One of South Carolina’s most popular athletes — Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence — was provoked by George Floyd’s killing at the hands of Minneapolis police and tweeted last Friday about something other than football for the first time in more than two months.
“I’m siding with my brothers that deal, and continuously deal, with things I will never experience.” Lawrence wrote. “The injustice is clear.. and so is the hate. It can no longer be explained away.”
An armored police vehicle — flanked by a wall of officers wielding riot shields — rumbled down Gervais Street in Columbia, South Carolina, the very next night. A surreal display of police intimidation against protesters demanding justice for Floyd transformed the street, known as “Columbia’s Broadway,” typically bustling with popular bars, restaurants, hotels and retail shops.
Lawrence perfectly fits quarterback stereotypes. Tall, blonde hair, deeply religious, white and — most importantly — quiet. He has a knack for staying in the background when not on the field. Lawrence says the “right” things and keeps his exchanges with media milquetoast.
But the killing of George Floyd last week forced Lawrence — and other quarterbacks who fit his mold — to take a bolder push into uncomfortable conversations about race relations, a topic that has been put to task in Lawrence’s sport for more than a century.
The intersection of sports — particularly college football — and civil rights activism is a long and essential chapter in American history. At the turn of the 20th century, football in college became a proving ground for black people, one of the few places where they could excel in front of thousands who wished for them to fail.
Paul Robeson, the future singer and activist, integrated the Rutgers football team in 1916 and — with the eventual help of his coach — defied West Virginia University’s request that he sit out a game against the Mountaineers. The following decades saw incremental progress in the desegregation of an exclusively American game.
When the University of Missouri’s football team asked in 1940 that New York University bench its African American fullback, Leonard Bates, for a game, seven white NYU students demanded he be allowed to play after Bates’ teammates brought the matter up at a student council meeting.
Marvin Griffin, the Georgia governor in 1955, made a similar request to Pitt football in an attempt to pander to voters. He asked the Panthers to leave Bobby Grier, their lone black player, at home when traveling to the segregated Sugar Bowl in New Orleans. Grier’s white teammates and Pitt’s chancellor simply told Georgia Tech, “No Grier, no game.”
Nine black members of the Syracuse football team sat out the 1970 season, despite their NFL aspirations, to protest racial inequality inside their own athletic department, with the support of the white faculty that taught them.
A century after Robeson and his coach had defied the “gentlemen’s agreements” that kept black players off the field, 49ers teammates Colin Kaepernick and Eric Reid began their national anthem protests in 2016.
In all of these instances, white people used a comfortable position to help their disadvantaged black teammates, behavior that can and should be replicated today.
It is the responsibility of people with privilege to help those without, and white people can elevate black voices with their own. Lawrence, like all white people, is a beneficiary of privilege. His skin color and fame give Lawrence the ability to reach those who need to hear his message the most.
Black athletes speak up again and again as the bodies and names are piled up, but face an unfortunate truth — they aren’t being heard. National figures and regulars in the arena of social justice such as LeBron James and Malcolm Jenkins are forced to say the names — Breonna Taylor, Antwon Rose II, Stephon Clark, Philando Castile, along with countless others — and relive the horrors of police brutality and racism to seemingly no end.
James, Jenkins and the voices of other black athletes are essential and should help lead the discussion, but it’s also on men like Lawrence, Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow, Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz, former NFL defensive lineman Chris Long, San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich and hundreds of America’s other white sports superstars to back the black men they call teammates, coworkers and friends.
“The black community needs our help,” Burrow said. “They have been unheard for far too long. Open your ears, listen and speak. This isn’t politics. This is human rights.”
If it only took black people calling out racist policing for the policies to go away, then it would have been accomplished long ago. But progress toward true justice requires the participation of white people.
That’s why safe and substance-free calls for unity, prayers and forgiveness — like those from Lawrence’s head coach — are not helpful. There is no room for neutrality or half-hearted statements for ambiguous “change” made simply to relieve pressure. This would only show that the “white moderate” that Martin Luther King Jr. condemned in his 1963 “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” has learned nothing. Say the names, identify the problems and commit to solutions beyond when popular outrage has been withdrawn.
Nothing has been solved, but Lawrence, Burrow and their counterparts made the necessary first step in joining an uncomfortable dialogue. In rhythm with Bobby Grier’s teammates who said “no Grier, no game,” they must echo with “no justice, no peace.”