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Many college coaches are out of their comfort zone in statements on George Floyd

Most of the Top 25 football and basketball coaches weighed in, but their language varied widely

Over the past few days, one of the whitest clubs in America found itself in an unfamiliar position: saying something meaningful about racial injustice.

For the 50 head coaches of the top-ranked college football and men’s basketball teams, the brutal killing of George Floyd by a white police officer demanded a response. As peaceful protests swelled and riots ripped through cities, remaining silent about racism could seem like indifference, even for coaches privately horrified by the cop’s knee on Floyd’s neck. That would not have been a safe place for men whose multimillion-dollar livelihoods depend on the blood, sweat and tears of black athletes.

Floyd was killed on May 25. The top coaches’ statements began appearing last weekend, when the unrest gathered momentum. By Tuesday, almost all of them had said something. Most of those statements appeared on Twitter, since social media is reality for most young athletes.

As a whole, the statements open a window into how this group of older, privileged men are processing a historic moment in the nation’s battle with racism. It should not be a surprise that many of them seemed to struggle. For good reason — like a slow quarterback flushed from the pocket, they’re out of their comfort zone.

The statements of coaches from the AP Top 25 football and men’s basketball rankings fell into three general categories: strong advocates for racial justice; expressing empathy without dealing with specifics like police brutality and structural racism; and silence.

It must be said upfront that it feels unprecedented for a group of men this wealthy and white — only one of the Top 25 football coaches and four of the basketball coaches are black, compared with well over half of their players — to all grapple with race at the same time. Some might be more comfortable starting a walk-on than confronting the real causes of riots that are being condemned by many of their fans and boosters.

Police officers are seen outside the College Football Hall of Fame during a protest on May 29 in Atlanta. Demonstrations are being held across the U.S. after George Floyd died in police custody on May 25 in Minneapolis.

Elijah Nouvelage/Getty Images

Perhaps that’s why most coaches stayed with expressions of empathy, saying things like they “strive to do better” or “stand against racism.” They were “committed to change,” but what needed to change often went unsaid. “Saddened and angered” risked sounding like the new “thoughts and prayers.” The #BlackoutTuesday post was popular, along with what felt like the first page of Google search results for “Martin Luther King quotes.”

I counted 33 coaches in this group. A lot of them must have been sincere in their outrage over Floyd’s death and their concern for their black players, but they seemed unfamiliar with the playbook. The current racial crisis demands specific attention to the oppression of African Americans rather than statements like LSU football coach Ed Orgeron’s “I will not tolerate racism,” especially for coaches with life-changing influence over thousands of young black men.

Alabama’s Nick Saban and Clemson’s Dabo Swinney were blitzed over what they didn’t say in their comments about Floyd and the protests, especially since their reactions came days after statements from white college stars such as former LSU quarterback and No. 1 draft pick Joe Burrow or Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence.

“So much of their generational wealth is on the backs of African American young men,” said quarterback coaching guru Quincy Avery, whose pupils include Lawrence and Ohio State’s Justin Fields. “They go into their households and tell parents how they’re going to be like a father figure, that they can trust them with their kid. And then when things like this happen, they go mute or don’t say anything of substance … so it’s hard to think that you could trust them to take care of your son.”

Jeff Capel, the basketball coach at Pittsburgh, which is not in the Top 25, said he received calls from some white coaches asking, “How can I help? What can I do? What do I say?”

“It’s rough for them. My thing is, say something,” Capel said. It comes naturally for him as the son of a pioneering black coach, and he has poured his heart out through dozens of posts since Floyd was killed.

“I think there are some coaches, and not just white coaches, coaches in general, who have a fear of the higher-ups. And the higher-ups may not be your athletic director or your president,” Capel said. “It could be donors. It could be trustees. The fear of offending someone by saying something like, ‘Black lives matter.’ There are some white people that are really offended about that. They want to go to ‘all lives matter’ or ‘blue lives matter,’ and no one’s saying that stuff doesn’t matter. It’s just like, they ain’t getting killed.”

A smaller group of 13 coaches were more pointed in their language. For someone like Oklahoma football coach Lincoln Riley, that meant simply typing “#BlackLivesMatter.” Maryland basketball coach Mark Turgeon quoted human rights activist Desmond Tutu: “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” Iowa basketball coach Fran McCaffery said, “systemic racial injustice demands change.” Days before most other coaches had tweeted anything, Penn State’s James Franklin, the only black football coach in the Top 25, posted a passionate message calling the deaths of Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery “a symptom of a larger problem and in moments like this, silence is deafening indifference.”

It seemed that some younger coaches were more familiar with, and comfortable using, the language of protest. When I asked Riley, who is 36, how he made the decision to post #BlackLivesMatter on his black square, he said, “Because it’s a personal belief of mine.”

“People have said it very well, and maybe better than I can say it, that all lives can’t matter until the black lives do, too. And are on an equal playing field,” Riley said. “That’s something I totally agree with.”

Then there were the four silent coaches.

As of Wednesday, they had said nothing publicly. One was Air Force Academy football coach Troy Calhoun. The others were Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski, Florida State’s Leonard Hamilton and San Diego State’s Brian Dutcher.

The silent group speaks to the fact that public statements about Floyd’s death cannot be the litmus test for racial empathy. Hamilton is one of the senior black coaches in the country, and Coach K is beloved by his black players.

A protest march in honor of George Floyd gathers outside of U.S. Bank Stadium on May 31 in Minneapolis. The protest was disrupted after a man drove a tanker truck into the crowd.

Stephen Maturen/Getty Images

The basketball coaches were more likely to embrace the language and systemic issues of the protests. Of the four black basketball coaches, Butler’s LaVall Jordan posted footage from a protest he attended, and Dayton’s Anthony Grant commented after his son was arrested at a protest.

Perhaps the small size of a basketball team allows coaches to spend more time with each player. Basketball also is the black man’s game, while football remains firmly under the control of white America. A higher percentage of Division I basketball coaches are black men who grew up under the same stereotypes, suspicions and fears that killed Floyd.

That was the experience Jamion Christian, basketball coach at George Washington, which is not in the Top 25, poured into his post. “I felt like it was important for people to know that’s our reality when we’re growing up,” he said. “I didn’t want it to be a canned statement that our administration had went through so much that it couldn’t have impact on somebody.”

“My friends I’ve spoken to, both black and white, I can tell they’re getting emotionally driven toward change, but it’s still hard to verbalize how they’re feeling,” Christian added. “Also, I think some of us are still trying to figure out what you can say and how you can say it. It’s a conversation that’s been whispered for hundreds of years.”

Now that this conversation is being posted for all the world to see, it’s fair to hold coaches accountable for learning how to communicate about race, the same way they demand progress from their athletes. Coaches know full well that accountability goes both ways.

Jesse Washington is a journalist and documentary filmmaker. He still gets buckets.