they were stomped in the court of public opinion, and real court.

But it’s not just about money now.

University presidents created this monster of college athletics. When they elevated the stage, they elevated the players. If this can happen at Missouri, where the football program generates $37.9 million in annual revenue, it can happen at Georgia, where football brings in $86.7 million.

It doesn’t mean protests will become commonplace. But the door is wide open now and one would be naive to not recognize the potential for more.

“When we speak of power today, a lot of times it refers to the amount of wealth accumulated,” Georgia wide receiver Malcolm Mitchell said. “Football teams accumulate a lot of wealth. You have no choice but to pay attention.”

Faloughi expects and supports more student-athletes using their platform.

“College athletics have become exploitative, particularly to black males. So to see them stand up and confront an institution now is powerful,” he said. “We need to bridge the gap between the general student population and student athletes, especially in predominantly white institutions.”

Administrators are suddenly reaching out to Faloughi. Among them: Carla Williams, Georgia’s deputy director of athletics, who sent an email of support.

Not bad for a special teams player.

Faloughi is from Augusta area and was a walk-on linebacker at Georgia in 2009. He earned scholarships the next three years, with academic honors along the way.

He said he frequently encountered overt racism in Athens, from being called the “N” word – “I never kept a running count,” he said when asked how many times – to being denied service in a bar. (Worth noting: “General Beauregards,” a Confederate-themed bar in downtown Athens, closed recently after it was accused of having a version of a Margarita called a “N*****ita” on a drink menu.)

Athletes were “privileged” and “catered to” at Georgia, he said. “But if they didn’t know you played football, you were just another black guy and you might not get into the bar.”

On campus, Faloughi said, racism was more “covert. … Some professors viewed me as a black athlete, not a student. They had low expectations. I told them I wanted to get into a Ph.D program for psychology and they said I wasn’t prepared for that. Obviously they were wrong.”

This is the new campus reality.

“Athletes see the power they have now,” Faloughi said. “This won’t be the last time something happens.”

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