The Maryland women’s basketball team agreed on a plan.
The players would follow the Notre Dame women’s basketball squad in wearing “I Can’t Breathe” warmup shirts. The quote comes from Eric Garner, who repeated the phrase before he died in 2014 after a police officer placed him in a chokehold.
ABOVE: Maryland students have held many protests this past year, for local and national issues alike. But where are the athletes?
This deal, though, had one condition. If any of the 12 team members weren’t informed enough on Garner’s death or police brutality issues to pass a quiz from the coaching staff, no players could don the shirts. Before allowing her players to speak publicly, coach Brenda Frese wants them to understand both sides of an issue.
The players dispersed from that meeting during the 2014-15 season and expanded their knowledge, researching on the internet and asking each other questions. But a few days later, some players didn’t pass the test.
“I was one of those people who was very upset about it,” former Maryland women’s basketball guard Chloe Pavlech said. “Knowing the media would ask questions, if you say the wrong thing, it not only badly reflects on you, your family, your program or institution, it can also be seen as disrespectful for [Garner] and his family.”
This was just one example of college athletes not gaining a platform to voice their opinions.
While many professional athletes have spoken out about their perceptions of racial injustices in this country, and a bevy of NFL players have kneeled during the national anthem, current Maryland athletes haven’t contributed to the dialogue. Some students feel a student-athlete speaking out would advance conversations and provide the community a greater sense of unity.
Though Maryland players haven’t taken a public stance on racial issues, recent events have led to productive internal discussions.
“Whether you’re a star athlete or you’re a bench player, and you’re in a team sport, it’s not about you,” Pavlech said. “It’s about your team.”
ABOVE: A.J. Francis wanted to speak out about societal issues when he played at Maryland between 2008 and 2012, but he didn’t want coaches to view him as a distraction. (Courtesy of A.J. Francis)
While playing defensive lineman for Maryland between 2008 and 2012, A.J. Francis was eager to bring awareness toward the racial injustices he experienced, such as the two times he said police officers pulled guns on him as a teenager.
But Francis didn’t want coaches to view him as a distraction and diminish his playing time or scholarship, especially with a chance to get drafted. He said he also believed the team wouldn’t allow him to talk to the media anymore if he spoke out.
Francis, who now plays for the Washington Redskins, felt especially constrained during his junior season. He said Randy Edsall perceived him as lazy after taking over the program in 2011.
“Every team in the country in college has a player that’s better than whoever’s playing in front of him, and they don’t play because them and the coach have a problem,” Francis said. “Even though I shouldn’t have had to shrink myself to please him … I had to. Otherwise I wouldn’t be where I am today.”
Edsall, who now coaches Connecticut, said through a statement he would’ve helped Francis present his views on social injustices if Francis had approached him with his concerns.
Francis said many black athletes experience similar situations as him growing up. Former Maryland wide receiver Torrey Smith, who said police officers have drawn a gun on him three times without cause, added societal events are discussed in almost every locker room, regardless of the level.
For example, the Maryland women’s basketball team uses the term “Kumbaya” to describe meetings for the players to escape basketball and gather in the locker room to discuss issues weighing their minds.
Twice this year, the topic of the 30- to 60-minute conversations revolved around racism and police brutality. The squad’s 10 players represent six different states and Greece, meaning each team member can use her background to educate others.
The Terps have also traveled to three of their players’ hometowns this season, helping the athletes learn diverse cultures by spending time with the host player’s families.
“At most schools,” Pavlech said, “I don’t think a lot of college coaches would let you bring up the issue altogether.”
On Sept. 22, President Trump implored NFL teams release players who kneel during the national anthem, calling any player who participates in the movement a “son of a bitch.”
Two days later, Maryland volleyball coach Steve Aird tweeted a photo of him and his team locking arms with the caption: “The power of sport brings us together. #Unity #Love.”
“Even though I shouldn’t have had to shrink myself to please him … I had to.”
—A.J. Francis on his experience with former Maryland coach Randy Edsall
Aird’s squad held a conversation about the unifying power of sports at breakfast during its trip to Indiana.
“When you get to college or the professional level, there’s people from different backgrounds, different states, different races, different financial classes,” Smith said. “Some people may have issues and things they disagree with, and others may not be able to relate because they didn’t experience certain things. The game unites you in a way that none of that stuff really matters.”
Sasho Cirovski has recruited internationally over his 25 years at the helm of the Maryland men’s soccer program. His current roster features seven players who hail from outside the United States. Sunny Jane, who played forward for Maryland in the early 2010s, said players offered their different nationalities to discuss racism, calling those conversations some of his best life experiences.
Center Sean Obi said the Maryland men’s basketball team has held similar discussions.
Still, the only public protest at a Maryland athletics event this year was performed by the marching band. About 10 members kneeled while playing the national anthem before the football team’s games against Northwestern, Indiana and Penn State.
“I do it personally for racial justice,” marching band member Aaron Gladstone said. “This is my biggest platform. To not say something would be disrespectful.”
The Maryland football team has remained in the locker room during the national anthem for years, so the players don’t have an outlet to kneel. While The Washington Post reported athletic director Kevin Anderson, who started a six-month sabbatical in October, held a forum for student athletes to discuss subjects outside of sports, some current football players said they don’t want to publicly discuss their views. Maryland football coach DJ Durkin was not made available for this story.
“I don’t want to speak for all college athletes, but I think there is a bigger percentage that doesn’t necessarily understand how their platform could help promote social change,” Pavlech said. “I don’t think they have the best grasp on some of these issues until they graduate or until it’s too late, where their platform isn’t as big.”
ABOVE: Darryl Hill, who played at Maryland in 1963, was the first black football player in any southern athletic conference. He progressed black inclusion in Maryland sports. (File photo/The Diamondback)
While playing for Maryland in 1963 as the first black football player at this university and in the ACC, Darryl Hill faced discrimination on almost every southern road trip. Still, Hill often declined offers to protest.
“The best thing I could do was perform well on and off the football field,” Hill said. “If I was successful in doing that, then I would’ve had more impact than if I became an active protester.”
Hill helped progress black inclusion in Maryland sports, but racial tension has persisted on the campus.
2nd Lt. Richard Collins, a black Bowie State student, was killed near a campus bus stop in May. Sean Urbanski, a white former student at this university reportedly involved in a racist Facebook group called “Alt-Reich: Nation,” was charged with murder and a hate crime.
About a month before Collins’ death, a noose was found hanging in the kitchen of this university’s Phi Kappa Tau fraternity chapter house, and there have been multiple reported instances of white nationalist posters found across campus in the past year.
ProtectUMD, a coalition of student groups that represents marginalized communities at this university, made 64 demands for new programs, resources and initiatives to serve students last November. The organization has held multiple protests since then.
Junior economics and philosophy major Yusuf Mahmood said students would’ve been comforted by a Maryland student athlete speaking out after one of these incidents. He said such an action could’ve prompted this university’s president, Wallace Loh, to respond with more urgency.
“The more people know who you are and follow you and care about you, the more of an impact you’ll have, especially if you’re making the university a lot of more [money],” Mahmood said. “Student athletes could kneel because they want to bring awareness to the fact that there’s DREAMers who go to our campus who could potentially face legal trouble for existing in America. They could kneel because of the tragedy that happened to Richard Collins.”
Other students come from households with mixed feelings about athlete protests.
Some of sophomore mechanical engineering major Patrick Bevan’s relatives are police officers, and those family members feel protesters are generalizing all officers.
UMD College Republicans president Steven Clark believes athletes should promote issues by talking with the media and making a difference in communities instead of using kneeling as the main way to bring these matters attention — further actions many professional athletes, but not all, have followed through with.
“While it’s disrespectful, it’s their first amendment right to protest [by kneeling],” the junior government and politics major said. “College athletes talking about issues they think are important adds to the dialogue. That is what college is for: sharing views and getting a perspective that is different from your own.”
Only a handful of college football players have kneeled for the national anthem, which brought them and the school attention. Albright College’s Division III team in Pennsylvania cut a quarterback after he kneeled during the anthem.
Former Maryland wide receiver Deon Long participated in a Black Lives Matter protest outside Xfinity Center in 2014, becoming one of the only Maryland athletes to publicly protest social issues this decade. That same year, Georgetown men’s basketball and Notre Dame women’s basketball wore “I Can’t Breathe” warmup shirts.
The Duke and Michigan State men’s basketball teams wore shirts that read “Equality” and “We Talk We Listen,” respectively, during the national anthem before playing each other in November. Several Michigan and Michigan State football players held fists in the air during the national anthem in September.
Former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick isn’t on an NFL roster, and many speculate it’s because he started the practice of kneeling and would bring unwanted attention.
So while Loh, the NCAA and the Maryland athletic department say they’re open to students using their freedom of speech, college players are often hesitant to risk their draft stock because of their political beliefs.
“If you get to a point in your career where you think you’re good enough and you don’t want to be yourself because of how it could affect that status,” Francis said, “you’ll absolutely shrink into a hole.”
ABOVE: Maryland women’s basketball coach Brenda Frese wanted her team to wear “I Can’t Breathe” warmup shirts during the 2014-15 season, but it was more important to her that all her players were educated on Eric Garner’s incident and police brutality issues. (Marquise McKine/The Diamondback)
Smith felt sheltered from society issues when he attended Maryland between 2007 and 2011 due to the daily routine of a student athlete.
His days consisted of practices, meetings, classes, the diner and returning home. While Smith, who now plays for the Philadelphia Eagles, wasn’t afraid to express his opinions as a student athlete, he experienced the worst racism outside College Park.
Josh Wilson, meanwhile, has always been open to expressing his opinions on racial injustices. But he didn’t feel educated enough on the events when he played cornerback for Maryland between 2003 and 2006.
Smith and Wilson were inspired to learn more about those issues through their African-American studies and criminology and criminal justice courses. While neither publicly expressed their social views in school, those classes and the locker room served as their outlets to assert their beliefs.
“You have to have a lot of courage [to speak out],” Wilson said. “Once you sign with a school, you’re representing that team.”
At the start of each semester, African-American Studies professor Jonathan England asks his Black Culture: Race and Sports class — one of Smith and Wilson’s favorite courses — whether there’s racism in sports.
Smith, Wilson, Francis and former Maryland cornerback Domonique Foxworth eagerly joined class discussion on the connection between racism and other fields.
Since Francis graduated in 2013, though, England said not as many student athletes who take his course have been as socially conscious.
Smith said if players aren’t comfortable taking a public stance, education is a way to remain active on important issues. In particular, he credited the work of the African-American studies department, such as England’s class, and the criminology and criminal justice department, which is researching racial profiling in arrests.
Wilson said all teams should hold forums where players can express themselves, while Pavlech believes there should be more communication across all of Maryland’s athletic teams to discuss social events.
Francis said student athletes would be more likely to voice their opinions if they were paid, as coaches couldn’t hold unfair leverage over their players.
But if Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett, Michigan State forward Miles Bridges or another high-profile college athlete were vocal about societal issues, Francis believes other student athletes would follow their lead, much like NFL players rallied behind Kaepernick.
“There’s a lot of players in college who deal with the same issues I’ve dealt with my whole life,” Francis said. “I was still living with [those issues in 2012], but nobody cared. That’s why Kaepernick is a fucking hero.”