The Georgia football program isn’t sticking to sports.
Throughout the offseason, players and coaches began speaking out against racial injustice on social media platforms, in virtual press conferences and at an on-campus event held at the Holmes-Hunter Academic Building. The Bulldogs’ actions were in response to the police killing of George Floyd, a Black man, in Minneapolis on May 25 and the police shooting of Jacob Blake, a Black man from Kenosha, Wisconsin, on Aug. 23.
“You know, even though it’s a current event right now, this is something that’s been going on for over 400 years now,” Tyson Campbell said in a video posted to Georgia football’s Twitter on Aug. 27. “As a person who goes to the University of Georgia, I can use my voice to try to make change, try to make this world a better place.”
Campbell isn’t the only member of Georgia’s football program using his platform. Redshirt sophomore outside linebacker Azeez Ojulari, senior inside linebacker Nate McBride and graduate defensive back Prather Hudson joined the junior cornerback in Georgia’s Twitter video supporting racial justice.
Other players, including senior inside linebacker Monty Rice and senior defensive lineman Malik Herring, have also taken to their personal Twitter accounts to support social justice movements.
Georgia’s Twitter video was one of the first actions taken after a 3 1/2-hour team meeting on Aug. 27, where head coach Kirby Smart said players shared personal experiences and outlined ways for the program to combat injustice, give back to the Athens community and implore UGA athletes to vote in the upcoming election.
“We didn’t do any football that day. Football wasn’t important,” Smart said in a virtual press conference on Aug. 29. “They got to voice their opinions. Emotionally, a lot of our guys are in pain. … Until you’ve actually heard guys and the pain they’re going through and the things they feel, you don’t know.”
While current players continue to speak out against racial injustice, the University of Georgia Athletic Association addressed recent allegations from former defensive back Otis Reese that the coaching staff didn’t address racist incidents while he was on campus from 2018-19.
“UGA disputes any suggestion that it maintains an unsafe, unsupportive or racially insensitive environment,” UGAAA’s Sept. 23 statement said.
‘He knows what’s right and what’s wrong’
In Georgia’s Aug. 27 video, Azeez Ojulari said the Black community has suffered for “far too long” and pointed out racism in the United States runs deep.
“It’s not just conscious hatred,” Ojulari said in the video. “It’s a deep-rooted system.”
Richard Morgan, Ojulari’s head football coach for two years at Marietta High School, wasn’t surprised to see one of Georgia’s star linebackers speaking up in the video. While at Marietta, Ojulari was the face of the Blue Devils’ program, an honor bestowed to the “kind of kid you want to build a program around,” Morgan said.
Morgan said he would’ve been shocked if Ojulari wasn’t a vocal leader at Georgia — it’s not like him to be silent.
“He’s more of a guy that wants to be at the front and wants to lead because he knows what’s right and what’s wrong,” Morgan said. “He wants to make sure that he’s making sure the right things are done.”
Morgan said the credit for Ojulari’s character is given to his family. Ojulari grew up with two Nigerian parents in a household focused on the “foundation of life,” which his father, Monsuru Ojulari, said his son was equipped with throughout childhood.
“Respect and discipline come first in the house,” Monsuru Ojulari said. “When you step out of our door, you know you’re representing the family. The tools that you need to represent the family, we already gave [them] to him.”
Building upon the program’s initiatives, the Georgia football team convened at the Holmes-Hunter Academic Building on Sept. 2 to hear Hamilton Holmes Jr. speak on social justice. Hamilton Holmes Jr. is the son of Hamilton Holmes, one of the first Black students admitted to UGA in January 1961.
Football players wore black jerseys to the event. Monty Rice donned a Black Lives Matter mask and posed for a photo alongside teammates Robert Beal, Malik Herring and Georgia director of player development Jonas Jennings. Each had a fist raised in the photo, which was posted to Jennings’ Twitter.
Rice has also been consistently vocal in support of the Black Lives Matter movement on Twitter. Wade Waldrop, who coached Rice for three years at James Clemens High School in Madison, Alabama, said Rice has never been a person that shies away from sharing his thoughts.
“There’s hard conversations going on in our world right now,” Waldrop said. “Just like he is on the field, he is not afraid to talk and to speak and talk about what he’s feeling, and he never has been.”
Waldrop, who keeps a photo of Rice in his football team’s weight room, said Rice came back home to talk to his former high school team during the offseason. Rice asked Waldrop if he could talk with the players by himself to discuss his experiences as a college athlete.
“I know he talked a little bit about what was happening in the world and the things that he was seeing,” Waldrop said. “To have somebody that they can go turn the television on and see … it means a ton to our kids because they see themselves hopefully one day being able to maybe get where he’s at.”
Mary Persons head football coach Brian Nelson, who has known Herring since he was 7 years old, said Herring has served as an ambassador for his high school football program since he left for Georgia in 2017.
Nelson said Herring, who has also been vocal on Twitter in support of racial justice, has used his on-field accomplishments to grow his platform.
“He’s just taken it upon himself to use his platform to speak on what he wants to speak about,” Nelson said. “That could be change, that could be social injustice, that could be whatever.”
Creating a new culture
The Georgia football program recently began to publicly support the Black Lives Matter movement, adding to the chorus of players’ voices. As racial injustice was placed at the forefront of public conversation, Kirby Smart issued his first statement on Twitter denouncing racism in May.
Smart and fellow coaches, including wide receivers coach Cortez Hankton and defensive coordinator Dan Lanning, spoke in Georgia football’s Aug. 27 video. Smart and his wife, Mary Beth, donated $1 million to UGAAA in September, with part of it dedicated to UGAAA’s social justice program.
Still, there’s a notion the actions from Smart and his coaching staff may have come too late. Otis Reese, who is waiting to be granted immediate eligibility after transferring from Georgia to Ole Miss this winter, claimed in a Sept. 22 tweet he often faced unaddressed racism during his time in Athens.
In a Twitter statement, Reese cited an instance when a teammate — presumptively former Georgia and current Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields — was called a racial slur by a former Georgia baseball player. Reese also appeared to reference a 2019 video of the UGA Tau Kappa Epsilon chapter whipping each other and using racial slurs.
“None of these things were ever addressed by the coaches at UGA,” Reese said in the statement. “There was literally nobody to speak to about these types of things without having fear of losing your position on the team.”
Smart responded to Reese’s allegations in an SEC head coaches’ call on Sept. 23.
“I don’t think [Reese] actually leveled comments about racism about the program,” Smart said.
Despite distractions off the field, the team will be united when it begins the 2020 season with an abnormally late opener on Sept. 26. During the season, each player will don a patch on the left shoulder of his jersey that reads “together” and “equality” with an outline of the state of Georgia between the words.
Members of the Georgia football program feel it’s important to take action for racial justice after a summer of advocacy. For Tyson Campbell, like many other Bulldogs, the movement is personal.
“Being a person of African American descent, it has a lot to do with me. Being a male, it has even more to do with me,” Campbell said in a virtual press conference on Sept. 7. “I feel like [speaking out] was very important to me. It was something I felt and something my team feels. We’re just trying to use our platform to encourage and help cause change in this country.”