College student-athletes call attention to racial injustice in Ann Arbor march

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News

Ann Arbor — This was about using their platform as college athletes, opening eyes, sharing a cause, and bringing awareness to racial inequality in this country.

Hunter Reynolds, a Michigan football player, didn’t know what to expect when he and Tariq Speights, a linebacker at Eastern Michigan, organized a Black Lives Matter protest on the Michigan campus Sunday in response to the latest police shooting of a black man, Jacob Blake, shot seven times in the back by Kenosha, Wis., police a week ago.

Eastern Michigan University football players, from left, Tariq Speights leads chants with Turan Rush at the protest in Ann Arbor.  Organized by College Athlete Unity, athletes from multiple universities, students and residents gather for a peaceful protest against racial injustices, starting at the Diag on campus Sunday at the University of Michigan and through downtown Ann Arbor.

After Reynolds spoke, telling the hundreds of students and student-athletes from Michigan, Eastern Michigan, Wayne State and Concordia, as well as EMU football coach Chris Creighton who attended, that they are using their “voices to not allow the status quo to continue,” they began their march through campus.

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From the steps of the Harlan Hatcher Graduate Library, the traveled through the Diag, down State Street then Main Street, passing people having lunch, some raising a thumbs up, others cheering them, while others shot video. A car stopped while the long line of protesters were returning to the Diag, and the driver held a “Black Lives Matter!” sign through the sunroof.

Speights, using a megaphone, led a number of chants as the group walked and peacefully protested. They chanted the names of black men and women who have been victims of police brutality, and they shouted, “I’m more than an athlete.”

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“We can encourage change as the days go on, as the years go on,” Reynolds said after the event. “As much as I hate to say it, I don’t think this will be the last situation of protesting an incident of police brutality or police violence. But just knowing that there’s so many people out there who care about these issues and are passionate about them shows that we can continue to keep doing things because that’s how change is made.”

Naz Hillmon, a standout on the Michigan women’s basketball team, is a member of the Big Ten’s new Anti-Hate, Anti-Racism Coalition. She loved seeing the various sports represented not only by Black team members but their white teammates, as well. Hillmon said each sport at Michigan appeals to a different fan demographic, and by all the athletes coming together, young kids who are fans, fellow students, middle-aged fans and elderly fans can be educated about their cause.

The group marches from the Diag through downtown during the protest.

“While we were walking, people were having lunch, and they were clapping,” Hillmon said. “Sometimes you don’t see it in the media so you think it’s no longer going on, but you have to realize and check in to things like this. It’s still going on. People are still fighting, people are still trying to make change, people are still trying to educate.

“If you forget for a week and you see a movement like this, you go back to educating, you go back to asking those tough questions. I think this brings awareness than maybe change. And there may be change. There may be someone who may think about their decisions and their actions and their speech and the type of comments or jokes that they make. For sure, it brings awareness and there may be some change of heart in some respects.”

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Creighton was asked  by Speights to speak after the march. He delivered a powerful message that ended with him saying, “I grabbed the megaphone to say, Black Lives Matter, because I love you guys.”

Later, Creighton said he has learned so much since the death of George Floyd in May that sparked protests around the country and world. Video captured Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin kneeling on Floyd’s neck while pinned to the groundas Floyd gasped for breath.

“For a white man who comes from privilege — at some point in my life, I understood that — these last couple of months have taken me to a whole other level, which I’m grateful for, even though I would wish it all hadn’t happened,” Creighton said.

Shortly after Floyd’s death, Creighton held a team meeting that forever changed him.

“One of our coaches shared that he had been pulled over 29 times his senior year of college,” he said. “This is a great human being. That made it personal for me, like George Floyd was so personal for our African-American players, no matter where they were from. To me, it wasn’t personal. It was grotesque, and I just felt sick watching that, but I didn’t necessarily have a personal connection. But when our coach shared that he had been pulled over 29 times, I was out of words.”

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There was a police presence at the protest, but they were there in support. Washtenaw County Sherriff Jerry Clayton marched with the protesters and later addressed them, thanking them for their efforts. Ann Arbor Police chief Michael Cox was off duty but attended the event and said the students gave him “courage.”

“I’m proud of them for speaking up and standing up and not being afraid to come out here and do this,” said Cox, whose son Michael was a running back at Michigan (2009-2011). “I’ve been a Black person all my life, so I understand what it’s like to suffer in silence around racial inequities and discrimination.

“It just so happens I do this for a living, but I’ve spent a great portion of my time trying to make change and do things wherever I am with the platform I have, but I haven’t always spoken about it. For them to come out and have the courage to do that so early in life, that’s what makes me proud. I’m always supportive. I admire what they’re doing.”

Cam McGrone, a Michigan linebacker, was pleased to see so many of his white teammates, including Adam Shibley, Jared Davis, Aidan Hutchinson and Ben Mason, among others, participating. He credited Shibley with spearheading an effort within the team shortly after the Floyd death to become more aware of racial inequalities. Shibley and Reynolds also are on the Big Ten’s Anti-Hate, Anti-Racism Coalition.

McGrone, wearing a T-shirt reading, More than an Athlete, said his eyes have been opened the past year.

“People just see us on that field and really just value us running around playing football, but we’re more than that,” he said. “We’re just everyday people at the end of the day and we have basic human rights that we need.”

He knows that many only look at him as a football player.

“The comments I’ve gotten, the DMs I’ve gotten, just everything so hateful,” McGrone said. “It only seems something positive comes out of a sports post, but even then, there’s always people going to drag me down. I really don’t want people to see me as an athlete anymore, just see me as a regular black man and respect me as that.”

Reynolds said that, ultimately, it’s not about being discouraged by those who don’t acknowledge the movement or disparage it.

“(It’s) just really keeping the course, speaking your mind, because you never really know whose opinion or whose mind you’re gonna change,” Reynolds said. “If you change one person’s mind today, 365 days, that’s 365 people, and those people can go on and change someone else’s mind. It’s really about not letting the negativity get to you and affect you.”

Twitter: @chengelis