College Football's Loud 'No Comment'

Athletes have been an unusually large part of the growing and contentious national conversation over policing and race. Well, some athletes.
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This is the time of year when we get comprehensive. What mattered most, what was best, what will be remembered: there is something about the late days of December that puts people in a retrospective mood. So it goes, and so it has gone, and so a storyline has emerged that’s maybe more comforting than true. Anyway, it is almost time to say goodbye to 2014, The Year Sports Reclaimed Its Social Conscience.

To be fair, the ingredients are there -- LeBron James, Derrick Rose, Reggie Bush and others wore their “I Can’t Breathe” t-shirts, and so made common cause with a massive public movement for more just policing; a cadre of St. Louis Rams emerging from a stadium tunnel with their hands up, in solidarity with the movement in nearby Ferguson, MO; after two police officers were killed in Brooklyn, the New York Giants and Jets took the field brandishing NYPD hats.

Add to that mix entire college basketball lineups that have voiced their opposition -- usually through those same comic sans I Can’t Breathe t-shirts -- to the verdicts in the Michael Brown and Eric Garner cases, and their support of the movements that rose in their wake. In almost every sport, at seemingly all levels, athletes have openly spoken their minds about police brutality and social justice. In California, the issue sparked a Monday morning protest even at the high school level, after one girls’ program was banned from a tournament for intending to wear “I Can’t Breathe” shirts. The ostensible wall between sports and Everything Else has always been false, but now it was flattened. Athletes in every sport, at the professional level and at every level below, were making it clear that they would not sit this debate out.

Not so fast.

While in the last month the American sports scene has experienced a level of social activism not seen since the Vietnam era, there has been one glaring omission: college football. While the rest of the sports world spoke up in one way or another, nearly 70,000 NCAA football players have stayed mostly silent. Don't expect anything to change during the NCAA championship game between Ohio State and favored Oregon.

In other sports, team publicists and coaches often allow protesting athletes free rein to air their beliefs. After the Cleveland Browns’ Andrew Hawkins wore a shirt protesting the shooting deaths of two unarmed black men, his team and the habitually unfriendly Cleveland media allowed him nearly six minutes to express his every nuanced reason behind the action. His entire soliloquy was transcribed, blogged on and blasted to every corner of the sports (and non-sports) world. Hawkins, as it happens, seems like a uniquely eloquent and empathetic human, but he’s also a professional athlete. If there are others with similar things to say playing college football right now -- and we might as well assume there are -- we aren’t hearing from them.

***

In most sports, the athletes not only make statements, but stick by them afterward. Many times, their coaches stand right there by them. But college football is not quite like anything else, and so this is not so in college football, where players rarely get a forum to discuss their political statements unless they are apologizing for attempting them in the first place.

Jonathan Williams, the Arkansas Razorbacks’ all-SEC running back, was likely the first Division I student-athlete to protest along these lines. On November 28, Williams caught a touchdown pass against Missouri and after entering the end zone briefly raised both hands in the air. The message was unmistakable, and in the following weeks Williams’ “hands up, don’t shoot” gesture -- meant to evoke the circumstances of Michael Brown’s death, and familiar from the protests in Ferguson, MO -- became a well-known rallying cry against excessive police force and retroactive impunity.

Scores of professional and collegiate athletes -- although, again, precious few college football players -- have followed Williams by using the same pose or wearing “I Can’t Breathe” T-shirts in memoriam of Garner’s death by a policeman’s chokehold. Still, Williams appears to be the only one of those to have publicly backtracked on his stance.

“I wasn’t expecting it to get blown up or anything like that,” Williams said when he first addressed the issue nearly two weeks later. “I feel like it kind of got out of hand.” Arkansas coach Bret Bielema said he discussed with Williams how the gesture took attention from teammates and that Williams expressed regret he did it. “I’m a team guy,” Williams said. “You know, I think about the team first and foremost, so next time I’m just going to hand the ball to the ref and celebrate with my teammates.” When asked, Williams carefully skirted the issue of why he chose to backtrack. He scored his next touchdown on a Monday night Texas Bowl thrashing of the Longhorns. Bulling in from a yard out, he afterward receded into the embrace of teammates.

Bielema is widely considered a players’ coach, a jovial guy who blasts Reggae music during workouts and draws up zany touchdown pass plays for offensive linemen. But he also runs a large and excruciatingly scrutinized organization, far bigger than anything any basketball coach has to deal with. And Bielema exerts more control on more facets of his players’ lives than any NFL coach does, or could.

The college football head coach is the most powerful coach in the team sports world. Since the 1973 institution of the one-year renewable grant in lieu of a four-year athletic scholarship, he has the power to quash educations and pro aspirations. Which means Coach has every incentive to make sure his players toe a party line that does not ruffle feathers of fan bases often less urbanized -- and, on balance, significantly more conservative -- than NFL and NBA counterparts.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, college football players felt more freedom to air their grievances on wider, social issues. The sportswriter Dave Zirin tells a protest story from 1972 that hammers this home:

That year at the University of Washington, the team refused to come out after half-time unless their opposition to the war in Vietnam was read over the public address system. According to journalist Dean Paton, who worked for the Huskies Sports Information Office and was charged with delivering the team’s message to the public address announcer, the following words were heard throughout the stadium:

‘Ladies and gentlemen, may we have your attention for a very important announcement: The football team at the University of Washington wishes to take this moment to express its concern over the present situation in Vietnam. Toward this end, the team will now delay the game for a couple of minutes.’

Can you imagine a modern college football team doing this in the context of the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan? Every opposing coach would label that program and its staff as disrespectful and undisciplined at best, and anti-American and traitorous at worst; college football pundits would question the team's focus and dedication. In college football, a culture which so prizes its seriously commemorative red, white and blue helmets -- and which is so beholden to local boosters that tend towards the conservative side of the spectrum -- such an announcement would be akin to competitive suicide. A professional athlete can choose to weigh whether this particular conflict is worth it in a way that a college athlete cannot. One is getting paid either way. The other isn’t getting paid at all.

***

The question is not whether college football players should be allowed to make social statements. It’s whether they should be allowed to make more than one kind.

On Saturday, coaches and players on the Rutgers football team wore NYPD hats to honor the lives of New York City police officers Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu. Afterward, they were given ample opportunity to express why they did what they did, and they did so. There’s nothing wrong with the sentiment or the expression of it. But the nature of the sentiment shouldn’t justify or forbid its expression.

The fact they were allowed to express themselves, and were given a forum to do so, should be protocol. Self-expression is a bedrock right, one for which police all over the nation every day risk their lives for fellow Americans, athlete or not. Hundreds of thousands of U.S. soldiers have died for this right. More to the point, our democracy depends on not just its survival, but its loud and unfettered health.

That is what matters, and it’s nothing to take lightly. The patriotism and militarism that permeates college football can run awfully thick at times, and millions of the sport’s fans love this particularly non-sporty aspect of their game. But college football, like every other sport, does not, cannot, and should not exist in a vacuum. It’s cop-out to love the players who bring this unique and amazing thing to life, but to despise or silence those who would push other social issues into the frame of those fans’ periscope. Those fans might believe they cheer for sports only, and they’re welcome to try to do it. But the games we watch take place in the world in which we live.


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