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College football players are taking a stand against racism — and taking a big risk

Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz watches his team warm up before a Big Ten Conference college football game between the Illinois Fighting Illini and the Iowa Hawkeyes on November 23, 2019, at Kinnick Stadium, Iowa City, Iowa. | Keith Gillett/Icon Sportswire

“The football players are looking at this and going, ‘Wait a second, they need us at this point even more than we need them.’”

In the wake of George Floyd’s killing, several of college football’s most prominent athletes are speaking out about racism and racial injustice on their campuses — some for the very first time.

But what’s more surprising is that in 2020, major college football coaches and programs are finally starting to listen. From joining Black Lives Matter protests to removing long-tenured staffers accused by players of racial bias, college football programs are beginning to respond to demands from players — players on whom those programs rely.

These athletes are part of a movement taking place across the sports world, from Nascar to (belatedly) the NFL, a movement centered on black athletes that is demanding real changes to benefit the athletes upon whom many of these sports rely.

But there’s something unique about the power dynamics in college football. I spoke with Andy Staples, a college football writer at the Athletic, who told me that football players at big-time programs have realized something very important: “Without them, there is no athletic department.” As many universities make deep cuts to athletic programs in a fiscal response to the coronavirus pandemic, Staples said that athletic directors are well aware that college football, a multibillion-dollar industry attracting hundreds of thousands to stadiums and tens of millions of viewers every year, is the golden goose they need to survive.

“[Programs] have to have a football season or basically everybody loses their jobs because there’s no money,” he said. “So the football players are looking at this and going, ‘Wait a second, they need us at this point even more than we need them.’”

“We have a chance to set the bar for college football”

Roughly 50 percent of Division 1 college football players are black, a number that rises a bit to 51 percent of players in the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) and even higher to 61 percent of players in the Southeastern Conference (SEC) — the two conferences that have produced 13 of the last 14 national championship-winning teams.

But black players have often been made to feel unwelcome at best, unwanted at worst, at some of the very programs that heavily recruited them. For example, at the University of Iowa, which is in the Big Ten Conference, dozens of black players have detailed racist bullying and invectives they’ve received from high-level staff, particularly former strength and conditioning coach Chris Doyle.

The highest-paid strength and conditioning coach in the country until he separated from the university on Monday, Doyle once allegedly told a player who was contemplating quitting the sport, “Maybe you should take up rowing, you know? Oh wait, black people don’t like boats in water, do they?”

Other current and former players spoke out on social media about a general attitude at Iowa football that seemed to make black players, and blackness itself, anathema to high performance at the university. For example, the program banned players from wearing their hair in cornrows. And Doyle was far from the only coach to make offensive comments; that group included the head coach’s own son and offensive coordinator, as the Athletic’s Scott Dochterman writes:

“Doyle made a comment about sending back to the GHETTO,” wrote former defensive back Diaunte Morrow. Doyle “‘(told me) to go back to the streets.’ I’m not from the streets!” said ex-defensive lineman Brandon Simon. Former running back Akrum Wadley said that when he walked off the practice field while wearing a Nike face mask to keep warm, a coach “asked if I was on my way to rob a liquor store or bank.” (Wadley’s mother told Hawkeye Nation the coach was [offensive coordinator] Brian Ferentz, and that she brought it to Kirk Ferentz’s attention at the time.)

I spoke with Marc Morehouse, a University of Iowa beat writer for the Gazette in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, who told me that at the school, “This culture has always been borderline bully, fully military and aggressive against black culture.”

pic.twitter.com/Wn25Td7gpz

— Emmanuel Rugamba (@BooRadd_) June 6, 2020

The University of Iowa has roughly 35,000 students, and while just 3 percent of students at Iowa are black, that number jumps to 46 percent of Iowa’s scholarship football players. But Morehouse told me that the Iowa football program under the tenure of Kirk Ferentz — with 21 years under his belt, the nation’s longest-serving high-level college football coach — has spent more time constructing an image of staid continuity than addressing real concerns from players about racism within the program. “He’s been building a grandpa image with the help of a public relations firm,” he said. “You miss shit like your strength coach telling kids to go back to the ghetto.”

But the murder of George Floyd seemed to rock the very foundations of Iowa’s football world. Following a team discussion led by Ferentz about the murder of George Floyd and his perspective, more than 50 current and former players spoke publicly about racist bullying and behavior at Iowa. Doyle was placed on administrative leave on June 6, and on June 15, the university announced that it was “parting ways” with the former coach. But Doyle will receive a $1.1 million buyout and full health benefits for the next 15 months, which one Iowa basketball player described on Twitter as an “outrage.”

This right here! https://t.co/McFo54tCe3

— Jordan Bohannon (@JordanBo_3) June 15, 2020

During a press conference on Friday, Ferentz said that he’d had a number of conversations with former players and staff and had heard that the coaching style used was “at times demeaning and created unnecessary frustration and anxiety.” And he added, “One byproduct of that is some of our black athletes were feeling that they can’t be themselves in our culture. And to that end, we must be more inclusive and more aware.”

Staples noted during our conversation that many coaches are trying to educate themselves during this moment. “Most coaches really do care about their players. They want them to succeed. They want them to be happy. And I think there’s a lot of coaches that are looking and saying, how can I help understand better so that I can do the job better?” (And it doesn’t hurt, from their perspective, that speaking out in favor of racial equality could also help recruit and retain future players.)

For example, on June 6, Ferentz lifted the program’s ban on players tweeting. Two days later, safety Kaevon Merriweather tweeted out a statement in support of players potentially kneeling during the National Anthem to protest racial injustice. “DON’T COME TO US EXPECTING US TO DO FOR YOU WHEN YOU CAN’T SUPPORT THE BLACK ATHLETES ON THIS TEAM AND THE DECISIONS WE MAKE AS A TEAM.”

If you think you could possibly call yourself an Iowa Football fan and you can not agree with what I said and what this team is standing on. Then stop calling yourself a fan, IMMEDIATELY‼️ BECAUSE I CAN PROMISE YOU THAT WE DO NOT CARE‼️ pic.twitter.com/DgYFY56ojv

— Kaevon Merriweather (@Kaevon02) June 8, 2020

And when a purported fan said he would “turn in” his tickets if players knelt, Merriweather tweeted, “WE DONT CARE.”

Did you not see what I said WE DONT CARE‼️✌ This comment was not needed https://t.co/W8gcVlo1C8

— Kaevon Merriweather (@Kaevon02) June 8, 2020

During a press availability on Friday, Merriweather clarified that the team had not yet decided on kneeling. But he added that being able to use Twitter was a boon: “It feels pretty good to have another outlet that I can express myself.”

Dave Zirin, a sportswriter at the Nation, told me that Twitter and Instagram had fundamentally altered the space for athletes to talk about issues of major importance to them, even in just the last five years. “Social media has changed everything. It allows for direct communication without the filter of sportswriters, many of them hold their own biases. It punctures the privilege of white sports [fans], particularly [getting] white college football fans to confront their own privilege and force them to take a side.”

And he added that another voice had played a big role: Colin Kaepernick, and the athletes who followed his example when the former NFL quarterback first sat, then took a knee during the National Anthem to protest police brutality.

“Colin Kaepernick has fundamentally changed ‘jock culture,’” Zirin told me. “Sports — and football in particular — so often an arena and symbol of reaction, is now leading in the fight against racist policing and the entire criminal justice system. It’s a remarkable shift, and I do believe that Colin Kaepernick is first and foremost responsible for that shift. But we can’t forget the hundreds of high school and college athletes who took a knee between 2016 and 2018, who started debates and conversations in their communities on a small-scale grassroots level.”

An exercise of real power

This is far from the first time the politics of racism have roiled the world of college football, a sport one historian said carried “an unmistakable whiff of the plantation.” Black players at universities from Berkeley to Michigan State risked their scholarships to speak out against racism in the 1960s and ’70s. And more recently in 2015, players at the University of Missouri helped to force out Missouri system president Tim Wolfe by threatening to refuse to play or take part in football activities.

That’s because in real-world terms, black college football players are part of an infrastructure that brings in billions of dollars to universities, cable networks, and sponsors — an entire industry, in fact.

As the New York Times’s Mike McIntire told my colleague Sean Illing in 2017, “Again, we’re talking about a multibillion-dollar business here, and we’re talking about universities that are generating hundreds of millions of dollars on the backs of these athletes.”

For example, the University of Michigan football team (full disclosure: my alma mater and my rooting interest) brought in an average of $127 million from 2014-2016, for a net profit of about $75 million. Michigan’s head football coach, Jim Harbaugh, makes $7.5 million per year. As an avid college football fan, I pay subscription costs to two paid Michigan-centered football news services, each of which employs a roster of journalists and recruiting experts.

All of that money — from the university to the coach to the fees paid by ESPN and ABC to broadcast games to the people paid to write about which high school sophomore has received an offer to play at which university — is based on the labor of college football players, many of whom are black. To put it bluntly: If they don’t play, the infrastructure crumbles.

This means that in 2020, college football players simultaneously have markedly little self-agency but considerable power to attempt to shift the attitudes of coaches and fans alike. They cannot be paid for their labor, but they can force change.

How will fans respond?

I asked Zirin about how players speaking out about racism on social media might impact their relationship with fans. He said that he thought it was far too early to say. “College athletes I speak to are treated like half heroes and half chattel on their campuses. Let’s see what changes this fall. Especially if players are conscripted into playing games while their campuses remain closed because of Covid-19.”

But Staples told me that, in his view, the Overton window on the Black Lives Matter movement and social protest had shifted considerably. Some fans will, of course, pledge to refuse to watch games if players kneel during the Anthem or speak out on social media, but he said, “That’s the same person who says, ‘I’m never going to [root for] my school again because they lost this game.’” He added, “I think that the fans will come back around, especially with college football, because so many people tie a piece of their identity to their fandom about their school. They’re not going to be that willing to part with that piece of their identity.”

And that’s more power in the hands of players who have sometimes been treated as replaceable cogs in a machine far bigger than they are. As sportswriter Nicole Auerbach said on Twitter, “It’s pretty amazing to watch these college athletes realize how much power they have — and to watch them wield it.”

It’s pretty amazing to watch these college athletes realize how much power they have — and to watch them wield it.

— Nicole Auerbach (@NicoleAuerbach) June 15, 2020


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