Commentary

Virginia walk-on fasts for a cause

Originally Published: February 28, 2012
By Mark Schlabach | ESPN.com

Editor's note: Joseph Williams announced on Tuesday's "Outside the Lines" that he ended his hunger strike Monday night.

Virginia safety Joseph Williams had his last meal eight days ago, when he ate a double quarter pounder with cheese and shared french fries and chicken nuggets with his girlfriend at a McDonald's.

[+] EnlargeJoseph Williams
University of Virginia Joseph Williams' decision to fast has hampered his rehab from an ankle injury.

Since then, Williams has survived on nothing but water and a few cups of juice.

Williams, a walk-on player who is about to begin his third season on the Cavaliers' football team, is one of about 20 Virginia students who are on a hunger strike to protest the pay of the university's service-sector employees.

The senior from Sterling, Va., started his hunger strike on Feb. 19. He walked into McDonald's that night knowing it would be his last meal for quite a while.

"It's definitely taken a toll on my body and mind," Williams said Monday. "I'm definitely tired. I can't stand up or walk around for very long. It's hard to concentrate in class and do things like reading. I've had mostly water and a little bit of juice as the days wore on so I could keep my energy up."

Williams, who has played in two games on special teams for the Cavaliers, said he has lost about 12 pounds since starting his fast.

Williams, 19, is a member of the Virginia chapter of the Living Wage Campaign, which has demanded that the university raise wages for its lowest-paid workers to meet the basic standards of cost of living in Charlottesville, Va.

On Monday, members of the group met with university officials, including president Teresa Sullivan, and more meetings are scheduled for Tuesday.

Williams has helped bring media attention to the group's campaign because he's a football player.

"We're hoping by bringing attention to the cause, it will put pressure on the university administration to negotiate with us," Williams said. "The campaign has been around for 14 years and they've ignored us when we've tried to negotiate in the past."

Williams said the cause hits close to home for him because he spent much of his childhood living in homeless shelters, church basements and friends' homes. His father, Bruce Williams, abandoned his family when Joseph was 7 years old. The family was living in a homeless shelter in northern Virginia at the time. Williams' mother, Rhonda, was left to raise Joseph and his three siblings.

"When you're in certain situations, especially as a child, it's not easy to see how hard it was, especially how hard it was on my mom," Williams said. "It was definitely hard on my mom having to care for your children and making sure we had what we needed."

Williams eventually reconnected with his father, who died in 2010.

"There were a lot of factors in my parents separating," Williams said. "Obviously, I would have liked for things to turn out differently, but I don't hold any grudges against my father. I guess he did the best he could with what he had."

Despite the family's early struggles, three of Rhonda Williams' children attended college. Joseph, who graduated from high school when he was 16, is majoring in political and social thought. He has applied to Virginia's Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy, where he hopes to earn a master's degree. Williams hopes to work in education policy or social welfare after he graduates.

That's one of the reasons the Living Wage Campaign is so personal for Williams. He is an example of what people can persevere through. Although Williams has blocked many of the forgettable memories from his childhood, he still remembers his family living paycheck to paycheck. Williams estimates his family moved at least 30 times when he was young. And he still remembers what it was like to go without meals -- or electricity or water when there wasn't enough money to pay utility bills.

Williams
The Living Wage Campaign at the University of Virginia Williams plans to end his fast Wednesday, before he begins a service project in Belize.

"These people are living paycheck to paycheck and having to work two or three jobs to put food on the table," Williams said. "They're having to do without some utilities because they can't pay for it. The university definitely has the means to correct it."

Last week, Williams wrote an essay about the issue on activist/filmmaker Michael Moore's website:

"Our University seeks to distinguish itself as a caring community and prides itself on traditions of honor and student self-governance," Williams wrote. "However, in our 'caring community,' hundreds of contract employees may make as little as $7.25/hour while six out of the top ten highest paid state employees in Virginia hold administrative positions at the University. Many employees, mostly women and African Americans, do not receive enough pay for their basic necessities to exist in Charlottesville, where the cost of living is nearly 10% higher than the national average. This extreme inequality has disturbed and disillusioned students for decades, many of whom have tried to grapple with issues of race, class, and poverty in and out of the classroom. We have taken every conventional route towards this goal, garnered wide student, faculty and community support -- yet our pleas have been consistently ignored and workers are still paid unjust wages."

In an email sent to University of Virginia students, faculty and employees last week, Sullivan said she has worked to help increase the salaries of the school's lowest-paid employees since taking office in August 2010. "The number of employees earning less than $25,000 was reduced by nearly half, from 317 to 165 individuals," Sullivan wrote. "The number of employees earning the minimum entry-level hiring wage dropped from 61 to 26."

Williams said Virginia's coaches and trainers are concerned about his health more than anything else. He was forced to postpone much of his rehab for an ankle injury that required surgery last season. Williams said one Cavaliers coach told him he was disappointed he was participating in the hunger strike.

Cavaliers head coach Mike London wouldn't comment on Williams.

Virginia athletic department spokesman Jim Daves sent the following statement to ESPN.com on Monday: "Coach London supports his players being involved in activities and organizations on Grounds while keeping in mind their commitment to the team and their teammates. He feels that balance is an important part of their overall college experience and that's why he is such a big proponent of community service activities. At the same time, he wants to make sure they value the opinions of other individuals and are respectful in of these types of ventures."

Williams said his hunger strike will probably end Wednesday.

Two days later, he's leaving for Belize for another service project with a student group at Virginia.

"The battle is not over yet," Williams said. "We accomplished some of the things we wanted to accomplish. But we haven't gotten everything done we wanted to do."

Mark Schlabach covers college sports for ESPN.com. You can contact him at schlabachma@yahoo.com. For more information on the Living Wage campaign, visit LivingWageAtUVA.org.

Mark Schlabach | email

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