As part of a summer that has blended athletics with advocacy, nearly every program in the SEC and many across the NCAA used their social media platforms to promote racial justice this past week.
Following a more than three-hour discussion that emerged during a routine team meeting Thursday, Georgia football’s Twitter account posted a video in which several players and coaches expressed their support for the Black Lives Matter movement and their desire for people to have conversations that lead to change.
“For far too long, the Black community has suffered,” redshirt sophomore linebacker Azeez Ojulari said in the video. “It’s not just conscious hatred, it’s a deep-rooted system.”
The video came four days after police shot Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin, which reignited protests against police violence first sparked by the killing of George Floyd on May 25.
“We didn’t do any football [on Thursday],” head coach Kirby Smart said in an Aug. 29 press conference via Zoom. “And football wasn’t important. [Team members] got to voice their opinions and, emotionally, a lot of our guys are in pain. You hear it.”
Smart, who donated $150,000 to the University of Georgia Athletic Association’s new social justice initiative earlier this month, said he and his staff have tried to take a step back and listen to the experiences of their athletes.
“Everything has struck me and my teammates, whether they’re white or Black, because we’re united here. We’re brothers,” senior linebacker Jermaine Johnson said in a virtual press conference on Aug. 31. “Those types of issues affect all of us.”
From his conversations with the team, Smart said he realized how racial injustice has affected each team member differently and how “adamant” some players have been about actualizing the calls for change that have surfaced throughout Georgia athletics since early June.
He said the team came up with more than a dozen actionable items that the Bulldogs will address one by one. Smart did not specify what these actions were, or if the video was one of them.
“I’m big on action. That’s my big thing,” Smart said. “I’m not just going to sit there and issue a statement or words. We want action.”
Other head coaches in the SEC have supported their players’ efforts to affect change as well. Florida head coach Dan Mullen and Ole Miss head coach Lane Kiffin reposted photos of players participating in Black Lives Matter protests and reiterated their programs’ commitment to social progress.
Instead of practicing Friday, Ole Miss players demonstrated in front of a Confederate memorial in Oxford, Mississippi. Ole Miss freshman defensive back Jalen Denton tweeted that it wasn’t a walkout, rather a decision supported by Kiffin for he and his teammates to “peacefully make a change.”
Players from Kentucky, Mississippi State, LSU and Alabama also missed some team activities last week to speak out for racial justice. While most received the same messages of solidarity from their coaching staff on social media, Alabama head coach Nick Saban led a column of football players through their campus in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, Monday evening.
“I'm proud of our messengers over here and I'm very proud of the message," Saban said, according to ESPN.
Player activism has not been confined to the SEC, however. To address social justice issues and fall sports seasons later canceled by the threat of COVID-19, athletes in the Pac-12 and the Big Ten wrote petitions to their conferences and the NCAA in June.
While the Big Ten Unity Proposal focused on robust and uniform coronavirus safety guidelines, the Pac-12 Football Unity Demands called for the conference to create an annual Black College Athlete Summit and a civic engagement task force, among other revenue distribution and COVID-19 protection appeals.
Since then, conferences like the ACC and the Big Ten have announced the formation of groups dedicated to discussing the concerns raised by athletes. The SEC’s Council of Racial Equity and Social Justice, formed on Aug. 20, incorporates more than 60 athletes into discussions about increasing the representation of athletes of color and “providing enhanced support for underrepresented minorities,” according to the conference’s announcement.
"Today's youth are our leaders and change agents of tomorrow, and by listening, asking and seeking their insights and counsel, we have begun the shared journey toward racial equality," SEC commissioner Greg Sankey said in the Aug. 20 statement.
This summer has emphasized the voices of college athletes who recognize their platforms as a means of social advocacy. Black athletes across the NCAA have taken visible actions to speak out for themselves and their communities, and they continue to pick up institutional support along the way.