This wasn’t a week for SEC coaches to play no-comment cards on the tragic shootings over the past two weeks in Louisiana, Minnesota and Dallas, and to their credit that did not happen.
The coaches seemed to understand that saying nothing would come off as uncaring, and what’s the thought about indifference being worse than hate?
So, they offered up what they could, understanding their unique position. Coaches oversee programs that are largely composed of black student-athletes, and police officers share a kindred spirit of authority.
Listening to coaches and athletes this week, black and blue mutual respect works in a college football program.
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At Alabama, police are invited to practices and some have dinner with the athletes, and players have participated in ride-alongs in patrol cars.
“What we’ve tried to do is develop respect and trust, with people getting to know each other,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said. “When you have people who are afraid they make poor decisions and judgments on both sides.”
Every coach who was asked about the impact of recent events on their programs offered a similar story of players and police getting to know each other on a more personal level. But the topic carried greater meaning with one team above the others, hitting home at LSU.
On Thursday, the final of the four Southeastern Conference Media Days, the Tigers met reporters, and Coach Les Miles’ opening statement dove directly into the incident in his community, the fatal shooting of 37-year-old Alton Sterling by a white police officer after he and another officer had tackled Sterling to the ground. The shooting was captured on video by a bystander and touched off protests.
Since the shooting, Miles held meetings with the team, “not about our rules as coaches or staff but more or less who we are as people, and I wanted to listen,” he said.
There were more discussions, in smaller groups, and when the talking was over, Miles said he’d like for his players to be advocates.
“They’re students, they’re football players, they’re role models,” Miles said. “Society chases them. They want them on the front of their magazine. They want their autograph.”
The most popular of the Tigers, running back Leonard Fournette, who will enter the season as a Heisman Trophy favorite, is up for the duty.
Last week, Fournette posted on social media a photo of himself wearing a Alton Sterling T-shirt. The next day he tweeted, “Stand for something or you’ll fall for anything.”
“I have a voice in the city where I’m from,” Fournette said. “It’s always good to send a message.
That’s not just with that incident. Any good thing you can do to help the world become a better place, I would love to do that.”
Such ideas are easier expressed in July before the grind of the season. Miles understands free time is a luxury once practice begins, “but I want to be part of whatever change that could be positive.”
Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason said he’s all for his players taking stands.
“Our young people today are extremely bright,” Mason said. “If they can use their platform intelligently, that’s something I’m always pushing these young men towards.”
None of the good intentions expressed by coaches and players excuses them from the mistakes that were also part of the conversations this week. Sexual assault and domestic violence issues, in particular, are too prevalent in college sports.
What’s different is college athletes have a unique opportunity to build relationship and understandings with law enforcement. It’s a connection that should provide mutual benefits to a community.