They knelt on campuses and outside courthouses and a capitol. They filmed videos and challenged coaches and gripped megaphones to call out racism they knew from their classrooms and stadiums. They led protest chants, registered voters and started to strategize for Nov. 3, Election Day.
In some instances, the nation’s college athletes even pledged not to play.
Until recently, before the death of a black man, George Floyd, in police custody in Minneapolis, that many university administrators and coaches would have instinctively sought to silence college athletes’ public expressions of racial furor, pain or politics. But over a matter of weeks, players and coaches have seized their influence for a display of political action that historians and executives say recalls the 1960s, another era when people took to the streets to protest racial inequality.
“There are a lot of things we’re not going to stand for anymore,” Marvin Wilson, a defensive tackle at Florida State, said in an interview this week. “People are starting to realize we have a say-so in how this country should be run.”
The gravity of the national moment emboldened the players, especially because it was a challenge to a justice system that many believed stood poised to oppress them or their black teammates when they were away from the field. Often cheered by their vast followings on social media, they also drew motivation from a long-simmering debate that has recently driven student-athletes to question their place in a $14 billion industry and consider whether they deserve to profit off their fame and talents.
In a shift that could alter the relationship between college activism and athletics, universities suddenly became willing to lend the power of their sports brands to social causes. And when players felt their schools had fallen short, university leaders found themselves challenged behind closed doors and, tellingly, sometimes in public.
“It’s where we are as a society that there’s no room to quiet the voices or stifle them,” said Mike Locksley, the football coach at Maryland, where in 2014 university officials squashed plans by the team to wear shirts publicly opposing police brutality after Eric Garner’s gasped words — “I can’t breathe” — became a protest cry.
On Friday, student-athletes at Texas, which was supportive of its students speaking out after Floyd’s death, released a list of requests to the university, including that it rename certain buildings and replace the school song, “The Eyes of Texas,” with a new tune lacking “racist undertones.” The athletes said that without an “official commitment” from the university, they would not assist in recruitment or donor events.
But the current effort gained one of its earliest and firmest footholds at Florida State.
When Mike Norvell, the new football coach, told a reporter that he had spoken individually with each of his players in the wake of Floyd’s death, it sounded empathetic.
But Florida State’s players knew Norvell had merely sent out a mass text message and followed up with only some players. Quickly, teammates pinged messages across a players-only chat to hatch a response.
There would be no call to meet with Norvell or complain to a senior administrator. Instead, the players went to social media and lined up behind Wilson, their senior captain. In a blistering tweet, he called Norvell’s statement a lie and said his teammates would stop voluntary workouts.
The coach apologized at a team meeting hours later. The players pledged to register to vote and devote 10 hours each to community service, and they made plans to raise money for an African American college scholarship fund and to help lower income students near the university in Tallahassee, Florida.
“We used that to get everybody at the university and Coach Norvell’s attention,” said Wilson, who is projected as a top NFL prospect. “And then we handled things behind closed doors.”
Social media has provided a megaphone for athletes, who understand its potential power.
A video Wilson posted after the meeting has been viewed more than 400,000 times. Former gymnasts at Alabama and Auburn, and former football players at Clemson, Iowa and Utah have used Twitter to describe racist behavior in their programs, leading to public apologies and several coaches being placed on leave.
A post by Ashlynn Dunbar, a two-sport athlete at Oklahoma, telling fans not to support her on the court if they don’t support her right to speak out drew more than 40,000 likes.
“It’s so powerful to be able to speak our minds and have people actually hear us,” said Dunbar, an all-Big 12 volleyball player who will play basketball next season while she finishes her master’s degree in college athletic administration. “I don’t have the biggest following, but the ability for people to share it with their friends who share it with their friends has allowed my voice to be heard farther than just the people I know.”
Sometimes, powerful conversations are taking place in private.
When Dabo Swinney, Clemson’s football coach, invited his 16 seniors to his home recently, he was asked to explain why he did not discipline an assistant coach when he learned several years ago that he had used a racial slur in conversation with a player.
Darien Rencher, a senior running back, said that while Swinney told them his assistant was wrong, the timing made for “a sticky situation” — one that involved a familiar dynamic in college football, a sport in which more than 80% of Football Bowl Subdivision coaches in the 2018 season were white though nearly half of the players were black.
Rencher, who described the conversation as a family talk, said topics “that are kind of touchy were able to be talked about behind the scenes that gave us all perspective.”
The door had been cracked, at least a bit, by players of the past.
Members of Howard’s 1936 football team staged a strike over a lack of food. There have been demonstrations over living conditions, the Vietnam War and civil rights. In one episode in 1969, Wyoming’s coach dismissed 14 black athletes who wanted to demonstrate during a game against Brigham Young.
In February 2019, just a few years after Missouri football players helped force the resignation of their university president, many Mississippi basketball players knelt during the national anthem to protest a campus demonstration that included white nationalists.
“It’s sporadic, but when it happens, it can be widespread and have a major impact,” said Lane Demas, a history professor at Central Michigan and the author of “Integrating the Gridiron: Black Civil Rights and American College Football.” “Today, more than ever, players understand the power they have.”
Few appreciate that shift more than Ramogi Huma, the executive director of the National College Players Association, the closest thing that college players have to a formal advocate.
Huma was a senior linebacker at UCLA in 1998 when the African American players on the unbeaten football team met with the school’s Black Student Union, which brought a powerful speaker: John Carlos, whose black-gloved, raised-fist salute with Tommie Smith at the 1968 Olympics remains an iconic moment of the civil rights era.
The organization asked the players to use their platform of a nationally televised game to protest Proposition 209, a ballot measure that had amended California’s Constitution to prohibit universities from considering race or gender in admissions, which caused black enrollment to plummet at UCLA. The players settled on wearing black wristbands.
When Bob Toledo, UCLA’s coach, got wind of the protest planned for the final game of the regular season at Miami, he argued that the players should stand down, according to Huma, and found a reason that struck a nerve: that Southern sportswriters might not vote the Bruins into the national title game.
The issue was so contentious that the team canceled its usual meetings the night before the game to instead discuss the protest. The Bruins nixed their plans and then lost, ruining their shot at a national championship.
Coaches, Huma said, blamed the protest idea and, he added, one white player shouted across the locker room, “I don’t want to hear a damn thing about those wristbands anymore.”
“It was similar to the reaction to Colin Kaepernick when it was very clear he was trying to raise the issue of police brutality,” Huma said of the rift. “Things that are important to African Americans in a sports setting get labeled a distraction. That’s a painful word when you’re talking about matters of life and death.”
Now, at least in many cases, universities are intertwining themselves institutionally with the wave of unrest. Ohio State, with one of America’s most influential and lucrative athletic departments, aligned itself with Black Lives Matter and offered resources that universities tend to reserve for Heisman Trophy campaigns, not political ones: Twitter accounts with hundreds of thousands of followers, video production wizardry, publicists and long-cultivated prestige.
“We can’t walk away because we know that people will disagree with us,” Gene Smith, Ohio State’s athletic director, once one of two black men running a Football Bowl Subdivision program, said. “If it’s right, then we stand tall, and we accept whatever negatives come with it.”
With polls showing rising support for Black Lives Matter, the risks of a public stand are not what they were even a month ago. Locksley, Maryland’s football coach, who was an assistant when players were kept from protesting in 2014, said a dispiriting message emerged when his team convened to talk about Floyd: “It keeps happening, Coach.”
This time, there was no suppression reminiscent of 2014, not after it had taken Locksley, one of the few black men leading a Power Five football program, nearly a week to write his own response. Instead, the team broke into groups and crafted a statement that forcefully declared its torment and, just as important, a plan of action.
“Many of our teammates,” the statement said, “are inconsolable as yet another Black life has been taken at the hands of law enforcement and injustice.” They announced a push to promote voter registration and to take people to the polls in November.
In wanting action — and not just words “where it’s one time, we put it out and forget it,” as Locksley said — the Maryland players are not unique. Some, like Florida State’s Wilson and his teammates, have grand ambitions in their community. Others, like athletes at Wisconsin, asked administrators and coaches to review hiring practices and provided reading and movie lists on topics of racial injustice.
The most elementary step gaining traction has been simple: to vote.
When Georgia Tech’s men’s basketball team gathered over Zoom, each participant was asked to express his emotions in two words. Players described being “frustrated,” “angry” and “tired.” The two words for Eric Reveno, a 54-year-old white assistant coach, were “embarrassed” and “disgusted.”
That night, Reveno stewed on something that Malachi Rice, one of the team’s leaders, had said: that too many people protest injustice but do not bother to vote.
Reveno woke up the next morning with an idea: that the NCAA should ban athletic activities on Election Day to encourage its more than 460,000 athletes to vote.
No practice, no meetings, no games.
In response, the NCAA’s powerful Board of Governors said Friday afternoon that it was encouraging its member schools to make Nov. 3 a day off for athletic activities.
“We commend NCAA student-athletes who recognized the need for change and took action though safe and peaceful protest,” the board said in a statement.
Before the association’s statement, UCLA had announced voter education sessions for all 25 of its teams, and Georgia Tech said nine of its in-season teams, including football, would not hold mandatory activities on Election Day.
Reveno said support with words was “not enough.”
“We teach them financial literacy — the power of interest over time, the dangers of credit card debt, about how much that daily latte is costing them,” Reveno said. “What about investing in your community so that your kid’s life is shaped more the way you wanted? Being an engaged and active citizen is the most powerful thing we do as an American.”
Increasingly, the nation’s college athletes are acting on this.
Some, like Sanaá Dotson, a volleyball player at Oklahoma, sense an awakening. She came of age when Kaepernick could not find an NFL job and LeBron James was told to shut up and dribble.
“It sent a message that people don’t really care about what we have to say,” she said. “They just care about what we do on the court. Obviously, that hurts — especially as a young black person trying to find their identity.”
But there is a shift, she said, something that she sensed profoundly when she attended a march in her hometown, Houston, where Floyd’s family members spoke. There is an opportunity that did not previously exist, she said. It comes not from a louder voice, but from an audience that is ready to listen.
“It’s different speaking about things,” Dotson said. “And then wanting to be heard.”