Five years ago, Ian Simon and more than two dozen of his Missouri football teammates had reached a tipping point.
They saw numerous racist incidents occur on Missouri’s campus, and what they described as too much indifference from school president Tim Wolfe. The players then announced they would not take the field again until Wolfe resigned, part of a campus-wide protest for social justice. Wolfe eventually did step down, but in the interim, the players were inundated with death threats. One of those threats promised the players would be shot on the practice field.
“You’d walk on campus and a group of white guys or white girls would cross the street,” Simon recalled this week. “That happened on a daily basis, and they don’t think anything of it, but it hurts every single time.”
As protests have erupted across the United States in response to the killing of George Floyd, a black man who died on May 25 while in custody of Minneapolis police, more than 60 Missouri football players led a Wednesday rally, then walked from campus to the Boone County Courthouse in Columbia to register to vote. Instead of any immediate blowback, the players were praised by many for their solidarity.
It was just one of dozens of protests by college football players that have taken place across the country since Floyd’s death. A former Clemson player took to social media to tell the world about a racial slur used by a white assistant coach during practice in 2017; Texas wide receiver Brennan Eagles posted a warning that he might walk away from football to focus on promoting social change; Florida State star defensive lineman Marvin Wilson publicly called out his coach, Mike Norvell, for misleading comments about his interactions with players on the subject of race. Numerous former Iowa players have spoken out about mistreatment from their strength coach and an inhospitable culture toward black players within the team facilities. Dozens more players have shared their own calls for societal change via videos, photos and posts on their social media feeds.
These actions underscored not just a massive call for justice and action, but they also highlighted a major shift as athletes are protesting and seizing control of the conversation.
“The power dynamics have shifted, the status quo has been unbalanced, and it’s been tipped into the favor of student-athletes,” said former North Carolina linebacker Jake Lawler, who was lauded this week by Tar Heels coach Mack Brown after sharing an essay on the ways white people fail to acknowledge oppression of black people in society.
“I think having your own agency, and using that agency to make strides in your community, and having your own voice, that’s not something people will just give up.”
The imbalance Lawler refers to is new territory for many college football players. They have long been shielded by athletic departments and encouraged to keep their views on everything from race to NCAA regulations private, either due to pressure from administrators, coaches and teammates or fear of backlash from fans.
And while there have been examples of college football players publicly voicing their beliefs on social issues in the recent past, the response from outsiders was vocal, angry and often racist. And too often, athletic departments chose to appease offended donors and fans rather than support the athletes who spoke out.
Following Colin Kaepernick’s protests against police violence by kneeling during the national anthem back in 2016, Clemson coach Dabo Swinney drew criticism when he said he disagreed with Kaepernick’s actions and suggested some people kneeling during the anthem should leave the country. Swinney walked those statements back this week, calling them “harsh,” while several of his star players, including quarterback Trevor Lawrence, have emphatically spoken out about the need for significant social change. Still, after former Tigers tight end D.J. Greenlee confirmed this week that assistant coach Danny Pearman used a racial slur during a practice three years ago, Pearman publicly apologized, while Swinney has so far remained silent. (A request from ESPN for comment on whether Swinney now supports his players speaking out was not returned.)
Bomani Jones says he expects Clemson coach Dabo Swinney to live up to his faith moving forward after assistant coach Danny Pearman used a racial slur toward a player.
When Pittsburgh kicker Ian Troost decided to kneel during the anthem in 2017, coach Pat Narduzzi defended him publicly. But Troost says the school’s administration strongly discouraged him from doing it, while some coaches refused to make eye contact with him, and teammates dumped Gatorade on his jersey before practice and destroyed his shoes and gear.
In 2018, North Carolina players were among the many students calling for the removal of the “Silent Sam” statue of a Confederate soldier, which was eventually pulled down by protesters. The school’s board of trustees then suggested spending more than $5 million to build a new home where the statue could be kept safe (a plan that was eventually voted down by the board of governors).
“Athletes, there was the expectation to just shut up and play your sport,” Simon said. “And they love you for playing your sport, but especially when you take off the helmet and no one recognizes you, you’re just another black person walking the street.”
After Simon’s protest at Missouri finally resulted in Wolfe’s resignation, he remembers going home, collapsing onto his bed and crying.
“I felt liberated,” he said. “For a moment, the weight was lifted.”
That, Lawler said, has been the goal of speaking out now. Yes, there’s hope to change hearts and minds across the country, but offering a reminder to his fellow black athletes that they’re not alone is just as important.
“One of the tragedies that impacts so many black kids in this country — and it’s one of the unwritten things — is that if you’re a black child in this country, you’re not just representing yourself and your family, you’re representing an entire group of people, an entire race that looks like you,” Lawler said. “The prospect of that when you’re 9, 10, 12 years old — for some people, it’s too much to bear. So to be put into spaces where you’re allowed to speak your mind eases some of that strain.”
One of those kids was Rashod Bateman, who grew up in southern Georgia. He says racism was a part of life, and he saw it every day, in ways big and small. For the most part, he accepted it — he was young and didn’t know any better.
When he arrived to play football at Minnesota, he finally saw how different the world could be. More importantly, he said, he got a push from head coach P.J. Fleck to come out of his shell.
“Growing up, I never stood up to try to defend myself,” said Bateman, who has blossomed as a star wide receiver for the Golden Gophers. “It was normal for us. When this first happened, I didn’t know what to do. I went into my room and sat down and started thinking on how I could help. I knew there was only so much I could do being a student-athlete, but I wanted to use my voice the best way I can.”
George Floyd’s death has resonated deeply with Bateman. Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, who is white, was charged with second-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter after video showed Chauvin kneeling on Floyd’s neck for more than eight minutes as Floyd begged for air. Three other officers on the scene have been charged with aiding and abetting second-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter.
The soft-spoken Bateman went to Twitter, where he admitted he was afraid to go outside and implored followers to reconsider the way they treated people of color. He was among the first high-profile college athletes to show public displays of frustration.
My name is Rashod Bateman. I’m an African Male from South Georgia. I never thought in a million years I would be scared to walk outside. I pray that we all wake up and start loving each other the correct way and stop taking each other lives. No matter the color, we are all one. pic.twitter.com/KaW3AWpNJP
— Rashod Bateman (@R_bateman2) May 26, 2020
From there, the floodgates opened. Other head coaches and athletic departments issued their own statements of support. More athletes posted videos and heartfelt stories of their own experiences. Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren shared his own story about a traffic stop during which he feared for his safety.
Fleck posted a video not long after Bateman’s comments, praising his players for speaking out, offering a show of solidarity and suggesting the current generation can make real change.
Soon after, Pittsburgh wide receiver Dontavius Butler-Jenkins retweeted the video (and later deleted the tweet) with a stunning caption: “‘Empathy,’ is that too much to ask for from the ‘LEADER’ of our program?”
Troost, the former Pitt kicker who kneeled during the national anthem in 2017, wasn’t surprised. He has had conversations with nearly two dozen current and former Pitt athletes in recent days, looking for ways to enact change within the athletic department.
“Athletes should have a chance to take a knee without receiving backlash from racist donors,” one current Pitt player said, asking his name be withheld to avoid retribution. “You should have the right to speak up, and if a racist donor wants to put you back down, then they need to be cut. If you’re allowing this to happen, you don’t care about your players.”
Pitt is not alone in weighing the opinions of its athletes against the dollars supplied by donors or ticket holders who don’t want the school’s image being linked to racial protests.
Narduzzi held a team meeting Thursday morning, and the larger athletic department followed suit that evening with athletic director Heather Lyke, the dean of students and Chancellor Patrick Gallagher. Troost said he got messages from several current players displeased with the response from leadership, but most felt their head coach had made real progress. Narduzzi tweeted Thursday he was “truly humbled by the respect our players and coaches have for each other and the open-mindedness they approached today’s discussion with. Our country has a bright future as these new leaders emerge every day.”
“So many people are beating around the bush that it’s about police brutality because they have family or friends who are police officers — or we had a police officer assigned to protect the football team who was a great guy,” Troost said. “During my protest, the university had made Black Lives Matter political. Coach Narduzzi saying it, that helps remove the political aspect of it.”
Similarly, it was only after Florida State’s Wilson took to Twitter with a threat to sit out workouts that the school held a full team meeting to discuss the recent events and offer players a chance to express their feelings. Norvell thanked Wilson in a statement Thursday for bringing the issue to the forefront.
Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz offered a similar sentiment after numerous players voiced concerns about a toxic culture within the football program this week, but Ferentz couched his statement by noting, “I wish they had reached out to us directly” rather than take to social media.
That misses the point, said Emmanuel Rugamba, a former Iowa defensive back, who transferred to Miami (Ohio) in 2018.
“It was hard, because you would have these conversations with teammates,” Rugamba said, “and they would all end the same way: coming to the conclusion that it wasn’t going to change and it was just how it was done.”
Rugamba said there were occasional classes on diversity and inclusion that felt compulsory, and the overall culture lacked any significant push to empower black athletes, noting that in the two classes of football players before his, only three black players graduated, a concern echoed by several of the athletes at other institutions who spoke for this story.
“So I felt as if, you know, this is how it is here, it’s no changing it,” Rugamba said. “Just bite your lip and try to make it to the finish line and be one of the guys to graduate. No one really being a true voice for us led to us not being heard.”
That’s why social media has been such a catalyst in this moment. Athletes are coached on how to interact with the media, and access is usually granted only through supervision from department staff. To speak freely is a significant change, said psychologist Dr. Reuben Faloughi.
“When the conditions of the people become worse and the consciousness of the people increases — in this case, student-athletes — you have what we see, which is a change that’s upon us,” said Faloughi, who played football at Georgia before being a graduate student at Missouri when protests broke out in response to the death of Michael Brown, an 18-year-old black man who was shot and killed by a white Ferguson, Missouri, police officer.
“I’m curious and excited to see how these institutions who have power over these athletes will react,” Faloughi added. “There’s two options: They’ll listen and be open to finding ways to equalize the hierarchy of power or they’re going to ignore it and continue to minimize it and be dishonest. It’s actually a very exciting thing. It’s time for a change in our society, and it’s here.”
The outpouring on social media has also offered a sort of catharsis for some. Simon recalled a day at Missouri when he walked into a building on campus wearing a hoodie. He felt all eyes on him, a palpable sense of discomfort. It wasn’t until someone recognized him as a football player that the feeling evaporated. How was he supposed to explain that feeling to a white coach?
“My parents explained to me when I was very young, those things are going to happen and you’ll just have to be the bigger person and keep moving,” he said. “You’re taught as a black athlete to just do that. Put your head down and keep proving them wrong. We just had to chalk it up to ‘It is what it is,’ because it’s such an uncomfortable conversation for a lot of white folks to have, so you bite the bullet and just get back to work.”
Like the larger protests in cities across the country, white teammates have also spoken out in support of the movement. High-profile players, including Clemson’s Lawrence and Texas quarterback Sam Ehlinger, have emphatically said they support their black teammates.
— Sam Ehlinger (@sehlinger3) May 31, 2020
Still, some players remain skeptical that once the spotlight of the current protest movement begins to fade, the power leveraged by athletes in recent days will also diminish.
“You [are seeing] some of the most diverse protests in American history,” Simon said. “But at the collegiate level, it’s hard to say. That’s deeply rooted. That’s in the culture. That’s in families, in private conversations that happen in homes.”
Said one ACC player who asked to remain anonymous: “They’re using us players for their entertainment, so we deserve a seat at the table — at the big table. Do we feel like we really have rights as athletes? As of right now, we don’t have that. They want us to be quiet because they don’t want the university to look bad. But it’s too late. The whole country looks bad.”
The cross-section of sports, culture and politics is nothing new, including in college football.
In 1936, Howard’s football team went on strike prior to a game against Virginia Union because the school didn’t provide pre- and postgame meals. In 1969, 14 Wyoming players were dismissed for wearing black armbands the night before a game against BYU to protest the school’s policy of prohibiting African-Americans from leadership positions. They lost a subsequent lawsuit against Wyoming, but later that month, San Jose State players wore black armbands in its game against Wyoming in support of the group that called themselves “The Black 14.” And, just six years ago, Arkansas running back Jonathan Williams raised his hands and arms in the “hands up, don’t shoot” pose frequently used by protesters after Brown’s death in Ferguson.
University of Minnesota head coach P.J. Fleck believes “the world can learn a lot from college football teams” and encourages players to let their voices be heard.
When Missouri’s protest resulted in Wolfe’s ouster, it was “a pebble in the stream,” said Charles Harris, one of the Tigers’ protesters, now with the Atlanta Falcons. He said more pebbles have been added since, and he thinks things might have reached a critical mass.
“It’s a justification of what we knew back then, which is that at some point on the collegiate level, student-athletes were going to have to use our voice to bring about change,” Harris said.
But student-athletes of color should not be expected to do it alone, Faloughi said.
“Racism, classism, heterosexism — they find their way into sports, and because of the focus on the team and this one identity, people’s differences are drowned out,” he said. “You’re a Georgia Bulldog or a Florida State Seminole. But what happens is, people stop appreciating the unique differences and identities, and as a black athlete, when an unarmed person dies and no one talks about it, it makes you feel isolated in your community.”
Faloughi said the isolation is exacerbated by a lack of black leadership in athletic departments, where there may be a few black assistant coaches but rarely any minorities in positions of real power and influence. According to the most recent staffing report from the NCAA, there are currently 14 black head coaches among the 130 FBS schools, four of whom are entering their first season at their current program. Meanwhile, 56% of FBS players are black, and there are only 15 black athletic directors.
Faloughi said he’s unsure how much can truly change until the fundamental system of college football is altered. As the NCAA debates how much players can profit from their name, image and likeness, coaching salaries continue to skyrocket and some institutions continue to prioritize a calm exterior image while storms brew within the locker room, it’s hard to envision true change.
“Until we have a real honest conversation about how money flows to people with power and not to the employees, workers and athletes who put their bodies on the line, we’ll continue to have these problems,” Faloughi said. “Until programs start seeing these athletes as humans who have different experiences and different needs, things aren’t going to change.”
Lawler sees it a bit more succinctly.
“If you have the ability to do what’s right, you have the responsibility to do what’s right. I just can’t be silent anymore,” Lawler said. “I can’t beat around the bush. I will be direct and honest. It’s not divisive. My message is about unity and about toppling a system that has oppressed black citizens for hundreds of years.”
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