NEW YORK — The intersection of sports and politics is impossible to ignore.
Iowa men’s basketball head coach Fran McCaffery said Thursday at Big Ten basketball media day in New York that in his 40 years as a player and coach in college basketball, he’s never seen politics intersect with college basketball — or any other sport, for that matter — like it is now.
Like last year, after Colin Kaepernick’s protest during the national anthem initially sparked a lot of conversation around this time, McCaffery reiterated his commitment to his players being able to express themselves and speak if they feel they need to be heard.
The conversations in Iowa’s locker room about the wide variety of political topics aren’t constant — it’s mostly basketball and other topics relevant to being college athletes, according to the players — but they certainly have and will continue to happen.
Being able to express themselves publicly and privately, share their opinions with one another and feel comfortable doing all of that helps define the fabric of these Hawkeyes.
“I think it shows how tight a group we are and how open we are with each other,” Bohannon said. “We all love to hear each other talk. We love to listen to each other and our opinions. We’re not going to hate someone over an opinion, whether it’s the President or politics in general. We’re going to listen and see what they have to say. That grows our bond even stronger, knowing we have the ability to say what we want and they’re going to listen.”
When it comes to the national anthem itself, the Hawkeyes will stand.
Tyler Cook, Nicholas Baer and Dom Uhl, who joined Bohannon as the Iowa player representatives at Madison Square Garden, all said they talked about it as a team and decided they would stand together. McCaffery said the conversation surrounding that specifically was one in which he, again, wanted his players to feel supported, but also that they were making a decision that’s not influenced by anyone or anything but what’s in their hearts.
“What I don’t want them to do is feel pressure to do something because somebody else did something,” McCaffery said. “By all means, if you want to protest, protest. If you feel there’s social injustice, speak on it. Don’t be afraid. We’ll support you. But we’re going to stand for the national anthem. That’s not the way to do it. It’s disrespectful.”
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Several players on the team are active on social media, and several have liked or retweeted politically-charged commentary.
McCaffery said social media is the catalyst for that increase in the relationship between politics and sports. He added Iowa brings in a group to give players a presentation on social media to help them fully understand the impact a tweet or post could have, how it’s forever altered people’s lives and careers, the power they have as public figures and — unfortunately, probably most importantly — how to handle when fans coming at them with criticism.
Over the summer, guard Maishe Dailey tweeted about an incident he described with police officers in which he and his friends were “slammed to the ground.” His use of social media in that situation was fully supported by McCaffery. It was just one example of how a current topic — the one Kaepernick and many other athletes are protesting — touched not only college basketball, but this college basketball team.
Dailey said at Iowa’s media day Monday, and Cook backed him up Thursday in New York that they definitely take a minute before sending something out.
“I think as a group we’ve gotten so used to monitoring what we put out on social media, what we retweet, what we like, that it’s not been a huge adjustment,” Cook said. “But obviously you can’t just go wild on Twitter. Twitter’s not the place to go when you’re feeling emotional. There’s plenty of examples of that. You have to watch the things you’re tweeting.”
Whether it’s a tweet, a story online or a sound bite on TV, the conversations that are sparked among the Iowa players have been productive and inclusive, they said.
Everyone has a different perspective. Bohannon is from Marion, a predominantly white suburban town in Iowa. Cook is from St. Louis, and though “thankfully I had parents who worked their tails off to provide a safe place for me and my brother to live and go to school,” some of his best friends weren’t as fortunate and that “I’m around people who are constantly losing family members and friends.” The lens through which Cook views things like how police interact with the public is colored by how St. Louis and its surrounding areas have been in the thick of the protests and controversy.
When those two, as one example, have a conversation, they come at it from far different places.
Baer said, “it’s important to be open to everybody’s thoughts and opinions,” as Uhl, sitting next to him, nodded in agreement.
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Being able to better understand each other has made navigating a tense social climate relatively easy for the Hawkeyes. Cook said, “it’s very inclusive and we truly don’t see the color of our skin. It’s not like I’m talking with just the black kids about what’s going on. I feel like our atmosphere and the way we operate, it’s truly a family atmosphere from that standpoint.”
Divisive topics can sink a season. While the issues being discussed are more important than the NCAA Tournament, the Iowa players are proud of the fact that they have an inclusive environment and can listen to each other and the positive impact it has on the team.
“Especially me, growing up in a predominantly white neighborhood and school, there’s a lot of things I want to learn from,” Bohannon said. “Obviously Tyler from St. Louis, Dom’s from Germany, they’re not going through the same experiences you go through. There’s a problem in this society with injustice and inequality and it’s really cool to listen to what they have to say. I think America would be better as a whole if we did that one-on-one and listened to people. Not a lot of people want to do that.”
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