WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Big Ten men’s basketball coaches face a question seemingly every football coach in the United States has faced in the last month or so.
What happens if your players choose to make a social protest?
It’s a question with no simple answer, but one that every coach accepted as necessary given the political and sociological climate in which their players live in 2016. Dozens of football players — professional, college and high school — have protested during the national anthem in some way, and it’s a safe bet basketball players will follow.
Iowa Coach Fran McCaffery was among those who fielded the question last week at Big Ten men’s basketball media day in Washington, D.C. The Hawkeyes are a young group who are active on social media. McCaffery has had the conversation with them he feels is necessary to foster productive dialogue.
In what manner they protest — if they protest at all — matters to him, but only because he wants their voice(s) to effect actual change, not simply ring hollow.
“I talked to them about it and I wanted them to share their opinion,” McCaffery said. “I will allow any one of my players to exercise their constitutional right not to stand. But they’re going to stand because they want to stand. They also want to speak up. And I don’t think they want to feel like they have to sit down or kneel down or put a fist up or point somewhere.
“Let’s all get together and not be divided and get into debates about something completely different (than the issue).”
McCaffery said “the issue we’re talking about is one everybody agrees with. We have to stop innocent people from getting killed,” and his point is one shared by some of his fellow Big Ten coaches.
When Colin Kaepernick’s kneeling during the national anthem entered the public consciousness in an effort to address the issue of police violence against minorities, college basketball coaches had the benefit of time to talk to their players and address how the teams would handle whatever political or social statements individuals wanted to make. Many coaches, including McCaffery and Michigan State Coach Tom Izzo, were proactive in their approach, reaching out to players first. Others have yet to broach the subject, but know it’s on the horizon, and that there’s still time to all come to an understanding.
But the prevailing notion is one of walking the walk, not just talking the talk. McCaffery said there’s real pressure put on black players in the limelight to have an opinion one way or the other. Ohio State’s Thad Matta agreed, and said if his players end up wanting to make a statement, they have to believe in what they’re saying.
“The one thing we talk about with our staff is, if you want to do something, you have to be able to back it up,” Matta said. “You’ve got to have justification for what you’re doing, not just because so-and-so did it. What is your stance, because (media) are going to ask, ‘Why?’ We have to make sure guys are educated in terms of strong belief of what they’re standing for.”
The league has examples of players who make their voices heard and have a cause for which they fight. Preseason Big Ten Player of the Year Nigel Hayes recently stood with a sign that read “Broke college athlete, anything helps,” with a directive to an online account that would benefit the Boys and Girls Clubs of Dane County (Wis.).
It’s one example among many that the anthem protests have started.
Izzo said he talked to a number of people and former players, including Draymond Green, to find a way to relate his reaction to it all with that of his current players. The Spartans’ head coach is one of the more than 75 percent of college basketball coaches who are white. His life experience, and his players’ life experiences, is central to the discussion they have to have.
“My players, I don’t walk in their shoes; nor do they walk in mine,” Izzo said. “Sometimes I have to explain the reasons why I do things the way I do when it’s not cool with them. But who am I to think I understand?
“Why do I think I should understand this, because it’s something that happens in society?”
Iowa’s Peter Jok, who was at media day in D.C. representing the Hawkeyes, made Izzo’s point in a sobering way. Jok said he’s not felt pressure to have a stance as the face of Iowa’s team, and that while he supports the movement for awareness that was sparked by Kaepernick, he’s “more worried about what’s going on with my mom and my family back in Africa. There’s war going on back there. I live here now, so I have to be worried about both, but my mind is on what’s going on back in Sudan.”
The support McCaffery has offered to his players is only conditional in the sense that he wants any kind of action taken by one of his players to be respectful.
Hawkeyes guard Dale Jones very much agreed with Jok in expressing his appreciation for McCaffery’s support, and that he doesn’t anticipate an Iowa player making a protest of any kind.
Jok said assistant coach Sherm Dillard has a saying that goes, “Make the main thing the main thing,” and that the “main thing” is basketball. If someone feels compelled to make a statement, they feel comfortable doing so and would as a team, Jok said, because McCaffery has set that standard. It just seems more likely that basketball things will be the only statement they make.
“I appreciate that out of him because he lets us voice our opinion if we want to. He gave us the right to say something if we need to say something, he just wanted to make sure we do it in a respectful way,” Jones said. “We really don’t talk about stuff like that (though). If anything, we talk about stuff happening in class, or a girl or something crazy at practice. We’ve got a mixture of different guys on the team from different area codes, and we enjoy our company. We can’t control stuff that’s outside.”
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