Florida State head football coach Mike Norvell found out on Thursday that words — and the actions that back them up — mean everything right now.
During an interview with The Athletic earlier this week, Norvell claimed to have had “a lot of open communication” with his players and gone “back and forth individually with every player this weekend” about the death of George Floyd.
Star defensive lineman Marvin Wilson refuted that claim on Twitter on Wednesday night, saying, “This is a lie and me and my teammates as a whole are outraged and we will not be working out until further notice.”
Thursday morning, Norvell apologized in a team meeting. Afterward, Wilson came forward with a video that detailed the team’s plans moving forward, which includes everyone on the team registering to vote, participating in fundraisers that help send black kids to college, and being more active in the Tallahassee community. All great suggestions that hardly anybody would complain about.
However, Norvell’s fabrication of the extent of his outreach to his players resulted in the latest example of black student-athletes being faced with overlooking the shortcomings of their white superiors, because not to do so would hurt the “team.”
“Team,” here, actually means those who benefit from the free labor of black people, something the United States is familiar with historically.
And for Norvell to exaggerate this particular situation is significant, because it is in regard to the biggest issue that affects the black student-athletes he benefits from: police brutality and the systemic oppression the black community faces in America. Norvell also did so when it is the easiest it has ever been to show some sort of “support” for black Americans, because damn near everybody’s doing it.
It took courage for Wilson to step up and call out Norvell. Former Nebraska linebacker Michael Rose-Ivey took a knee during the national anthem in 2016, and he received death threats for it.
“I think, first off, you have to look at the geographics, where he’s located in the South,” Rose-Ivey, in reference to Wilson, told ESPN on Thursday. “I remember when I was kneeling, I had spoken to a couple of cats in the SEC in particular, that sent their support for the movement. But it was almost the same at just the end of every paragraph, ‘I appreciate you brother, you’re doing the right thing. I would love to join you kneeling, but I’m in the South.’
“… I hope [Wilson] has some local leaders down there that have their arms around him for support, because he’ll definitely be tested. People just want the banter, so they’re going to continue to come at him and make sure he’s really about what he’s talking about. He sounds like he’s very educated and passionate about it, and those are two things you have to have to be on the forefront. His courage should be celebrated, and I hope that his teammates don’t fold under the pressure of trying to fit in as a status-quo athlete, and actually hear him out.”
And that’s one thing many people are now actually starting to do: listen. Coaches and their predominantly white staff members would benefit from creating environments where players can voice their concerns without fear of retribution.
This is important because players at different universities are going to have different grievances or concerns — understanding broader black issues is important, but it’s also essential at a more local level. A player at a school like Ole Miss isn’t going to have the same experience as a player at UCLA or Maryland. The same issues black people have been facing will be there, but colleges are different for infinite reasons. With a better understanding of where players are coming from on both local and national levels, coaches and universities can better help advance change.
Dress codes or any kind of policing players’ attire is another issue coaches can mend. Regulating what black players can and cannot wear is similar to dress codes implemented in public places to keep black consumers out. Any number of things — like earrings, jewelry, sneakers or hats — are used to discriminate against black people. This is perhaps not as common today in the locker room, but it is still a form of discrimination that some coaches may not be aware of. Does it matter if a player has diamonds in his ears? Or a chain around his neck? No. The answer is no.
Another important factor for real change: the need for more black coaches. In 2019, just nine of the 65 Power 5 conference schools had black head coaches. Yes, that’s low, and looks even worse when you consider 46% of the football players for those Power 5 schools were black. If you expand those numbers to all of FBS, or even all of Division I, those numbers don’t really improve. Heading into 2020, there will be 14 black head coaches among 130 FBS schools.
The NFL has proven that a Rooney Rule, which requires teams to interview only one minority head-coaching candidate, doesn’t work. The hiring has to start with an increase at position coaches, which leads to more coordinators, which then leads to more head coaches. So, as things stand now, white head coaches can start filling out their staffs with more individuals who look like their players.
It will be a challenge, as only 12% of current FBS athletic directors are black. There is simply a lot more minority hiring that needs to happen from top to bottom when it comes to positions of power in college athletics. When you hear people talk about “systemic” racism, this is what they are talking about. These extremes are like this because it was designed to be this way.
Watching countless people (inside and outside of sports) throw up empty statements or black boxes on Instagram, without any action behind it, just to pretend they care about the systemic oppression black people face from police or otherwise, is exhausting.
But it is not new. Neither is this current uprising of protests. Black people in America have been waging this fight for more than 400 years. This is just the latest chapter in the book. However, as far as modern protest goes, this time certainly feels different.
Rose-Ivey told ESPN: “The only way we can see if that’s true is through the actions of not just our community, but the people around us who are ‘displaying’ their signs of support. How real is it? How genuine is it? That’s going to be the major thing going forward.”
Norvell’s initial, ungenuine comments weren’t even true, prompting Wilson to speak up. And no matter what statements of forgiveness the players give Norvell, the players won’t completely forget. They can’t.
Black people don’t have the luxury of being able to forget, because if you are black in the United States, knowing your history is a key to survival. It’s why we have a hesitation to do seemingly simple things, like go to certain places, wear hoods, or why we take very specific safety precautions around police. Seminoles players will keep these recent events in mind, because it might benefit their well-being down the line. That’s something only a black person could explain to you, and that’s why there is yet another movement.
The measures Wilson outlined in his video are good and can help advance black people in society. Voting and supporting one’s community helps, as well as helping pave a way for young black people to get an education who might not otherwise have the resources. They are ways of breaking down the system that everybody can participate in, whether it be a player or a coach.
“At the end of the day, it’s really going to take genuine action,” Rose-Ivey said. “Genuine displays of truly caring about what the movement stands for, and the people in the movement. [Coaches must] truly care about you outside of that helmet. ‘I truly care about you outside of making that game-winning touchdown. I truly care about you outside of anything you can bring to me on the field. I genuinely care about you and the plight, and your journey of those around you.’
“It’s just gotta be a change of heart.”
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