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Irish athletes, coaches address protests inspired by George Floyd’s death

| Tuesday, August 4, 2020

Editor’s Note: A version of this story was published online June 2.

Outrage over the death of George Floyd — an African American man who was killed after a Minneapolis, Minnesota, police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes — has spilled over into the sports world.

Several prominent athletes and coaches from both the professional and college ranks have condemned police brutality and racism, in addition to offering their support for peaceful protesters across the country. Notre Dame athletes and coaches, both past and present, have now joined those ranks, the most vocal of which has arguably been the women’s basketball staff.

Newly appointed women’s basketball head coach Niele Ivey, in a tweet sent May 31, described recent events as “infuriating, painful, and senseless,” and shared her concern for the safety of her son in today’s world. Her predecessor, Muffet McGraw, the same day released her own message saying, “We can’t be sorry but remain silent anymore — it’s time to act.”

One of Ivey’s associate head coaches, Coquese Washington, shared a story of her daughter fearing for the lives of the men in her family. Fellow associate head coach Carol Owens shared a message from the Women of Color (WOC) Coaches Network imploring other coaches to make their voices heard about this issue.

The importance of coaches speaking out was stressed by former Irish guard and current WNBA star Arike Ogunbowale. Monday, Ogunbowale via Twitter praised Notre Dame’s women’s basketball coaches for their commentary and stated that this period is shedding a light on who college coaches really are based on their responses and reactions. She also implored high school athletes to then take that into account when making college decisions.

Ogunbowale went on ESPN’s Golic and Wingo Tuesday morning to discuss her message.

“A lot of these schools have predominantly black athletes, they recruit all these black athletes, they want black athletes, but at times like this they’re not speaking up or really protecting these girls and they were just in their homes however many years ago saying they would help them grow,” Ogunbowale said.

“… It’s definitely important when you’re about to send your daughter somewhere when you’re looking for a school is, if times are rough, are they actually going to have your back like they say they do or just watch you ’cause they know you’re good at sports and you can help their program.”

She said that support was a major factor in her recruitment process.

“That was probably one of the biggest things — especially how I was raised and how protective my family is and close we are, they wanted to know that wherever they were sending me for four years in the prime time of my life as a young woman and adult— that I was gonna be taken care of and I felt comfortable,” Ogunbowale said.

Ogunbowale’s former teammate with the Irish and current Phoenix Mercury forward Brianna Turner offered her perspective on the matter. The daughter of two law enforcement members, Turner went on SportsCenter Monday to discuss the issue of police brutality.

“Is it an issue with the training? Is it an issue with, maybe, racial bias? Obviously, there’s a lot of factors at play here,” Turner said. “… it’s definitely good to hear [my parents’] side … I see a lot on social media and they’re living through it on the opposite side, so I think it’s good when you can get both those perspectives.”

She also shared how her parents discuss the issue of responsibility and accountability to each other within police departments.

“People always talk about, obviously, there’s some bad cops and there’s some good cops, but you have to make sure those good cops are holding the bad cops accountable so there’s no bad cops at all,” she said. “So if everyone is holding everyone accountable, there shouldn’t be any bad cops.”

Aside from women’s basketball, Notre Dame football players and coaches have also been very outspoken. Very similar to Ogunbowale’s message, former Irish defensive end Khalid Kareem, now with the Cincinnati Bengals, offered his own message saying, “Show that you are genuine… if you choose to be involved, you have to actively be involved and STAY involved.”

Former wide receiver Chase Claypool said that the current chaos embodied by protests is much needed, though further violence is not.

Even current players have stepped up, with junior safety Houston Griffith, junior wide receiver Braden Lenzy, senior defensive lineman Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa and graduate student defensive end Daelin Hayes all taking to Twitter to voice their concerns.

“If you value me for what I may be able to do on Saturdays for ND, value me as a black man the other 6 days of the week too,” Lenzy said.

“To those who do not share this experience, it is your responsibility not to turn a blind eye to this issue,” Hayes said.

Ogunbowale believes that this trend of even collegiate athletes speaking out will continue and have an impact.

“I think just, with this generation, we saw what happened to Trayvon Martin, we were probably in high school,” she said. “And then we just see all these things where now we’re older, we have platforms now, we’re gonna use it. We all want to speak out … So I think our generation is definitely gonna help.”

Head football coach Brian Kelly shared a brief statement via Twitter on Saturday with his reaction, as did other coaches on the staff. Offensive coordinator Tommy Rees stated his belief that he “would be failing many” if someone in his position did not speak up.

Notre Dame volleyball’s coaching staff shared their thoughts; head coach Mike Johnson expressed his anger after witnessing the video of Floyd’s murder. Associate head coach Katie Wilson called for commitment “to love and equality” and assistant coach Kindra Gillen stated that “ALL stories of injustice need to be heard.”

Head women’s soccer coach Nate Norman had his own message on the controversy, as did men’s basketball head coach Mike Brey. Brey said he believes conversation about taboo subjects such as racism can no longer be performed only between players and coaches. He said those with influence must use their “position as leaders, educators, and role models” to increase the chance of real change being a possibility.

Brey’s assistant coaches, Ryan Humphrey and Ryan Ayers, showed their support by retweeting content from former NFL coach Tony Dungy and NBA coaches Monty Williams and Gregg Popovich, respectively. Several other Notre Dame coaches and social media accounts from various sports have shown their support through retweeting others as well as University President Fr. John Jenkins’ official statement.

Football defensive coordinator Clark Lea struck a similar note to that of Rees and Brey when he said “it’s time to get uncomfortable” and address such taboo issues as racism in America.

However, Turner believes that this discussion should not be so awkward.

“We need to be able to talk about racism without making it uncomfortable,” Turner said. “Talking about race should not make you feel like, ‘Oh, I don’t know if I should talk about it,’ or, ‘Oh, it’s not my place.’ It’s everyone’s place to talk about this. This has to do with equality … None of this should be uncomfortable, this should make you want to speak out.”

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About Hayden Adams

Hayden is the former sports editor of The Observer. When he's not working toward his four majors (physics and film, television & theatre) and three minors (journalism, ethics & democracy), you can probably find him hopelessly trying to save his beloved Zahm House from being wiped out. He plans to attend law school at a TBD location after graduation.

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