How colleges can create change in wake of George Floyd’s death: 'This is the hard part'

Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski released a statement on Monday afternoon, revealing that he’s “angry,” “frustrated” and “scared” in the wake of the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

Clemson coach Dabo Swinney held a teleconference with local media on Monday, offering condolences to the Floyd family for the “disgusting acts of evil” that occurred.

Swinney deflected to his faith to address the tragedy, saying, “We live in a sinful, fallen world.” Krzyzewski summed up the potential next steps with a need to “listen and not judge.”

Hearing from two of the most prominent coaches in the college sports world helped the “statement” phase of the reactions to Floyd’s murder come to a much-needed conclusion. Neither Swinney or Krzyzewski said anything profound or particularly insightful, nor did they present any tangible next steps. Like a vast majority of coaches who chimed in publicly on this tragedy – from the eloquent and authentic to the cliched and meek – their responses are best judged with an incomplete.

The college sports world is a small corner of the greater society that has failed for generations to understand, counter and ultimately deter racism and social injustice. But the collegiate athletic space remains an important one, as college sports are one of the highest-profile intersections of every race, class and religion of American life. Not only are college sports a connecter, but they’re also an ideal for young athletes and a potentially transformative time for current ones.

So let’s not yet judge college coaches on what they’ve said or haven’t over the past 72 hours. Let’s see what they do going forward that transcends cliché and rises above sanitized statements airbrushed by seven administrators. Let’s see what these coaches actually implement in their programs going forward that separates them from their peers who are anxious to move on from what they consider an awkward conversation.

Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney speaks during a news conference for the NCAA College Football Playoff national championship game Sunday, Jan. 12, 2020, in New Orleans. Clemson is scheduled to play LSU on Monday. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney speaks during a news conference for the NCAA College Football Playoff national championship game Sunday, Jan. 12, 2020, in New Orleans. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

Texas coach Shaka Smart captured the most critical sentiment in the college sports space on Twitter on Monday: “The time to come together and create lasting change is always now. The question, of course, is how.”

Smart went on to list different organizations both locally in Austin and nationally – Austin Justice Coalition, Teaching for Change and the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy – that need help to “right the wrongs of social injustice.”

Smart’s suggestions offered some of the tangible results and ideas, which I’d begun attempting to seek out on Monday afternoon. I called different athletic directors, coaches and administrators in the sports world to brainstorm what programs can do. Some insisted that coaches need to speak frankly about race with their players, especially the white coaches. Multiple coaches and administrators mentioned having all their players registered to vote and educated on the process.

Among the people I reached out to, there was a consensus that just bringing in a speaker during fall camp isn’t enough.

“This is the hard part,” said Quincy Avery, a private quarterbacks coach based in Atlanta who has been an outspoken advocate for college coaches speaking up. “They need to create programs within their football team to promote change within their communities, to help out people who may not be as athletically gifted as their players.

“What are they doing to help out kids in the communities where they are recruiting their players?”

Avery wanted coaches to call him with suggestions. He wants players to call with ideas. He trains dozens of high school and college quarterbacks, which makes his cell phone an intersection of college athletics at all levels. And he wants energy channeled toward impacting tangible change.

“I think that’s really important,” he said. “I don’t know if I have the answer [of what to do] right now.”

For college coaches, the ability to prompt change begins by giving a team a platform to talk about what matters to them. What ideas do they have to help address racism and social injustice? How do they want to be more purposefully involved in their communities?

Once they have a platform and can articulate the ways they want to create change, the next step is their programs and universities helping players take tangible steps. “The players need to channel their energy and anguish to help the communities where they go to school and live,” one administrator said.

(Another administrator made a salient point that hit home with this reporter, pointing out it’s the media’s responsibility to tell the stories of the change agents, of those using their programs as incubators for allowing players the platform and voice to impact change. Point taken.)

There’s no good roadmap here, only decades of inertia. There are no easy-to-follow guidelines of how to discuss, understand and help change generations of racial inequities in America. The college sports universe is a small part of the discussion amid this searing and critical national issue. But it remains an important one, as the university incubates and forms the thoughts and ideals of the next generation.

There have already been some good ideas, in addition to what Smart posted on Monday. Another emerged Monday evening, when new Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren announced an “Anti-Hate and Anti-Racism Coalition” for players, coaches, athletic directors and school presidents.

These are the first steps past the statement and box-check phases of addressing these vital issues in college sports. Identifying what to do and enacting a plan to execute it begins the difficult part.

Here’s hoping we get the same percentage of participation from high-profile coaches in follow-up as we did in the sprint to make statements. Pushing forward, tangible actions need to become the strongest statements.

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