There stood Jeremy Pruitt, wearing a CDC-recommended mask and a University of Tennessee football shirt as he delivered the kind of message head coaches of major college programs rarely deliver.
With a nod to UT players K'Rojhn Calbert and Trey Smith, who had just spoken at Friday's March on Knox at Knoxville's Market Square, Pruitt said: "This is leadership. This is doing it the right way. I want to thank everybody for coming out here today, all right. You're talking about courage, all right, these guys stepping up, everybody out here, this is what we have to do, and we have to do it together."
If anything has stood out during this remarkable, troubling, enlightening, sobering, inspiring week just past, it's the overwhelming images of black and white America coming together to demonstrate against this nation's lifelong history of racial injustice.
Forget where you stand on Black Lives Matter, or the selfish, indefensible actions of those who have disturbingly destroyed property and lawlessly looted during these protests centering on the killing of George Floyd, an unarmed African American, by white Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, who has been charged with unintentional second-degree murder. Everyone has personal opinions on all of this, and in America everyone is entitled to his or her opinion.
Instead, merely focus on the diversity of the crowds present at these protests. Black. White. Brown. Asian. Some poor. Some almost assuredly wealthy. Most of them stuck somewhere in between because so much of this country is somewhere between financial security and financial ruin, and probably far closer to the latter these days, which is its own unsettling issue.
But whatever their skin color or economic status, they've united in the desperate need for change regarding race relations. For once it even feels as if their efforts will finally bring about the kind of lasting, significant change this nation has needed for hundreds of years.
And should that change happen, athletes and those who coach them will likely be at least part of the reason. Perhaps even a major part, especially here in the South, where so many of our heroes play or coach.
Let's start with the grandiose gesture of $100 million pledged by Michael Jordan's Jordan Brand business over the next 10 years to, according to a news release, fund organizations "dedicated to ensuring racial equality, social justice and greater access to education."
This from the same MJ who once said in jest in response to why he wasn't more political: "Republicans buy sneakers, too."
There was Kentucky football coach Mark Stoops donning a "Black Lives Matter" T-shirt as he marched with his team to the courthouse in downtown Lexington on Friday. According to the Lexington Herald-Leader, Stoops said of the move: "I play things pretty tight to the vest with the media, but there's no more of that on this issue. Everybody needs to get off the bench and make a difference and stand for something."
On that same day, South Carolina football coach Will Muschamp led his team on a peaceful march to the governor's mansion in Columbia.
Then there were the actions of first-year Missouri football coach Eli Drinkwitz and his men's basketball counterpart, Cuonzo Martin, who led their athletes in a march, then joined them in kneeling for eight minutes and 46 seconds — the exact amount of time Chauvin kept his knee on Floyd's throat — before sticking around to see 62 Tigers register to vote.
Wrote Drinkwitz, in part, on Twitter: "Today we decided that action is what causes change. ... And then we registered to vote. 62 student athletes registered. Change will happen."
If you don't think change has needed to happen for a long, long time, consider this portion of a Lexington Herald-Leader op-ed written by former Kentucky basketball star Rex Chapman, who's over 50 (and white): "Since I was a teenager, I've been pulled over riding to practices, games, planes, etc. with black teammates driving too many times to count. It's a way different experience than being pulled over in a car full of white people. You might even call it terrifying."
There have been improvements. We've elected a black president to not one, but two terms. There are more black millionaires in this country than ever before. But a 2015 Economic Policy Institute study found black men of similar education, experience and region of residence make 22% less than their white counterparts. The same study showed black women make almost 12% less than their white counterparts.
The news in education is little better, with roughly 30% more white students attending college than their black counterparts. Standardized test scores, though improving, are also noticeably lower.
Yet the biggest problem beyond the destruction of property and looting with these protests is what, if any, significant changes will come from them, because not much in our past — regardless of the intensity or length of previous protests — has brought about lasting change.
Rome wasn't built in a day, and one week, two weeks or three weeks of protests over the death of George Floyd won't bring racial justice and inclusiveness without years of hard work.
Or as the Volunteers' Trey Smith said Friday: "This can't keep happening. Something's got to change ... and the only way we can make a change is together. Reach out to other people who don't look like you. Without understanding, nothing will change."
Without togetherness, the enemy will remain us, much as it's always been.
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