Social justice movements, state college football programs strike to find a balance
today at 5:30 am
The country is certainly divided in any number of ways. One only has to glance at the headlines, click on TV news or scroll through social media to see it. College football programs are no different.
Players may hang out away from the field — including within the locker room — in different groups. One may follow and like conservative posts while another may retweet Black Lives Matter comments and photos.
Players and coaching staffs come from different backgrounds, so how do people with often polar opposite beliefs and experiences work to understand each other?
“It’s important that you have a vision as a leader. That you’re very clear about what that vision is,” Illinois State head coach Brock Spack told Prairie State Pigskin during the summer. “It’s up to the assistant coaches to work the plan toward that vision and stick to the mantra if you will and the goals in mind and the identity that we have here. That will never change. That’s part of the recruiting process. You have to tell a kid we’re not painting a beautiful picture. Hey, it’s not going to be easy. This is what we’re about so there’s no surprises when they get here.
“But nothing really prepares them for that until they’re here. The same with a new coach or a coaching staff, you have to (tell them) ‘this is who we are, this is what we’re about, so don’t be surprised when that’s executed’. Our program is founded on discipline and toughness and work ethic and accountability. If you can’t figure that out, we’ve got some issues. I make it very clear.”
Illinois State has certainly seen its share of turmoil in recent months. ISU student-athletes organized a campus-wide boycott of practices and team activities, demanding changes to create racial equity in the department following an “All Redbird Lives Matter” comment by athletic director Larry Lyons in a conversation about race. That statement, referencing the school mascot, seemed similar to the phrase “All Lives Matter,” which is widely interpreted as a dismissive critique to the Black Lives Matter movement, according to a Sept. 1 Chicago Tribune story by Shannon Ryan.
Lyons later apologized for his statement and has since held group video chats with various teams. In addition, Lyons said he would “create a listening forum, enlist anti-racism and cultural diversity education training for himself and other staff, and he committed to reviewing department hires including a therapist with expertise in serving students of color,” according to Ryan.
Illinois State has also initiated a diversity movement and has been highlighting minority athletes’ voices such as the lead quote by senior fullback Tim McCloyn at the top of this story.
In a late August Pantagraph story by Randy Reinhardt, senior ISU running back Jeff Proctor said Lyons “apologized and said he was there for us. He doesn’t expect us to believe in his words, but he’s going to show us. That was good hearing that from him.”
Proctor added, “Personally, I believe actions speak louder than words. We’re waiting to see.”
A few days later, Illinois State announced the promotion of four assistant football coaches to new positions. All four are African American; three are former ISU players.
On Oct. 2, ISU announced that Lyons planned to retire at the end of the calendar year. The Pontiac native has spent 33 years as an athletics administrator at ISU.
Meanwhile, in late September, ISU announced that offensive coordinator Kurt Beathard was “no longer part of the program” after he put a sign on his office door that read “All Lives Matter to Our Lord & Savior Jesus Christ.”
A Reinhardt story further stated, “Three sources close to the football program also told The Pantagraph that a “Black Lives Matter” poster was taken down from the Illinois State locker room in the Kaufman Football Building recently. The sources asked not to be identified for fear of retribution from university officials.”
School officials would not discuss the announcement; Reinhardt noted, however, Beathard did state, “That locker room crap is wrong. I took the sign down somebody put on my door. That’s it, I didn’t take anything off that wasn’t put on my door. I wrote the message.”
Following Beathard’s dismissal, ISU announced in press release that Ghaali Muhammad-Lankford and C.J. Irvin are now co-offensive coordinators.
Meanwhile, social justice movements swept through the other three Illinois Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) campuses.
In Carbondale, an SIU Unity walk/run was held. The student-led organization sponsored the event to raise awareness for social injustice and systematic racism with proceeds benefitting the Boys and Girls Club of Southern Illinois.
“We want to become closer as a community, especially in times like these as there’s no more importance to show how united we are as a community,” said SIU punter Jack Colquhoun in a wsiltv.com story. “And I think you know, with the football team, and all of athletics in general, we can bring everyone together and really create a positive message in the community.”
Saluki head coach Nick Hill said, “You don’t want to ever look back and think that you wasted the platform that you’ve been been given. For whatever reason I’ve been blessed to have a platform here in this community. And I believe to use your voice, use a voice for someone that doesn’t have the platform to have the voice that I have.
“And my message has been clear from the beginning is to be there and to speak up for people that might not. It’s that together and unity and diversity is the way because that’s the world that we live in . . . to be kind to one another and to be okay with not understanding everything, but having the willingness to learn and listen.”
In Macomb, a Black Lives Matter gathering and march was organized by the Black Student Association, an on-campus group.
“We had players participate in that,” WIU head coach Jared Elliott told Prairie State Pigskin. “Our players know that they have the full right and ability to express their rights and their beliefs and their voices in how they want to. That’s important right now with a lot of what we’re going through as a country, societal and even more into the microscope of it’s here in our area and on our campus. It’s important that our kids have the ability to do that.
“When it comes to social issues, I am in complete support of every member of our team. We stand by them, we lock arms with them. We have our players’ backs. That’s what any family member would do. We do view the program as a family, and so I think it’s a good thing for our players to have the ability to stand for what they believe in and to have a voice.
“Our kids have handled it in a very mature way. They’ve respected differences of opinion. We’ve got a lot of good teammates. It’s been very positive here in our program.”
A BLM march also took place in Charleston.
“A very, very, very high percentage of players attended. We as coaches were all there,” EIU head coach Adam Cushing told Prairie State Pigskin. “It was organized by student-athletes, and we had a group of us meet here (at the stadium) and go over together. When we got there, there was an even bigger group of the football team over there.
“I was really, really impressed by the young men’s understanding of what they’re saying when they go out and walk. I think that’s critical. That it’s not just because it’s cool. It’s that they understand what they’re saying and that they understand that it’s something that needs to be continually brought to light. Raising awareness is just as important as how important it is to stand next to one of our Black players and coaches and say, ‘I believe too and I want the world to be better for you the same as it’s better for me’.”
Cushing, the former Northwestern assistant now in his second year at EIU, elaborated on the diversity within a locker room.
“We have to lean into a couple of conversations. We have to talk about all the things that are happening in their world — in our world,” Cushing said. “I say all the time that I would hate to have negotiated a college experience with camera phones and all these things. You think about their (players’) realities. And I keep picking up this device (picks up phone), and their person-to-person communication is less. They may say, ‘I talked to so-and-so today’. No, you didn’t; you texted with them for three minutes. You didn’t talk to them. You didn’t explain your position. You didn’t try to understand. In the end, seek to understand and then seek to be understood. I think that’s a lost art.
“So, we have to have conversations about the racial justice in America and how it affects and white privilege and how it affects us. And Black Lives Matter. And the different ways that somebody that’s Black (views things). I wasn’t raised in that same world. And that the kids that I’m raising right now aren’t raised in the same world as (assistant coach) Mark Philmore’s and have to have a different set of conversations and operate under a different set of boundaries. That’s one of the reasons I love football. You can have uncomfortable conversations. You have a family atmosphere that comes from all those backgrounds. Different races. Different cultures. And those lines can get blurred.”
Cushing continued, “One of our players said this in our most recent conversation on this topic; that race and culture are different and it’s hard to discern between the two. I learn every single time that we do this and hope that it’s the same experience for everybody involved in the conversation. The old adage that was pounded in my head over and over again that when the student is ready, the teacher appears. And so, is every student ready?
“No, but that doesn’t mean that we stop teaching. We just have to continue to have those conversations that most want to avoid in light of political correctness or ‘man, it would be way easier if we didn’t have this conversation.’ It would be easier, but I couldn’t put my head on that pillow at the end of the day if what we did was a disservice to student-athletes. Open, honest communication is what will build the trust. I can say things like I wasn’t brought up in that same world and not thought to be racist because it’s just ignorance and not ignorant in the negative way, I just don’t know. So all of those conversations are what football programs are going through and tackling right now, and I think it’s a great thing that people are doing it in a safe space. That they have a preexisting amount of trust. We’re from totally different backgrounds, I’m from here and you’re from there, let’s talk honestly. That’s why football can be what’s right with America.”
Wednesday: A look at player power & voice in 2020 and beyond