Coaches can't Stick to Sports now

Good morning, and thanks for spending part of your day with Extra Points.

A central thesis of this entire newsletter is that it is impossible to truly care about college athletics and Stick to Sports. I understand the appeal for college sports to serve as an oasis and distraction from everything that’s happening in society, but perhaps despite our best efforts, college sports remains stubbornly a part of that society.

That principle feels especially true now.

For good or for ill, college coaches are not just coaches, and they’re not paid to just be coaches. In many parts of this country, it is not an exaggeration to suggest they hold more political power and cultural cachet than any mayor, governor or other local politician. They, not the university president or any academic, usually sit as the public face for one of the dominant economic and cultural engines of a community.

They go across the country and sit in living rooms, promising parents that they will take care of their child. That they will welcome them into a family. That beyond just wins, losses, and athletic development, that they will guide them into a community that will help develop them as human beings, and be a part of the rest of their lives.

I realize that it’s fashionable to take the cynical view here, but honestly, I believe a lot of college coaches and administrators do exactly that.

But if that higher ideal is going to be reached, if a person with that sort of cultural influence, especially somebody who strives to be a mentor and educator of a group that is largely people of color, then they absolutely cannot be silent right now.

I understand the impulse to not say anything. I’ve been sitting at this blank screen for a while myself. As a group, college coaches, especially college football coaches, are famous for being almost hysterically single-minded. If you asked all 130 FBS head coaches who the governor was of their state, I am positive at least a dozen wouldn’t know. That isn’t to say that they’re stupid, but if you spend 100 hours a week devoted to coaching, recruiting and program development, it doesn’t leave a lot of time for other pursuits, like, oh, reading Critical Race Theory.

There is something to be said for trying to stay within your field of expertise. Lord knows everybody on the internet decided that they’re actually epidemiologists over the last month, and we saw how that turned out. I can understand the impulse for a coach to decide that they are not politicians, public policy experts or criminal justice experts, and decide they would best be served by shutting up.

That would be the safe thing to do. But right now, your students, your school, and your community members do not need you to do the safe thing. They need you to do the right thing. And that means you need to engage with what is happening right now.

Many college football coaches have decided to do that on Twitter. Here’s Penn State coach James Franklin:

And here’s UVA head coach Bronco Mendenhall:

Off the top of my head, I’ve seen remarks from coaches at Ohio State, Notre Dame, Cal, Miami, Kansas, Minnesota, Northwestern, Oregon, Baylor, Florida State, Georgia and Michigan State. By the time you read this, I’m sure there will be others. This is not an exhaustive list.

I realize this is a very low bar, but I think even the most tepid of those messages can serve a useful purpose. As a native Ohioan, I honestly believe that an Ohio State football coach acknowledging the concept of structural racism will cause more Ohioans to at least engage with that topic at their family dinner table than if Ohio’s governor did the same. That’s a positive development. Folks who have cultural influence should endeavor to use it to positive ends.

The real test, though, is what that communication looks like outside of the public eye. Are coaches meeting with their team to discuss what happened to George Floyd? About how they, or their teammates, experience structural racism? About whether their coaches or teammates would support them if they decide to engage in political activism? Are they willing to have hard conversations in private?

An earnest, heartfelt tweet is fine and good. And there will be people, including potential recruits, who will notice if you don’t send one. But at the end of the day, I’m not sure that’s the most important thing. There are a lot of tweets, and even the good ones are forgotten quickly.

The important thing is how coaches, administrators, and the entire athletic department chose to engage as a unit. You do not solve racism in your community with a few good tweets and likes. You do not eradicate prejudice, hurt feelings and distrust by pretending that they don’t exist, and only using your influence on wins and losses. You cannot hope to create leaders in your locker room, or anywhere else in your organization, if you’re not willing or able to model it yourself.

That’s hard. That’s uncomfortable. That’s scary. It occasionally means you might accidentally do the wrong thing.

But I think coaches will forgive an administrator who they believe cares about them, their students, and their community, if he messes up in that effort. I believe athletes will forgive coaches who occasionally mess up if they believe he cares about them, their development, and their team culture. They may not forgive the ones who don’t even try.

Mark Jones sums it up:

I know there are athletic directors and athletic department personnel across all levels of college football who read this newsletter. I imagine they are already having these thoughts and conversations, but if not, they should head into this week, looking for words to encourage their coaches, their staff, and their department to find ways to be part of the solution, to be part of the holistic development of their athletes, and to support athletes who want to be involved in this solution as well. Coaches should do the same. Team captains and student leaders should do the same. All citizens, including myself, can go and do the same.

Your students, your teammates, and our brothers, sisters, and fellow citizens of this country are afraid and frustrated. They have damn good reason to be. We cannot do the easy thing and ignore it because it is unpleasant.

We cannot Stick to Sports. Especially not now.

Thank for supporting Extra Points. We’ll get back to the regular publishing schedule on Monday. I’m going to donate any income this newsletter makes this week from paid subscriptions to the Chicago Bond Fund. You can also donate to CBF directly, or to other worthy charities fighting for justice and equality in your community.

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