In that moment, Okonkwo vowed to prioritize his position as a black man over his role as a tight end at the University of Maryland. He refused to remain silent, even though he grew up thinking that is what athletes were supposed to do. Okonkwo implored a white player to stand with his black teammates. His head coach, also a black man, already had spoken out, but Okonkwo criticized college football coaches who hadn’t yet condemned racial injustices.
With players away from campus because of the novel coronavirus pandemic, Maryland Coach Michael Locksley surveyed his team from afar. Some players, he said, were “crying out for direction.” They wanted to find a way to help. They felt the same pain Locksley did.
“ ‘Let’s not just talk about the problem,’ ” Locksley said he told his players. “ ‘Let’s talk about what it is that we can do.’ I assured them that I was not here to stifle them or take away their voice.”
Over the past few weeks, college football players across the country have spoken out about racial inequality and demanded change unlike at any other time. Many, such as the players at Maryland, have used their platforms with support from their programs. But others have taken risks by questioning coaches and university leaders, challenging the power structure in major college football that has historically leaned strongly in favor of the older — and predominantly white — men in charge.
Iowa and West Virginia players publicly detailed mistreatment of black athletes. At Texas, the football team demanded changes to make its campus more inclusive for the black community. A Mississippi State star vowed not to play for the school if the state didn’t remove a Confederate symbol from its flag. With this surge in unfiltered activism, which athletes believe is here to stay and has emerged as a natural extension of the nationwide discussion over racial inequality, some of coaches’ previously unquestioned power has shifted to the players.
“There is some momentum, whether we talk about college athletes or professional athletes, where they’re starting to see their worth,” said Eddie Comeaux, a professor at the University of California Riverside whose research focuses in part on college athletes’ rights. “They’re starting to see their value and understand that, ‘Wow, this is easier and less risky than I thought.’ ”
When Locksley served as Maryland’s offensive coordinator in 2014, the team’s players wanted to wear “I can’t breathe” T-shirts as they warmed up for their bowl game. NBA players had begun wearing the same shirts following a grand jury’s decision not to indict the police officer whose chokehold led to the death of Eric Garner, an unarmed black man.
As an assistant coach, it wasn’t Locksley’s choice to make. Instead, he had to tell the players that those in charge didn’t want the team to wear the shirts.
‘We honestly have all the power’
Inside the Maryland football facility, Locksley now makes the decisions. The program’s accomplishments — and its mistakes — reflect on him, and he is tasked with turning around the team while instilling a culture the community trusts.
This offseason, amid a pandemic that canceled spring practices, Locksley needed to work toward improving upon last year’s three-win campaign. But when the team met after Floyd’s death, wide receiver Brian Cobbs said his coach was “not too focused on football.” Cobbs could sense the seriousness in Locksley’s tone.
Locksley is one of 11 Power Five conference head coaches who are black. According to NCAA data from last year, 49 percent of all Division I football players identified as black, compared with only 15 percent of offensive coordinators and 22 percent of defensive coordinators.
With so few black leaders in college football, “it’s imperative that [a black coach] is absolutely down for the cause, that he doesn’t forget about his people,” Illinois running back Ra’Von Bonner said of coaches such as his own, Lovie Smith.
Players speaking their minds on social or political issues is inherently risky for programs. They can revolt against coaches or university leaders, irritate donors and alumni or spark division in the locker room. But players are no longer turning away from these conversations.
“We honestly have all the power,” Okonkwo said. “There's no reason we should ever be quiet.”
Dozens of former Iowa football players spoke out this month about racial disparities in the program. Many allegations of unfair treatment focused on longtime strength coach Chris Doyle, who last week reached a separation agreement with the school. At West Virginia, defensive coordinator Vic Koenning was placed on leave while the school investigates allegations of mistreatment by current player Kerry Martin Jr.
Chuba Hubbard, a star running back at Oklahoma State, said he wouldn’t take part in team activities after his coach, Mike Gundy, appeared in a photo wearing a T-shirt with the logo of One America News Network, a far-right cable outlet that has called the Black Lives Matter movement “a farce.” Hours after Hubbard’s tweet, he posted a video with Gundy in which the coach committed to change, and Gundy apologized in another video the next day.
Players at the University of Texas said they won’t participate in recruiting or donor-related events unless the school renames several buildings, changes its traditional song and donates a percentage of athletic department revenue to organizations supporting the Black Lives Matter movement.
“This is not going to let up,” Comeaux said. “We are going to see a lot of change happening, and you’re going to start to see more and more athletes see that they do have leverage in numbers when properly coordinated.”
Players are still amateurs with plenty of reasons to fear speaking out. A union doesn’t fight to protect them, and coaches control their scholarships. They often have been made to feel as if it is not their place to discuss anything other than football. (“You are just our entertainment” is how Okonkwo described the feeling. “That’s all you’re allowed to be.”) But this month, as protests calling for real change have taken place across the country, players have demanded to be heard, forcing coaches to adapt.
“In this day and age, you’ve got to let kids be able to communicate their feelings or you’re going to be in trouble,” Locksley said. “The day of doing it because I said so just doesn’t work anymore.”
‘Everything has changed’
KJ Sails walked silently through the rain with his 2-year-old son on his right, his head coach to his left and a crowd of people behind him. Sails, a cornerback at the University of South Florida, had organized this event on a recent Saturday. He grew up in Tampa and heard stories from his grandmother about how a police officer shot and killed an unarmed black teenager, prompting three days of riots in 1967.
The walk took the crowd through what Sails called an “outside museum” that shows the history of Central Park Village, a thriving black community that was devastated by the riots. Once the group walked a half-mile to a church, Sails spoke and began to cry, thinking about his son and looking at his teammates and head coach, Jeff Scott. Sails said it was a beautiful, powerful scene.
“Yes, it’s all good when we’re feeding the homeless as a team,” Sails said. “But what about in a situation like this? This is when you see who really wants to impact their communities and who wants to impact the world because, in a lot of cases, there’s pressure to not say anything.”
Bonner, the Illinois running back, is naturally reserved in public and doesn’t use social media, but he speaks about racism with urgency. Athletes sometimes feel “so controlled,” he said, but Bonner is done caring about that. He could go for a jog, he said, and become the next Ahmaud Arbery, who was fatally shot in February. Or it could be his dad, his cousins, his friends. Bonner spoke on a megaphone at a recent protest after a high school student told him, “People need to hear your voice.”
Bonner’s coaches, both Smith and running backs coach Mike Bellamy, have supported his activism. Bonner said they tell him: “Be as black as you can be. Don’t change for anyone.” He appreciates their encouragement. But he never felt as if he needed a coach’s permission.
“Whether they were with it or not, I was still going to do it,” Bonner said. “Because it’s too big not to.”
As protesters filled the streets in cities across the country, college football players joined the conversations, some of them empowered by their coaches, such as Locksley. These are important issues. These are their issues.
“I don’t think it’ll ever go back to the way it used to be,” Sails said. “Because we’re living in a new time, and everything has changed.”