Empowered by racial-justice movement, black college athletes stand up to coaches

Oklahoma State football coach Mike Gundy
Oklahoma State football coach Mike Gundy

I’ve always believed that black collegiate athletes have the collective power to improve their working conditions and the treatment of all black students. Now more athletes seem to believe that, too. They are finding their voice and calling out coaches if they don’t believe they are standing up for their humanity.

College football coaches are accustomed to unquestioned authority within their program. But they are finished if they lose the support of the unpaid black athletes who enrich them. Players see that dynamic and are changing the power balance, if just a little.

Normally I’d be skeptical that the shift lasts. But maybe it can now that college athletes are emboldened by a broader social movement for the human rights of black people.

The police killing of George Floyd sparked nationwide (then worldwide) protests of police brutality and systemic racism. Black players are demanding better treatment from coaches and threatening to boycott if they don't see changes.

“Because of the whole George Floyd atmosphere, players are more comfortable speaking out,” said Louis Moore, an associate professor of history at Grand Valley State University whose areas of study include sports. “It seems like everyone is out there protesting. They see this as normal, expected. They see one athlete step out, then another and then it becomes a snowball effect.”

>> UGA's Wheeler: Time to speak out

Black football players are speaking out on racial issues at Clemson, Iowa, Florida State, Oklahoma State and Texas. Coaches and administrators are apologizing and pledging to do better. They should fear the power of unified black athletes to disrupt their money-making enterprise.

Coaches who stifle or punish players who speak out for their rights have always been on the wrong side. Now it’s the unpopular side, too. Multiple public-opinion polls show that most Americans across all racial groups support the Black Lives Matter movement and anti-racism protests. Coaches may want players to shut up and play, but if they want to coach, they’d better speak up for players who are on the right side.

It's not just any athletes who are making noise. Standout players are leading the way, with teammates following. A coach may be able to use his power to control one player speaking out, but good luck with that when it's multiple players, including the stars. Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy gets that now if he didn't before.

Chuba Hubbard, FBS’ leading rusher in 2019, criticized Gundy after he saw a picture of the coach wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the logo of far-right propaganda outlet One America News. Hubbard called it “unacceptable” and vowed he wouldn’t participate in team activities until he sees unspecified changes.

Hubbard's complaints aren't about a difference of political opinion. Gundy supports an outlet that peddles misinformation to undermine a human rights movement for black people. One of OAN's studio hosts called Black Lives Matter a "farce" while making false, racist accusations about the movement. The network has attempted to undermine the legitimacy of anti-racist protests by boosting baseless conspiracy theories.

On Monday, Gundy released a video in which he doesn’t apologize, but Hubbard does for airing his complaint on Twitter. It’s hard to watch Hubbard’s obvious discomfort. He was right to publicly call out his coach’s public support for an odious media outlet.

By Tuesday, Gundy realized he was in deep trouble. He posted another video in which he said he was "disgusted" once he learned learned how OAN portrays Black Lives Matter. I suppose we are to believe that Gundy didn't know much about OAN in April, when he praised it in very specific terms. But things are different now, his players were near revolt, so Gundy offered a passive-voice apology for "the pain and discomfort that has been caused" and promised "positive changes" for the program.

Gundy had expressed a dehumanizing view of his players before this episode. In April, he called for their rapid return to campus during a pandemic because they are young and healthy and OSU needs “to continue to budget and run money through the state of Oklahoma.” It was disgraceful for Gundy to talk about his players like cattle, but his comments confirmed one truth: The players are the economic engine of college football.

USA Today analysis of schools' financial reports to the NCAA found that football programs in the Power Five conferences expected to generate at least $4.1 billion in fiscal-year revenue with a normal season. If players sit out, there goes all the revenue.

Schools are desperate to play football this season. There can be no games without the players. They have the power to force changes to the system.  Using it requires collective action, message discipline and the willingness to absorb withering criticism. Those things aren’t easy to do, but history shows it’s possible.

In 2013, Grambling pledged to invest more resources in the program after the team was forced to forfeit a game because several players boycotted. In 2015 Oklahoma suspended a fraternity that produced a racist video and expelled members after football players walked out of practice in protest. Later that year Missouri president Tim Wolfe resigned after more than 30 black football players at Missouri announced they wouldn’t practice or play in protest of Wolfe’s mishandling of racist incidents on campus.

“If it’s an individual person, you can threaten his scholarship,” Moore said. “If it’s like Missouri, when it’s every black player on the team, you can’t do anything about that. Players can create changes once they realize the collective power they have.”

It seems that more of them are realizing it. Hubbard is one of several who’ve challenged coaches over racism in the past month:

  • Former Clemson player Kanyon Tuttle, responding to coach Dabo Swinney's comments about Floyd's death, accused Swinney of allowing an assistant to use a racial slur without repercussion. Later, former tight end D.J. Greenlee told The State that assistant Danny Pearman use the slur while speaking to him during a 2017 practice. Pearman said he didn't direct the slur at Pearman but apologized for the "grave mistake" of repeating what he overheard.
  • Players' allegations of systemic racism in the Iowa football program led the school to part ways with long-time strength coach Chris Doyle on Monday. The chain of events started when former Iowa lineman James Daniels, now with the Bears, tweeted about "racial disparities" and mistreatment of black players in the program. Dozens of former players agreed.
  • When Florida State coach Mike Norvell said in an interview that he talked to each of his players about Floyd's death, team captain Marvin Wilson tweeted: "This is a lie and me and my teammates as a whole are outraged and we will not be working out until further notice." Norvell apologized and, in a later social media post, Wilson wrote: "Took a stand we got what we wanted & we are moving forward."
  • A group of Texas athletes that included more than 20 football players said they won't help recruit prospective athletes or participate in alumni events if their demands aren't met. Those include the removal of Confederate symbols from campus, outreach programs for urban cities and a pledge from the athletic department to give 0.5% of its annual profits to BLM and other organizations. The university president said Monday that he's scheduling meetings with the athletes.

Right now, college players are advocating for racial justice and fair treatment. They are seeing some early results. That’s important. They should not play for coaches who don’t respect their humanity.

Eventually, I’d like to see athletes expand their demands to include getting the same basic economic rights as other workers. The courts and Congress have always opposed them on that front, but now the players see they can get some quick results with direct action. Coaches who don’t get the message won’t be coaches for long.

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