The statements were great, but now is the time for college football coaches to do more
As the flood of college football coaches released statements and spoke against racism in the wake of George Floyd’s death, I tried to put aside my cynical mindset. That cynical mindset that made me wonder “are they just doing this because they want people (recruits) to think they’re good people? Or are they doing this because they really want to be advocates for long-term change in this country?”
That’s when I realized that in the short-term it doesn’t matter which side they fall on. At least they’re using their platforms to address this instead of burying their heads in the sand.
The majority of their players are black. The majority of the players they’re recruiting are black. This wasn’t and isn’t just an issue for the black head coaches to address. It’s for everyone who calls themselves a citizen of the United States.
Here’s the thing, though. This isn’t going away. The protests might die down — hopefully looting and property damage takes a massive decline — but racism won’t end with the flip of a switch. Come fall, there’s still going to be a need for these coaches to continue to be advocates for long-term change. It’ll take far more than a PR-driven statement or a few tweets.
Now is when coaches can really impact change.
Before you write that off and say “why can’t coaches just worry about winning games?” think about this. They are, because of their ability to win games, in a position to do more. Players and their families are going to want them to do more. Not everybody in this country makes 7 figures and has millions of eyes on them on a given fall Saturday.
And if you don’t think that coaches can impact thinking, take Dabo Swinney. Swinney has been in hot water publicly all week for ducking a question about racism in our country and saying we have a sin problem. Had Swinney been asked about sin specifically, nobody thinks twice about his answer. Swinney speaks emphatically about his faith. It was that he took a hot-button issue and swerved out of addressing it directly.
“First and foremost I know that we are all hurting for the Floyd family and our country,” Swinney said on Monday. “I can speak for our entire staff and our team in that regard for sure. We have all witnessed just disgusting acts of evil. That’s really the only word I can appropriately use.
“What I know as I approach everything from a perspective of faith is that where there are people, there’s going to be hate, there’s going to be racism and greed and jealousy and crime and so on because we live in a sinful fallen world. We’ve had so much bad news.”
That’s not doing more to impact change. That’s generalizing racism and putting it in the same category as lying or stealing.
As expected, Swinney was subject to criticism nationally (it didn’t help his cause when a former player called him out for not addressing one of his white assistants using a racial slur in practice 3 years ago). It’s a different story within the Clemson community. Obviously. That’s the world we live in. Of course the coach with 2 national titles is going to have people who support anything he says, and especially if he spins it back to his faith.
Nobody is telling Swinney to stop talking about his faith. They just want him to start speaking specifically about racism because of how many people are listening to him.
So what will coaches do now? What can coaches do?
They can bring in African American leaders in the community to address their teams. They can donate their money to organizations like the ALCU, the NAACP, Communities United Against Police Brutality and Know Your Rights Camp.
The mission of Know Your Rights Camp is to “advance the liberation and well-being of Black and Brown communities through education, self-empowerment, mass-mobilization and the creation of new systems that elevate the next generation of change leaders.” That, by the way, is Colin Kaepernick’s organization. You don’t have to be pro-kneeling or anti-kneeling to support a mission like that.
Speaking of anthem kneeling, coaches and fans are naive if they don’t think that’s happening across college football fields this fall. It won’t just be black players, either. There will be fans and administrators who don’t support that. Will coaches stand up for their players? Or will they treat it as disrespecting America instead of shedding light on a human rights issue?
That’s when they’ll really be tested. That’s when they’ll be asked by players and their families to do more than just release a statement.
In the meantime, there are others things that coaches can do. The actions of someone like Sam Pittman should be appreciated. Pittman went to downtown Fayetteville and joined Arkansas players in a peaceful protest:
— Tim Heilman (@Timothy_Heilman) June 3, 2020
Pittman said he did that because he felt that actions were stronger than words. That was how he took action.
There’s nothing political about that. That’s supporting a cause that impacts his players, friends, co-workers and strangers. The reason so many coaches felt compelled to speak on this issue and not remain silent is because this is more about equal rights than anything political.
Mizzou coach Eli Drinkwitz took action, too. He went with his players to the Columbia courthouse and kneeled for 8 minutes and 46 seconds to honor Floyd’s life. And what did they do after that? They had 62 athletes register to vote.
Tell me that’s not a powerful sight:
— Eliah Drinkwitz (@CoachDrinkwitz) June 3, 2020
And hey, say what you want about whether he’s an elite football coach, but Jim Harbaugh taking part in an anti-police brutality march is taking action:
Jim Harbaugh, sporting a maize and blue mask, took part in an anti-police brutality march in Ann Arbor this morning.
— Aaron McMann (@AaronMcMann) June 2, 2020
That’s why this is important for college football programs. In a time when certain voices are louder than others, they can spark change. Do people listen more to the coach who wins more games? Probably, but at a time like this, they should be willing to take advantage of any platform they have.
That’s not going to be easy. It never is when it comes to truly taking action. There are always people who are going to be upset. There are always going to be people who question motives.
When Mississippi State hired Sylvester Croom to become the first black head coach in the history of SEC football in 2004, you can bet there were plenty of people who said that the university only did it for public image reasons. As I said with the motives behind coaches releasing statements after Floyd’s death, that’s OK. The result is the same. It’s still taking action and promoting change.
Croom admitted that he wasn’t going to take the job because he knew what it meant to be the first to do something. He didn’t change his tune until a friend told him that if he didn’t take the opportunity, it could be another 30-40 years before we saw the first black coach in the SEC. That’s when it hit Croom that he had an obligation to pave the way for others the same way that others paved the way for him.
College football coaches of all colors now have an obligation to impact long-term racial change. They can unite. They can be vocal. They can support.
And they can do that regardless of how many football games they win this fall.