HOOVER, Ala. – Oren Burks is a student at Vanderbilt University, double majoring in economics and human and organizational development. He is active in several student organizations and community service.
Burks is also 6-foot-3, 209 pounds, 21 years old. And black. And so he worries. He and his friends have had conversations about changing their wallets – from black to light brown, so if they found themselves in the wrong situation with a policeman, that their wallet wouldn’t be mistaken for a gun.
“Just the fear,” Burks said. “You never know what’s going to happen.”
Such conversations are going on around the country, given events in the country this month, with the police shootings in Baton Rouge on Sunday being only the most recent tragedy. Athletes, including SEC football players, are not in a bubble.
“It’s tragic. But it’s not just something I should be worried about, it’s something you should be worried about, that we all should be worried about, right?” Missouri defensive end Charles Harris said. “You have all this violence going on, we really need to get the core of what’s going on, as a collective unit, as a collective country, as a collective body of people we should try to solve it together.
“So that’s not just my problem, it’s not just your problem, it’s our problem.”
Harris was asked if he’d ever had any personal interaction with police that left him wondering if he’d been profiled.
“Yeah, that’s pretty personal though,” he said, adding: “But we all have our different experiences.”
Indeed, most other players who attended this week’s SEC media days said they hadn’t had such experiences. Georgia junior safety Dominick Sanders said he “never really had a problem with the police.”
Neither had LSU senior defensive back Tre’Davious White, who lives in Baton Rouge, where the shooting death of civilian Alton Sterling occurred.
“I was always taught to look a man in the eye and treat him with respect. Treat your authority with respect, because they’re there to protect and serve you,” White said. “I feel like if you respect guys and look them in the eye, and are very cooperative with them, that wouldn’t happen, or things like that wouldn’t happen.”
LSU head coach Les Miles opened his remarks on Thursday by talking solemnly about the situation in Baton Rouge. Miles detailed how LSU coaches and players held team meetings about it. And this was four days before the shooting death of at least three police officers.
Indeed, the prevailing feeling from talking to coaches and players at media days was one of reconciliation – and education.
South Carolina head coach Will Muschamp brought a local sheriff, Leon Lott, to speak to the team. Defensive end Marquavius Lewis, who is black, said it offered a valuable vantage point.
“It was good to hear both sides of the story,” Lewis said. “Cops are just as nervous in that type a deal as a regular civilian.”
At Vanderbilt, Burks help co-found an organization, REVAMP, which stands for Revitalizing and Empowering Vanderbilt’s African-American Male Population. Burks said he personally hasn’t been pulled over or had that experience with a policeman, but that “it’s out there.”
“This has been happening. The video cameras are just making it more visible,” Burks said. “People are taking a stand for what they believe in and what this country has the potential to be. Me as an African-American male, there’s some things that have happened that I see that are heartbreaking, it’s frustrating, it’s anger, it’s sadness.”
Harris was active in last year’s protests at Missouri, which arose out of perceived racial problems on campus. During his appearance at SEC media days, he said he was glad there was now an “awareness” of the situation, which was a step in the right direction.
Then Harris was asked what he said to people who told him: Stick to sports.
“I can’t do that,” he said. “I can’t be just an athlete. I have to be a person.”
LSU tailback Leonard Fournette, perhaps the SEC’s biggest star player, tweeted out a picture of himself wearing a shirt with Sterling’s face on it. A few days later he showed up at media days and said he would continue to use his platform to speak out. After Sunday’s incident in Baton Rouge, Fournette tweeted out “Pray harder everyday … our kids have to grow up in this generation.”
This summer saw the death of Muhammad Ali, who was renowned for being more than just an athlete. Since his time, athletes like Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods and Derek Jeter haven’t strayed much into real-world issues.
But among some football players in Hoover this week, there was a sense that it was time to do so.
“Having constructive talk about the problem will get us closer to a solution,” Burks said. “Not sure what that is, but we need it. We need peace.”