Wolverines tackle issues, dish experiences at MLK event

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News

Ann Arbor — On a day honoring Martin Luther King, the message at its core was for Michigan students — those who are athletes and those who are not — to come together and communicate and learn to understand one another.

Michigan athletics, partnering with Rise and the Trotter Multicultural Center, hosted a Martin Luther King Day symposium “Changing the Game” on Monday at the Junge Center, featuring Desmond Howard.

Howard stressed that while he attended Michigan, not only did he play football and go on to win the Heisman Trophy, but he had friends across campus who were not athletes. He didn’t drink and didn’t hang out in bars. Instead, he used his free time to listen to speakers in the Law Quad.

“When I was at Michigan, I was a great teammate, loved my teammates,” Howard told the crowd. “But I hung with people who were not quote unquote student-athletes. You need to branch out and become friends with people who are part of your regular student body.”

Michigan quarterback John O’Korn represented the current Michigan players on the panel and said the football players live in an unusual world where black and white mesh well and get along. They all call each other brothers. Sometimes, however, they forget that is not entirely representative of the world outside football.

“We can get stuck in this bubble as student-athletes thinking that everything’s OK because we walk into a locker room that’s multicultural every day and we see people who don’t look like us at all and come from completely different backgrounds,” O’Korn said. “And because things are great within our locker room, we feel things might be OK up on the Hill, and that’s just not the case. It’s on us to get more involved on campus and have those conversations.”

O’Korn shared how Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh facilitates and encourages conversation among the team on a number of issues.

One that came up recently was the team’s assigned Orange Bowl hotel, the Trump National Doral in Miami. Harbaugh, joined by athletic director Warde Manuel, decided to open a discussion with the players about the hotel the day before departure.

“Naturally, there were a lot of emotions and opinions about this decision,” O’Korn said. “Warde and coach Harbaugh stopped practice early before we left for the Orange Bowl and opened it up for discussion among the whole team. Everyone shared their opinions on it.

“We ended up staying there, and we had a great time, we had a great bowl trip, but we had that discussion. It was open for the entire team. People shared their opinions on both sides. That discussion had to be had before we went down there or else there would have been a huge uproar once we got there.”

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O’Korn said Harbaugh frequently initiates conversations about a number of topics that he thinks the team should know about and discuss.

“He’s not just in that way but in so many ways such a unique coach because he’s played,” O’Korn said. “There are so many coaches who coach college football who have never played a day of college football in their lives. He’s experienced it himself. That affects how he coaches, how he leads. It says a lot about him as a person. There have been so many discussions about a number of issues he’s started off a meeting or ended a practice talking about things.”

Michigan receiver Moe Ways said that after he and a number of teammates began to raise their right fist during the playing of the national anthem before games this past season, Harbaugh had a team meeting the next day and said he wants his players to speak freely and be passionate about whatever moves them.

“He said all I ask is you’re educated on what you believe in,” Ways said. “He said to make sure when the media asks you why you’re doing it, be educated about it.”

Ways sat in the crowd on Monday and took the microphone to speak about some of the issues he encounters on campus.

“I live with John O’Korn. Him going to class as a white student-athlete is different than me going to class as a black student-athlete,” Ways said. “I don’t have to wear any Michigan gear at all, people just assume that I’m an athlete because I’m black and I’m at Michigan.”

The Monday symposium was about improving communication, and that often happens slowly. O’Korn and Ways will be roommates again this year and they have learned plenty from each other already. Ways said Martin Luther King envisioned a day like today when black and white athletes could be teammates.

“John cares a lot about injustice,” Ways said. “Although he’s a white guy, he has a black heart, if that makes sense. The things that affect me in some ways they affect him at the same time. Although that might not be his reality and he may not go through it, he can feel what I feel just from seeing my pain. I appreciate him for that.”

O’Korn and Ways have similar hopes for the future.

“I’ve always been around guys playing football, sports my whole life who don’t look like me,” O’Korn said. “But living with Moe has given me a different perspective (by) seeing things a little more first-hand. It doesn’t just affect me when I walk into a locker room, it affects me at home now. It’s an experience that’s changed my life, no doubt.”

The message Monday was about “Changing the Game.” Manuel told the crowd in his final remarks that must be applied going forward.

“If it stops here today, we wasted an hour and a half,” Manuel said.

achengelis@detroitnews.com

Twitter.com: @chengelis