Why coaches have emerged as America’s true leaders on National Anthem protests

You’ve probably seen them by now, but here are San Antonio Spurs head coach/world’s greatest human Gregg Popovich’s quotes on National Anthem protests and the state of race relations in this country:

“The social situation that we’ve all experienced is absolutely disgusting in a lot of ways. What’s really interesting is the people that jump right away to say, one is attacking the police, or the people that jump on the other side. It’s a question where understanding and empathy has to trump, no pun intended, has to trump any quick reactions of an ideological or demagogical nature. It’s a topic that can’t just be swung at, people have to be very accurate and direct in what they say and do.”

He continued.

“I absolutely understand why they’re doing what they’re doing, and I respect their courage for what they’ve done. The question is whether it will do any good or not because it seems that change really seems to happen through political pressure, no matter how you look at it…. It’s easier for white people because we haven’t lived that experience. It’s difficult for many white people to understand the day-to-day feeling that many black people have to deal with.  It’s not just a rogue policeman, or a policeman exerting too much force or power, when we know that most of the police are just trying to do their job, which is very difficult. I’d be scared to death if I was a policeman and I stopped a car. You just don’t know what’s going to happen. And part of that in our country is exacerbated by the preponderance of guns that other countries don’t have to deal with. It gets very complicated.

“At this point, when somebody like Kaepernick brings attention to this, and others who have, it makes people have to face the issue because it’s too easy to let it go because it’s not their daily experience. If it’s not your daily experience, you don’t understand it. I didn’t talk to my kids about how to act in front of a policeman when you get stopped. I didn’t have to do that. All of my black friends have done that. There’s something that’s wrong about that, and we all know that. What’s the solution? Nobody has figured it out. But for sure, the conversation has to stay fresh, it has to stay continuous, it has to be persistent, and we all have a responsibility to make sure that happens in our communities.”

Let’s keep that in mind as the story shifts to Nebraska.

Nebraska players Michael Rose-Ivey, DaiShon Neal and Mohammed Barry knelt for the Anthem before Saturday’s win over Northwestern. Rose-Ivey detailed the response that act of protest received, with some calling for an action they disagreed with to be met with punishment straight from the 19th century.

I’d encourage you to watch the full clip, but here’s the Cliffs Notes version for those who don’t have seven minutes to spare.

Vitriolic discourse is unfortunately to be expected from anonymous online commenters. And, sadly, Nebraska’s players aren’t the only group to face such threats. In fact, the Beaumont (Texas) Enterprise reported that a youth football team was threatened with lynching in online comments after kneeling during the Anthem.

But one might expect better than what those in leadership positions had to say.

Here’s Nebraska regent Hal Daub, via the Lincoln Journal-Star:

“It’s a free country. They don’t have to play football for the university either, he said. “They know better, and they had better be kicked off the team. They won’t take the risk to exhibit their free speech in a way that places their circumstance in jeopardy, so let them get out of uniform and do their protesting on somebody else’s nickel.”

And here’s Nebraska governor Pete Ricketts, via the Omaha World-Herald:

“Generations of men and women have died to give them that right to protest,” he said. “I think the way they chose to protest was disgraceful and disrespectful.”

Now let’s compare that with what Nebraska head coach Mike Riley said on Saturday:

“Obviously, this is a choice they have made for personal reasons and that’s the beautiful thing about the United States that they can do that.”

And here’s Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio on Saturday:

“This is America, and that’s what the flag stands for. It stands for the freedom to do what you need to do, and that’s the beautiful thing about this country. At some point in time, you know, when the true enemy comes I guess we’ll all stand together. I can’t make assumptions for our players and what they’ve gone through in their lives. All I can do is try to lead the best way I can and be positive and accepting toward our team and our players. We come together after the National Anthem in solidarity, and I think that’s what’s important.”

Dantonio’s response — “I can’t make assumptions for our players and what they’ve gone through in their lives” — touches on something Popovich mentioned — “It’s a question where understanding and empathy has to trump, no pun intended, has to trump any quick reactions of an ideological or demagogical nature — that I think is key here: empathy.

Throughout the Kaepernick controversy, coaches have offered the most thought out and thought-provoking statements, whether they be Popovich or Steve Kerr, Dantonio or Dabo Swinney. The cynical response here is, Well, yeah, what else do you expect them to say? They’re older white men coaching teams of young black men. They have to say that or they’ll have a mutiny on their hands.

But I look at it from the opposite angle. Coaches have offered such insightful opinions because they’re leading teams largely comprised of young black men.

Coaching requires you to pour into your players lives — lives that are quite different from that of your own — unlike many other professions in life. Coaches don’t necessarily walk in their players’ shoes, but they can witness that walk up close for years on end. And along the way they build up a level of empathy that understands someone else’s experiences may be different from their own, and that just because one of their own players experiences life differently than they do, it doesn’t make their own experiences any less valid.

That’s what coaching, at its core and at its finest, is — it’s recognizing the value of different experiences, different backgrounds, different talents, different skill sets, and using those differences to make one group of people as good as they possibly can be at a given task.

Anthem protests aren’t going away, not immediately. And as long as they’re here, politicians could learn something by listening to coaches and the athletes they teach.