June 21, 2021

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Opinion: Murder of George Floyd changed the conversation for college sports

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As outrage boiled across the country one year ago following the murder of George Floyd at the hands of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, I spent an afternoon reaching out to people across college football with one question: Where were the coaches? 

It had become clear pretty quickly that athletes were going to play a lead role in demanding that the entire country, not just Black America, invest in equality and understand the need to address police violence.

But even as protests were popping up across the country and many college athletes were publicly sharing their emotional turmoil, only a few coaches had even acknowledged the injustice that occurred on the afternoon of May 29 — the day Chauvin was arrested, four days after Floyd’s death. Chauvin was later convicted for the murder of Floyd.

Perhaps the coaches’ silence shouldn’t have come as a surprise. Since the full integration of college football in the early 1970s, there has always been an unspoken tension between those who play the sport and the largely white fans who buy tickets and fund facilities with their donations.

This plays out in myriad ways across generations, from the backlash at Ole Miss banning the Confederate flag, to former President Donald Trump getting a standing ovation at the LSU-Clemson national championship game in New Orleans and earlier that season at Alabama, to the threatening emails from Texas boosters over the Longhorns’ Black players protesting “The Eyes of Texas,” a song that some believe has a racist origin. 

In other words, the default mode for college sports — and particularly coaches — has long been to avoid saying anything meaningful about racial inequality or social justice that might invite backlash from white fans. Still, it wasn’t entirely clear how deeply ingrained that mentality was until I started making some phone calls to people who work closely with coaches, asking them if they planned on making any public statements about Floyd. 

The answer, initially, was no. 

“You have to understand that many football programs have a lot of local police support,” said one person involved in those public messaging conversations, who spoke to USA TODAY Sports on the condition of anonymity because they were intended to be private. “They have bodyguards; they have stadium people. …These are such sensitive, polarizing issues. I think people were looking at it like it’s better to be judicious and make sure it’s fact-based.”

Georgia Tech coach Geoff Collins was one of the first Power Five football coaches to express his support for those protesting the treatment of George Floyd, who was murdered while in police custody in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/Jon Barash, File)

But by nightfall on May 29, the Friday when large protests erupted in numerous cities, the script had completely flipped. One statement after another was tweeted from official program accounts — some more generically decrying racism, others more specifically tackling the issues around police violence and brutality against Black people. By the end of the weekend college coaches couldn’t afford not to speak out. 

Though it may not sound like much — what’s a tweeted statement really worth, after all? — it marked a subtle but significant shift for college sports that has resonated across the 365 days since Floyd’s death.

Make no mistake, the tension between Black college athletes advocating for social justice and more conservative white fans isn’t going away and still has the potential to create backlash.

But the difference now is, most schools and coaches aren’t nearly as worried about that as they are the fallout with players if there’s not an effort made to hear and sympathize with their concerns.

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As one FBS athletic director said, the biggest change from last May 29 until now is that it’s impossible for a coach or administrator to stand up in front of a group of athletes and tell them to set aside their views or concerns to appease donors because those players would simply walk out the door. And now with the free one-time transfer that the NCAA has granted, they have more freedom than ever to do it — at which point the wealth of the donors becomes fairly irrelevant to the pursuit of winning. 

It’s not perfect, and it’s not universal, but the broad acknowledgment that it’s no longer necessary to cater to the feelings of the “stick to sports” crowd would not have happened without the events that followed Floyd’s death.

And it’s led to some significant moments.

FILE - Texas football players are reflected in the glasses of coach Tom Herman in Austin, Texas last year after they marched to the State Capitol during a protest over the death of George Floyd.

There was a reckoning at Iowa over racial and cultural biases within the program that affected Black players, leading to the dismissal of longtime strength coach Chris Doyle. Oklahoma State players responded to Mike Gundy’s public embrace of a far right-wing news outlet that denounced the Black Lives Matter movement with a near-mutiny that led Gundy to apologize and agree to school-friendly contract changes. 

Though his efforts were ultimately unsuccessful, Texas A&M quarterback Kellen Mond led protests to take down a statue of former school president and Confederate general Lawrence Sullivan Ross. Last June, star running back Kylin Hill tweeted that he would not play for Mississippi State anymore unless the state flag was changed to remove a Confederate battle emblem, leading to a campaign that involved coaches Lane Kiffin and Mike Leach. 

There were other initiatives that were more symbolic but also invited criticism from some fans, like the Memphis football team wearing stickers on their helmets that said “BLM” to honor the Black Lives Matter movement.

“My job here is to serve our student-athletes,” Memphis coach Ryan Silverfield toldThe Athleticat the time. “People are gonna be unhappy. They weren’t happy when I sent previous tweets (about social justice). They weren’t happy with some of the recruits I’ve taken. They weren’t happy with the unity march. They weren’t happy with my calls during the Cotton Bowl. We’re always gonna be criticized for decisions. But we’ve got to be there for the players, continue to grow, and make steps in the right direction.” 

Even Dabo Swinney, whose initial response to the Floyd murder was viewed by some inside and outside the program as tone deaf, would not have it when some fans criticized players for wearing helmet stickers with social justice messages.

“Nobody is ever going to fully agree on certain things,” Swinney said. “But, hopefully, people can respect our young men and what they believe in and what their different causes are that they want to bring awareness to or support or whatever that may be through whatever platforms have been made available to them.”

Even if you consider that the bare minimum, we must recognize it’s a baseline that didn’t even exist a year ago when coaches were slow to put out even an anodyne statement about Floyd. 

But the amount of progress made in just one year shows the importance of recognizing that racism and police violence is a real threat for many of their players, even if talking about it makes some fans uncomfortable.

“Predominantly white coaches, predominantly white ADs, predominantly white college presidents, predominantly white boards of regents … their voices are becoming less powerful than the guys on the field,” said the person who was involved in the messaging conversations last May. “When it became so important to them, it had to be important to the coaches.”

And once the ball got rolling and a few coaches were compelled to acknowledge what their players deal with every day — no matter the potential backlash — the focus finally shifted to where it belongs.

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