Florida’s Jim McElwain and Texas A&M’s Kevin Sumlin recently sent powerful messages that extended beyond football.
It would have been easy for the coaches to stay silent, but they spoke out in strong ways. It would have been simple to stick to the talking point of the moment before their season openers, but they made the wise choice to make their thoughts known as a national topic became a local one for both men.
Last Monday, McElwain was asked about the possibility of white nationalists holding a rally on Sept. 12 at Florida, before University of Florida President Kent Fuchs announced the school’s choice to deny the group’s request.
“I think first and foremost, any extremist group — I don’t care, the nationalists, whatever they’re called — is unacceptable,” McElwain said via SEC Country’s Zach Abolverdi. “It’s just not what we believe in here. And yet, I also understand freedom of speech.
“I mean, that’s what really our country was kind of founded on, right? But we obviously do not in any way believe in any of their views, and I think our team understands that.”
On Saturday, Sumlin was asked about the cancellation of a “White Lives Matter” event that was scheduled Sept. 11 at Texas A&M.
“I’m really proud of [the school’s decision],” Sumlin told reporters. “I was thankful and very, very proud of Chancellor [John] Sharp and our president to put an end to it.
“[This is a time] when leadership comes to the front, and our leadership did that. We’ve talked about that as a team, too, and our appreciation for our leadership to step in. It’s big for the players, big for our coaching staff — it’s big for everybody.”
It was big for McElwain and Sumlin to give their positions on this issue. It was even larger that both handled the questions like they did, with little ambiguity or room for confusion, after a national debate broke out following the sad events on Aug. 12 in Charlottesville, Va.
The responses from McElwain and Sumlin were a refreshing break from the status quo. Certainly, there are coaches throughout major college football who carry opinions about current events and topics that extend beyond huddles and hash marks. Still, their jobs tend to reward public constraint, especially in this age of Twitter and microwave judgments from anyone with a cellphone.
No doubt, there’s much at stake for coaches when their words can create national buzz in an instant. It can be safer to stay silent on a hot-button issue when a large part of a coach’s job demands that he craft a non-controversial public image. It can be tempting to give a vanilla answer or duck a touchy situation altogether.
Still, McElwain and Sumlin showed courage by breaking outside the football box. It was the right thing to do morally and professionally. Given their positions within their universities, their stances came with instant credibility. Silence from them would have been hurtful.
McElwain and Sumlin set quality examples with their words. It will be fascinating to see if more voices within the SEC and the larger college football world will be heard on non-football topics in the future.
Don’t be surprised if it happens. Already, it has become easier for sports stars to speak out on issues that touch them. Look no further than LeBron James, Steph Curry, Kevin Durant and the multiple NFL players who have protested during the national anthem. Memories of Missouri’s 2015 boycott amid racial unrest on campus also remain fresh.
No matter what you think of the “stick to sports” argument, more recognizable faces are refusing to do so. Likely, the trend will continue.
This can be a good thing. It’s silly to expect those involved with major college football to drop all feelings and emotions at the locker-room door. Players and coaches have thoughts about the larger world. They exist beyond the boundaries we create for them on practice fields and within the stadiums where they star.
Like all of us, they’re members of society, each with a unique perspective about the human experience we share. McElwain and Sumlin served as fine examples of that fact throughout the last week.