Black college football players unleashing the power of their voice to advocate for racial equity


College football players are finally using their voice to inspire change.

The murder of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minneapolis, Minnesota was the gasoline that engulfed this country in flames. His death was an apex and manifestation of racial inequities that began with the founding of the country.

What has been most encouraging is for the first time racial inequality in America has taken prominence on the global stage with “Black Lives Matter” becoming a global humanitarian rallying cry. From Spain to the United Kingdom and Italy, people all over the world have marched, demonstrated and protested racial inequity.

Sports and athletes have not been immune to the fight for racial equality in the United States. From Jack Johnson at the turn of the 20th Century to Jackie Robinson in the 1940s, Muhammad Ali in the 1960s and recently LeBron James and Colin Kaepernick, Black athletes have not shied from using their platform to speak about issues surrounding racial injustice and inequity.

In this era of activism, college football players have begun to leverage their talents and use their voices on social media to call out the sometimes subtle and sometimes overt racial prejudices at many major college football programs.

On Twitter, Florida State defensive lineman Marvin Wilson pledged to use his platform to encourage young people to vote and to be more active in his hometown. This comes on the heels of his head coach Mike Norvell misspeaking about he reached out to players following George Floyd’s murder.

In Austin, Texas, players have asked for the removal of “The Eyes of Texas” as the school song at the University of Texas at Austin as well as changing the names of certain school buildings on the Texas campus to be more racially inclusive.

Former Clemson Tigers, DeAndre Hopkins and Deshaun Watson lobbied and fought successfully to remove the name John C. Calhoun — a noted supporter of slavery — from their honors college building.

Former Iowa players took to social media accusing now-former strength coach Chris Doyle of perpetuating a culture that marginalized Black football players during much of his tenure. His words allegedly exceeded that of a tough, hard-nosed coach.

Finally, Pitt linebacker Elias Reynolds accused Pat Narduzzi of calling some of his teammates and opposing players “thugs” if they looked or dressed a certain way. These accusations carry with them heavy racial implications.

Oklahoma State star running back and Heisman candidate Chuba Hubbard threatened a boycott after a photo of head coach Mike Gundy wearing an OAN Network t-shirt. The OAN Network is known to have far-right controversial views.

College football’s relationship with Black athletes proves these cultures are nothing new. In fact, they are rooted in the history of segregation on college campuses and in college football locker rooms.

Since football began over 150 years ago, Black football players have always sought to prove they were good enough to play with their White counterparts. Despite colleges and universities being segregated — either by law or policies which accomplished the same thing — Black players found their way onto the football field at historically White universities.

During college football’s infancy, Black players like Harvard’s William Henry Louis, Brown’s Fritz Pollard, and Michigan’s George Jewett made major contributions both on and off the field.

The landmark case of Brown v. The Board of education, which had very little to do with college football directly, forced public schools to desegregate by law but did not necessarily mean the doors to the football facility were open. Something began to happen in the 1960s to change this, however. Schools with more integrated rosters began to win national championships with USC, Ohio State, Michigan State, Minnesota and Notre Dame dominating the national scene.

Universities that were traditional national powers that had not yet integrated began to fall behind the national curve. The solution? Integrate. This is important to understand because whole-scale college football integration did not happen at once.

Known as the “final citadel of segregation” in college football, the SEC was the last conference to fully integrate their football programs with Ole Miss being the last football program to integrate in 1972. This is why current Ole Miss head coach Lane Kiffin thought it important to walk in solidarity with his players and acknowledging the history of racism in the state.

At Alabama, it was governor George Wallace who blocked integration at the state’s largest university. It took the US Department of Health, Education and Welfare to threaten to deny federal funds to any school, not in compliance with the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Though Wilbur Jackson was a member of the Crimson Tide roster in 1970–he was a freshman and ineligible according to NCAA rules then–it was their loss to a fully integrated USC 42-21 in Birmingham allowed fans and administration at the university see the “future” of college football.

So, universities decided to integrate because Black football players were commodities to help them back to national prominence. The implications of this sort of piecemeal integration spread out over years and even decades had far-reaching implications that we see today.

One of the major issues with how many of these schools integrated in the nearly 70 years since the Brown decision is how slowly their culture changed. Most universities have their “way.” Whether subtly or overtly, these ways carry with them racial and cultural biases.

This is the center of the controversy at the University of Iowa and the University of Pittsburgh. The tweets surround the idea of cultural misappropriation. At Iowa, strength and conditioning coach Chris Doyle has been accused of racial and prejudicial bias. Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi has been accused of calling players and the teams’ opponents thugs.

In America, there has always been this idea that Black males have to assimilate to be accepted. This expectation is an extraordinarily heavy weight to carry. When your policies force young men to feel uncomfortable with who they are, your policies need to change.

Young Black males are often told to dress a certain way, speak a certain way and act a certain way to avoid being stereotyped. Black males are no different than anyone else; simply products of their culture and upbringing.

When asked to change to “fit” a football program’s “way” young Black men are forced to devalue their culture and upbringing. A young man having tattoos, dreadlocks, braids — I’ve worn both in my life — or wearing gold chains does not define their value to a football team.

It seems too often young Black men are the ones asked to change for acceptance; that’s unacceptable. Programs should go out of their way to make sure they feel comfortable and welcome at these universities. Especially when so many of these young men come from metropolitan cities to attend some of these rural, southern universities.

Players using their platforms to speak on these issues is encouraging. Their opportunity at a college education and possibly playing football at the professional level should not subject them to any mistreatment.

If there is one true thing, the needle on racial equity will never move unless those that are in seats of power and are non-minorities use their platform to do something. The key is doing more than making a statement. James Baldwin famously said, “I don’t believe what you say because I see what you do.”

Even more appropriate, “actions speak louder than words.” College coaches — most of them white — must do more than just put out statements. More coaches have been unacceptably silent, and the messages of others have missed the mark. The reticence is about actions, not just about a statement. For example, Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney’s statement about forgiveness was tone-deaf. Nick Saban of Alabama put out a statement that rang largely hollow.

Let’s be clear. With what happened in Minnesota, Fort Worth, Atlanta, and various other places where we’ve seen the evil of police brutality, coaches with the clout of Swinney and Saban need to do more than just put out statements. They could wield their influence to do more in their respective states than most other coaches. Though Swinney has attempted to atone for some of his missteps.

But the actions of other coaches are encouraging. Despite acting as if he did not know when the election was in 2018, South Carolina head coach Will Muschamp registered his players to vote. Other coaches like Jim Harbaugh, Dabo Swinney, Jeremy Pruitt, Mario Cristobal, Mark Stoops and Tom Herman, among others, joined their players in demonstrations across the country. Few coaches had comments as strong as Texas head coach Herman. He told the Austin American-Statesman about the double-standard that often exists within the college football universe.

“We’re gonna cheer when they score touchdowns, and we’re gonna hug our buddy when they get sacks or an interception. But we gonna let them date our daughter? Are we going to hire them in a position of power in our company? That’s the question I have for America. You can’t have it both ways.”

As wonderful as it has been to hear players speak out about the issues at their respective programs, coaches using their positions of authority to stand in solidarity with their players gives hope that real, lasting change can and will happen.

Darien Rencher and Trever Lawrence led a coalition of players that organized a rally that drew 3,000 people on the Clemson campus. “We have an opportunity to change the world, linebacker Mike Jones, Jr. said.

This is an invaluable first step in the direction of cultural equity at these universities. It needs to go further and higher, however. We need to see more intentional diversity on coaching staffs, athletic departments and university administration.

Universities did not have an epiphany one day to see Black football players as equals and then decided to integrate. They saw an opportunity to keep winning and the consequence of losing federal funds then decided to integrate.

Even if coaches are doing these things to ensure they are able to continually recruit and sign the best Black players their universities can, this moment in time demonstrates if schools decide to lighten up, their players will hold them accountable.

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