Remember “stick to sports”? It has become the tired rejoinder of Twitter mobs whenever players, coaches, teams or media members dare step out of their sports-centric lane to address the outside world.
Recent events should have caused that phrase to be retired. Shut up and dribble? Please. On matters of social justice, there is no more resting on the sidelines.
Take a stand? Take a knee? Both, if you want. Speak out. Speak up.
The era of the empowered college athlete is here, and it’s not just about protests amid the Black Lives Matter movement.
Out of that, Iowa players past and present took to keyboards to reveal what they thought was a stifling and abusive culture. Former Clemson football players, former Alabama and Florida gymnasts and other athletes have discussed their less-than-ideal experiences as well.
It’s not just voices, though. College coaches will soon will to have to deal with agents when name, image and likeness legislation is passed. Swallow hard, coaches, and start considering your players as … brands. A new, expanded, suddenly open free market certainly will.
Mix in the one-time transfer rule, and it’s clear college athletes will have more freedom (and soon, money) than they ever have before. In the absence of a union, that translates as leverage.
You may not particularly like it, but it’s here, and it’s real.
“Everything is about to change,” said Reuben Faloughi, a staff clinician at the University of South Florida Counseling Center. “I don’t know how it’s going to change. All I know is that the current power structure is in trouble.”
In the early stages, this revolution is as humble as teams registering to vote. It is as thoughtful as players and coaches marching together in the name of social justice.
Georgia Tech basketball assistant Eric Reveno has turned a germ of an idea into a national movement just this month — advocating for a mandatory off day for college athletes on Election Day, Nov. 3.
It’s worth veering out of your lane. What’s more enlightened, inspirational, bipartisan and patriotic?
“How much have we seen pro guys speak up, stick their neck out?” Reveno asked. “The college athletes are feeling the need to feel more comfortable. People aren’t sticking to sports anymore.”
Faloughi is a former Georgia linebacker who completed his doctorate at Missouri during the time when players were boycotting in 2015. That protest led to the resignation of Mizzou’s president amid racial unrest.
“We’re watching it unfold,” Faloughi said. “I don’t know if that is teams boycotting. I don’t know if that’s the NCAA getting involved. I don’t know if that’s conversations about the economics of sports because athletes are not stupid.”
They weren’t stupid in the early 1990s. Former shoe marketer Sonny Vaccaro told CBS Sports in 2013 that two Final Four teams from that era considered a boycott to delay the start of a game by 10 minutes in order to bring attention to players’ rights.
“Then everybody would have panicked,” Vaccaro said. “They had the power in their hands.”
They weren’t stupid at Grambling in 2013 when the Tigers forfeited a game after boycotting over what they said were unsafe conditions in the football facility.
Oklahoma linebacker Eric Striker wasn’t stupid when he cursed out haters on Snapchat after the infamous Sigma Alpha Epsilon episode in 2015.
“Things like that either totally destroy you or end up being a positive,” said Lincoln Riley at the time. Riley was then a young OU offensive coordinator.
That pretty much describes the country at the moment.
“In the Constitution, it says, ‘We hold this truth to be self- evident, all men are created equal,'” said Missouri coach Eli Drinkwitz. “Right now as a society, that’s not evident. You don’t have to ask permission to stand up for what’s right.”
Drinkwitz is only 37, but he’s wise beyond his years. He was enlightened enough recently to listen to sophomore Martez Manuel. The safety from Columbia, Missouri, suggested the Tigers travel 30 miles south to join a Black Lives Matter protest near the state capitol in Jefferson City.
“It was kind of intimidating and real just to see Army guys … or police officers and sheriffs … almost looking kind of like dangerous ready at any moment to harm,” Manuel said.
Then something cool happened.
“Those National Guards took a knee with us and protested with us,” he said.
If you want proof that the Black Lives Matter movement will endure this time, cast your eyes to NASCAR. Driver Bubba Wallace has the hashtag painted on his car. The league recently banned use of the Confederate flag at its races.
It is happening before our eyes. If coaches and administrators don’t pay attention, they will be left behind.
What was once archaic will now be cutting edge. We learned that, until recently, Iowa players had been banned from Twitter. Projections for Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence’s worth on social media (if name, image and likeness were presently allowed) are estimated to be in the mid-six figures.
Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly gets it. In admonishing himself, he has established a Unity Council of players and coaches who will have input into the direction of the team.
“I sit here now and look at our country and see the systemic cultural racism that is still there,” Kelly said. “I feel like I missed it. If I could have been focused on something that was still there, I could have made a difference.”
Texas coach Tom Herman has been outspoken on the subject.
“Can the average fan relate? No, they can’t,” Herman told the Austin American-Statesman. “There’s a double standard maybe a little bit. We’re going to pack 100,000 people into [our stadium] and millions watch on TV that are predominantly white — not all of them certainly, but most of ’em white. … But are we gonna let [minority players] date our daughter? Are we going to hire them in a position of power in our company? That’s the question I have for America. You can’t have it both ways.”
Don’t be surprised if there are widespread expressions of protest on kickoff weekend and beyond. The Pac-12 told the San Jose Mercury News it supports players’ “right to freedom of expression and right to a peaceful protest.”
USC coach Clay Helton told the paper he would support players kneeling. “If a young man wants to take a knee, my job is to support them,” he said.
The controversy that surrounded Colin Kaepernick has largely been avoided in college. College teams typically aren’t on the field for the national anthem.
However, Nebraska linebacker Michael Rose-Ivy was called “disgraceful and disrespectful” by the state’s governor for taking a knee at a 2016 Northwestern game.
“There needs to be an acknowledgement of things done in the past,” Rose-Ivey said at the time. “I’m not talking about just talking about it. There needs to be things said to help alleviate the differences. People talk about slavery being so far away.”
What part of that is disgraceful and disrespectful?
Social justice change seems more important and more likely to succeed this time. It feels like something permanent is being established.
In 2016, Coastal Carolina coach Joe Moglia bussed his players to a polling place on Election Day. One-hundred fifteen players voted. The team had role-played mock debates between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.
Last week, Drinkwitz, his players, basketball coaches, the athletic director and police marched from campus to the Boone County Courthouse. They knelt for 8 minutes, 46 seconds, the time it took for George Floyd to die under the bent knee of a now-former police officer.
Afterward, 60 Tigers registered to vote.
As the players, coaches and police made their way through downtown, cars stopped, folks honked. It was in support of the gesture, not something to get traffic moving.
“You could sense it was a powerful deal,” Mizzou defensive coordinator Ryan Walters said. “The team … was saying, ‘Coach, it feels like we’re a part of history.’ Yeah, we are.”
Some of college sports’ future in this space is deliciously uncertain because there is so much to be accomplished. Ideas are welcome. Change is coming. Coaches must adjust.
With or without NIL, college athletes are destined to have a higher profile, becoming spokespersons for products or positivity. Maybe both.
On the way, they could change the world.
“This country seems to be divided — us versus them — on just about every issue,” Drinkwitz said. “If we really want change, it has to be everybody versus the thing we want change: all of us versus racism.”
Reveno was awakened to the events of the day with helicopters circling over Atlanta this month. Those helicopters signaled that, “You knew the protests were going on,” Reveno said.
With the rotors whirring above and the world changing under his feet, Georgia Tech senior walk-on guard Malachi Rice spoke up on a team Zoom call. Rice brought the idea of Reveno and coach Josh Pastner to have Election Day off. In addition, he wanted to get players registered to vote.
“It always bothered Malachi [that] people would protest and make statements but not both,” Reveno said.
Out of that has grown a grassroots movement that reminds those of a certain age about the 1960s protests. At their core, protests 50 years apart projected empathy for your fellow man.
Pastner connected with Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski. Gonzaga’s Mark Few was on board. Next thing you know, the influential National Association of Basketball Coaches was officially advocating for the off day, and Oklahoma athletic director Joe Castiglione said he is on board as well.
Reveno is a 54-year-old white assistant who wishes he could have done more before now.
“To me, that visual of the police officer with his knee, just the knee on the throat and symbolism,” he said. “The 9 minutes, the light of day, the look on the officer’s face. That’s what I think is just sort of the tipping point.”
Now, Reveno is taking that germ of an idea to the next level. He’s hoping the NCAA adopts the mandatory off day as a bylaw.
“I feel like I’m in a choir and we’re singing on the show, ‘The Voice,’ and we’re singing our tails off waiting for a chair to turn. Once we get that first chair turned, we’re going to be good,” Reveno said.
“Right now, the student empowerment is happening.”