Protests and demonstrations stemming from the death of George Floyd took place across much of America this weekend. He was killed when a white police officer held his knee on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes. In the wake of Floyd’s death, many sports figures have stepped forward to express feelings and opinions on race relations in our country.
On Saturday, many of Georgia’s coaches spoke out on Twitter. All of the following tweets were tweeted by UGA head coach Kirby Smart or shared on his own Twitter account.
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” DR. MLK This can’t continue! Praying for a better future. To whom much is given, much will be required. (Luke12:48)#CoachesStandForJustice— Dell McGee (@DellMcGee) May 30, 2020
This is my family and I love them. They deserve to be treated with love, respect, and equality. Period. pic.twitter.com/EJN9UMepfT— Glenn Schumann (@CoachSchuUGA) May 30, 2020
It’s hard to believe that I’m typing this in the year 2020, but it is significant for a head football coach in the SEC to come out and speak on any sort of political matter, particularly one involving race. Football coaches are programmed to be hyper-focused on their teams, and one of the ways they do that is by keeping themselves out of headlines that involve anything other than football.
The Southeastern Conference’s footprint is in, well, the South. There are people who support the school and the team who have strong conservative beliefs. There are undoubtedly and sadly racists who identify as fans of the teams who play in it. That racist can be a booster who cuts a big check. They can even be the governor of the state the coach is employed by.
By all accounts, Bear Bryant was anything but racist. However, he also never pushed the issue of race. Bryant wanted a young high school quarterback by the name of Condredge Holloway on his Crimson Tide football team, but he didn’t want him to play quarterback. Bryant felt that Alabama, the institution and the state, wasn’t ready for a black man to play the sport’s most high-profile position. So Condredge went to Tennessee and broke the SEC’s quarterback racial barrier on Rocky Top instead. In a state where the Bear was an authority just a hair below God, it’s hard not to wonder if life wouldn’t have gotten a little bit better a little bit sooner for Alabama’s black citizens if the Bear had made a stand.
We speak about some of the SEC’s great coaches as incredible leaders. However, history will look poorly upon their leadership when it comes to issues of race.
Today’s coaches do not find themselves in the same positions of the men who roamed the sidelines in the civil rights era, but it doesn’t mean there’s not still political pressure from pockets of their states that are ultra-conservative. They rarely, if ever, acknowledge the irony of the fact that the same players who earn them their lucrative salaries and are often treated like heroes within the confines of their campuses can die at the hands of a prejudiced officer when they go to a different city.
There are players I knew in college, who were the subject of hero worship on the sidewalks of North Campus and Downtown Athens, that I know were afraid of what white men in positions of power could do to them when they stepped out of their jerseys and team issued gear.
“... I am committed to moving with purpose and being part of the solutions. We have to make a change. We have to be better.”
By acknowledging the reality that many of his players and assistant coaches are forced to live with fears that he doesn’t, Kirby did something different from the coaches of years past.
The young men we watch on Saturdays often deal with the unfair realities of being black in America. They get adoration and cheers for four years because of the colors of their jerseys. Because of that, we often forget what they have to deal with every other day of their lives.
In a league that has only one minority head coach, there is still a lot of work to be done. It is encouraging to see Kirby Smart and others are trying to understand how to do it.