Michigan’s football players met virtually early this month to address protocols for a return to Schembechler Hall, but the conversation's focus turned to what was going on across the country in response to the death of George Floyd.
Floyd died May 25 in Minneapolis after police officer Derek Chauvin pressed his knee into his neck for nearly nine minutes. Floyd had allegedly passed a counterfeit bill at a convenience store. Video of the brutal act has been seen globally, triggering outrage and protests of police brutality.
A week later after Floyd's death, Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh opened the discussion on the video call and players began to share their feelings about what transpired and what was going on in the country.
“Being that this was such a hot-button issue in America, I know coach Harbaugh dove into that and explained how he thought about it and opened the floor to everybody else to share whatever thoughts and opinions they had on the subject,” Hunter Reynolds, a defensive back from New Jersey, said during a conference call with reporters Thursday night.
Players shared, among other things, personal stories about being interrogated by police.
“And giving them a hard time just because of the color of their skin,” said Adam Shibley, a linebacker from Cleveland. “Just learning different perspectives of how people have had to deal with different things on the team and getting a better understanding for what our teammates go through on a daily basis.”
Reynolds and Shibley have deep interest in encouraging conversation about racism in this country, and specifically, among their teammates. They are members of the Big Ten’s recently announced Anti-Hate and Anti-Racism Coalition that includes student-athletes, coaches, athletic directors and top university officials. Michigan has 16 representatives, including football coach Jim Harbaugh, men’s basketball coach Juwan Howard, and women’s basketball coach Kim Barnes Arico.
Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren launched the coalition on June 1, a week after Floyd’s death. The goal of the coalition, according to a Big Ten statement, is to “seek tangible ways to actively and constructively combat racism and hate around the world while also empowering student-athletes to express their rights to free speech and peaceful protest.”
“I want to see the dialogue that’s occurred throughout the country these last few weeks just continue, because I know a lot of times in this country, things are so fast-paced, one day we’re talking about one thing, and then the next day it shifts to a different topic,” Reynolds said. “This is a topic that affects peoples’ lives and is extremely important. I want it to carry over until we start seeing tangible changes in different aspects of the country.”
A day after that team call, Harbaugh and several coaches and players marched in a peaceful protest in Ann Arbor. Reynolds and Shibley said they were motivated by Harbaugh’s participation.
“Some people would kind of be afraid because there’s a section of people out there if they see people participating in a Black Lives Matter movement, they’d shout, ‘All Lives Matter’, and say, ‘Oh, yeah we’re not rooting for Michigan anymore. We can’t tolerate politics and sports,’ even though it’s not political. Coach Harbaugh doing that is showing he’s not going to cater to those types of people. He’s going to do what he thinks is right.”
Shibley said he gained another level of respect for Harbaugh.
“I’m sure there are Michigan donors who would revoke their money just because he participated in that protest. I’m sure he could lose friends over that,” Shibley said. “But the fact that he’s willing to go out there and not care what people think is something really to look up to.”
When he was a freshman at St. Ignatius, Shibley began dating an African-American girl. They were together six years, and during that time, he became more aware of racism in this country.
“I experienced a lot of hate from it,” he said. “I went through a lot of struggles with her. I had to drop friends because of the way they treated me for it. It wasn’t easy, and that really drove me to learn more about the issue. I experienced some of it firsthand. I know I could never experience everything, but just for having a girlfriend that wasn’t my race, that exposed me to it.
“Since then, I’ve always been very forward-thinking about it. It’s just hard to understand racism for me, and I feel like if everyone can get to that level, the world would be such a better place.”
Reynolds said he and his Black teammates have had conversations discussing the different microaggressions they’ve experienced.
“(Things) that we didn’t necessarily think about as we were going through our lives, things you’re conditioned to hear, such as someone saying, ‘You’re pretty articulate for a Black kid,’ or, ‘I didn’t think you were affluent or from a good area.’ When you hear stuff like that, it makes you think, ‘Oh, well are Black people not supposed to speak well and be articulate? Are they not supposed to come from affluent areas and have nice things in life?’ I think that’s one of the things we’ve been talking about a lot, trying to break those stereotypes and have people realize that they might be preconditioned to think certain things, but the things they think can be harmful and they need to change.”
Reynolds said he is hopeful progress will be made. He believes it’s important to have conversations with his white teammates.
“This isn’t an issue just Black people can solve,” he said. “America is majority white, so if white people just remained ignorant to these issues … if they remained ignorant or even racist, we’ll never get anywhere with this.”
He also sees people having a new understanding of former San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s decision to kneel during the national anthem.
“When you dive deeper, I think now people, instead of what the protest was, they’re looking at why the protest was, which is important,” Reynolds said. “Back then, people were trying to change the issues and pulling a lot of straw mans. Nowadays, the same people will hear other people refute the movement, they’ll say things along the lines of, ‘What about the looting? What about Black-on-Black crime?’ Nowadays, you have more people who are more educated on the topic who denounce all of that and more aware of everything that’s going on.”
If there’s a season this fall, Reynolds said he has had conversations with teammates who plan to use their platform to voice their opinions. Shibley would like the team to have a unified response, a show of solidarity if players decide to kneel.
“A lot of my teammates have come up to me and talked about what they want to do, and we’ve discussed it,” Shibley said. “A lot of the white players are starting to think about, if we do kneel, should they do it. That’s going to be an interesting conversation and I think going forward, I just hope whatever we decide we can come together and do it as one team and be unified in our actions.”