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Oregon Ducks Fans are Tailgating In the Parking Lot of a Youth Jail

The University of Oregon has spent a decade as a college football powerhouse behind huge donations from Nike founder Phil Knight. Their stadium is directly across the street from a juvenile detention center.

Mary Pilon

Mary Pilon

Photo by Mary Pilon

It was the day before the University of Oregon Ducks were to play Washington State at home and a teenager with a flat top, soft voice, and criminal record stood up in court and started to talk sports with the judge. His mother held a cooing baby. His lawyer looked on and smiled.

"I started boxing," he told the court. "I'm doing good in math, too. That's a new thing for me."

He was one of a dozen or so teenagers who filed into Lane County Juvenile Court on Friday afternoon on a range of charges that included robbery, arson, burglary, reckless endangerment, and sexual abuse in the third degree. As the clusters of teens, family members, and lawyers waited in the lobby to be called before the judge, Autzen Stadium, the 54,000-seat mecca for Ducks football, loomed behind them in a large window across Martin Luther King Boulevard.

While much has changed about Duck athletics, including a new, sprawling complex of Nike-funded buildings nearby, the youth center—which features both a court and a detention facility—was almost exactly as I remembered it 17 years ago when it was the subject of my first-ever published article for the hometown paper, the Register-Guard. I was drawn to the contradiction even then: How was it that some of my classmates were in court, detoxing from drug addictions and dealing with the consequences of violent crime while others were getting recruited to the top-tier football program across the street?

The detention center's parking lot has long been prime real estate for tailgating at Ducks games, especially as the team's success has ballooned in the last decade. The two make strange neighbors, all the more as the nation chooses sides over football players taking a knee during the national anthem, arguing that it's the players' right to act against racism in America or that it muddles sports and politics and has no place on the field.

A beer garden on the lawn of the Lane County Juvenile Justice Center. Photo: Mary Pilon

The #TakeaKnee turmoil over criminal justice, racial history, and sports bubbled up again recently when Vice President Mike Pence left an Indianapolis Colts game after several players knelt during the anthem. Meanwhile, owners and NFL commissioner Roger Goodell continue to spar with players.

On this side of the street, pamphlets titled "Quit Tobacco in Pregnancy" and "Parents' Guide to Gangs" lay about the lobby. Beeps of the metal detector sounded just beyond the courtroom, where a wiry man with concave cheeks paced nervously as two men in camouflage hats talked cars. Later that afternoon, a mother of a sexual assault victim gave a statement to the judge that included details about her daughter being born with a meth addiction. A guardian reported that a teen on probation, another victim of sexual abuse, was "raging at home." The 28-day detention meant he was "clean for the first time of his life," his advocate said, after being admitted to the emergency room for an LSD overdose. "But now we're noting relapses," she said. A young man with slumped shoulders was recommitted after admitting to violating his probation and smoking pot. "He really wanted to do sports," his advocate said. "But his attendance at school is not good."

Like many prisons, Oregon's have a disproportionately high percentage of people of color. Black residents make up 2 percent of the state's population but 9.3 percent of the state's prisoners. Here in Eugene, where pot is legal, tie-die is common, and murals celebrating diversity abound, the population of 150,000 is 90 percent white, making it even less diverse than Portland two hours north, known as the whitest city in America. Perhaps this is not surprising, considering that Oregon was founded as a white utopia and black people were barred from the state altogether until 1926 and other racist language in the state constitution was not removed until 2002.

As a white child in Oregon's public schools (including one named after Thomas Jefferson), I learned about Selma, Birmingham, and Montgomery as cradles of the Civil Rights movement, but I didn't learn about racism in my home state. Or, that Autzen Stadium sits in Lane County, named for Joseph Lane, the state's first governor and a slavery advocate whose policies displaced or killed Native Americans.

Oregon may not have as many confederate flags or statues of Civil War generals as some of its Southern football peers, but it does have buildings that are now being renamed because of their connections to KKK members. My alma mater, Thomas Jefferson Middle School, was recently renamed the Arts & Technology Academy and boasts a new track named for Margaret Johnson Bailes, an African-American sprinter who practiced on the gravel behind the school and went on to win a gold medal as a teenager at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City. Yet other buildings named for outspoken racists, including at least one on the U of O campus, will keep their names as a "wonderful learning experience."

On game day, the parking lot of the youth detention center was packed, a sea of green and yellow tents. Two men in their twenties tossed a yellow football back and forth as friends plunked little balls into red beer pong cups. A local brewery had fenced in a beer garden on the detention center's lawn, and loud jock jams blared in a frenetic symphony. The smell of burgers sizzling on the grill wafted through the air as a light rain came down. High fives and chest bumps abounded.

Oregon fans in front of the justice center. Photo: Mary Pilon.

As I roamed the parking lot before kickoff, it became clear that the vast majority of people there seemed completely befuddled or clueless that they were tailgating in the parking lot of a juvenile detention facility, and in some cases, had been for years. One woman in a bright yellow hoodie brandished a Coors Light can and told me that she knew the detention center was there, but "didn't want to talk about it" as she walked away. A college student who lived in a housing complex nearby told me she thought its existence "was a rumor," even as she stood a few feet away from the sign: LANE COUNTY JUVENILE JUSTICE CENTER.

Views on player activism were mixed, too. "I believe this is our country," Amber Meyer, a native of Eugene and alum tailgating in the parking lot with her husband, said. "Put the hand on the heart."

"That's a prison?" Rick Westby, a fan in a green U of O hat said, looking over his shoulder at the large signage. He perched on a grassy knoll with his cousin, Bill Westby, a Cougars fan, and noted that he had been coming to games at Autzen since the 1980s. "I had no idea!"

Regardless, Westby said that he hoped that President Trump's hostility toward athlete activism didn't hold back college players in Oregon. "It's everybody's right," Westby said. "It's why we live here—the ability to express our views."

Back in the stadium, the Ducks band played the national anthem and unfurled a field-size American flag, putting the fans on their feet, chanting, "USA! USA! USA!" The players, who at Autzen don't come out onto the field during the anthem, then appeared. Washington State won 33-10.

The Oregon Ducks coach, Willie Taggart, isn't known for talking politics publicly but he has won respect among his players for hosting political conversations in the locker room and allowing them to express their views in social media. Last month, Taggart brought players together to talk in small groups about their backgrounds and what led them to Oregon.

"As athletes we should take advantage of our platform and speak on social injustice that's going on," senior cornerback Arrion Springs told the Oregonian. "Instead of us being silent, we should speak out about it."

After the game, slumped-shouldered athlete press conferences were focused on the follies of the game: a young offense, the challenges of a fresh quarterback, giving Washington State too many opportunities to score. Across from the stadium, in the detention center parking lot, the tents were packed up one by one and the cars pulled out into the night.