Chrissy Carr swears she watched the video close to 10 times. She couldn’t help it. Even a month after the fact, the thought keeps gnawing at her: George Floyd, the Black man who died May 25 when a white Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes, could have been her brother. Her family. Someone in her best friend’s family.
A rising junior guard on Kansas State’s women’s hoops team, Carr said she thought those things mostly because she is Black, but also because Floyd died in Minneapolis, where she grew up. The incident happened outside the city’s only Cup Foods, a neighborhood market she frequented when she lived there. She’s even able to identify the street name: Chicago Avenue.
She wept. She felt angry. So she took to social media, writing messages and reposting others.
That’s when her head coach, Jeff Mittie, gave her a call.
“I really thought he was going to call me and tell me to calm down on Twitter,” Carr said with a laugh. “I was going crazy for a little bit.”
Not the case.
Instead, Mittie was calling to ask Carr how she was doing. Was there anything he could do to help?
Turns out, there was.
Since then, Mittie has joined Carr in protests. He’s taken part in Zoom calls Carr has led, texted her to tell her he’s proud of her, backed her on Twitter when her post attracted hundreds of hateful responses.
“That really meant a lot to me,” Carr said, “because that opened up the conversation for a good conversation, and he genuinely wanted to know how I was about all this. Having that from your head coach is really, really nice.”
Mittie’s support of Carr is a microcosm K-State’s measured approach. The university has supported its student-athletes who feel hurt, angry and sad about Floyd’s death and similar incidents that preceded it. Administrators, coaches and athletes have voiced their support of the Black Lives Matter movement. They’ve taken steps to ensure this fosters a lasting influence in the halls of their programs.
On Thursday, K-State student Jaden McNeil posted a mocking tweet that read, “Congratulations to George Floyd on being drug free for an entire month!” It went viral. In response, K-State student-athletes — including most every member of the football team — effectively went on strike, posting a letter that stated they won’t participate in any football-related activities until the university takes action that would result in the expulsion of students who post similar messages in the future.
For that reason, Carr’s interaction with Mittie illustrates the ways the athletics department unwittingly prepared itself to handle these student-athletes’ reactions to McNeil’s tweet.
The most effective way officials did so: By supporting those who felt most affected by Floyd’s death.
“It was definitely weird,” Carr said, “because you see all these videos of cops killing people, and you don’t really recognize the area so you don’t have a connection to the person unless you know them, and you don’t have a connection to the city. You don’t really get to feel their pain and their anger until it happens in your city, and that’s when I understood everyone’s pain and everyone’s anger with everything.”
The athletics department’s activism, Julian Jones said, started authentically.
As K-State’s assistant athletic director for student-athlete development, Jones prides himself on being, well, himself. It’s important to him to be genuine, especially with the student-athletes he works with. He’s been at K-State less than a year, but already, he’s earned players’ trust.
That’s why K-State’s support of the Black Lives Matter movement — including physically, on video boards, and virtually, on social media — started the way it did: with players.
“I felt like it was my job,” Jones said, “if I see them tweeting and liking certain things and retweeting things, they definitely are feeling that movement, so I need to make sure that we plan a support group to talk about it.”
Jones didn’t want to feel like the one who kicked that off — he’d rather credit the athletes — but he felt confident in the response he expected. So he finally asked.
“I’m thinking about doing this meeting for you all,” Jones told them. “Are you down?”
The players’ resounding answer, according to Jones: “Yes, we need it.”
With that, they got to work.
Jones organized a Zoom call that included himself, athletics director Gene Taylor, deputy athletics director Jill Shields and lots of players. There, on what Jones called a “town hall,” athletes expressed their feelings on Floyd’s death and how they would like to see the athletics department respond.
Some players shed tears. They expressed sentiments similar to the ones Carr shared: Floyd could have been someone they knew. Worse, it could have been them.
“I think that opened up the fire in our athletics department,” Jones said, “to be like, ‘Wow, this is how our student-athletes are feeling.’”
Not all of K-State’s response was organized — athletes and coaches alike have posted individual messages on their personal social media accounts. Taylor condemned McNeil’s tweet, and head football coach Chris Klieman, who proclaimed “Black Lives Matter” in a tweet on Monday that said “racism is not welcome at K-State now or in the future.”
On June 4, K-State posted a video 8 minutes and 46 seconds in length, a tribute to the amount of time former Minneapolis officer Derek Chauvin knelt on Floyd’s neck. The video shows clips of K-State athletes, coaches and administrators all facing the camera in silence, 58 people in total. Some knelt. Others raised a fist. All stayed quiet.
“That’s kind of who we have been,” Taylor said.
Several players, like women’s basketball players Carr and Peyton Williams, took part in marches and protests. They ran into each other at a protest in Topeka on May 30. Carr, who carried a sign emblazoned with “Black Lives Matter,” led chants of “No justice, no peace,” “say his name,” and “I can’t breathe” — the last a nod to three of Floyd’s final words as he struggled against Chauvin’s knee.
Football players Skylar Thompson, Denzel Goolsby, Bronson Massie, Harry Trotter, AJ Parker and Jonathan Alexander also participated in a Manhattan march June 2. Trotter and Alexander carried signs that read “Black Lives Matter.”
To Trotter, taking part in the protest represented a couple of opportunities. He wanted to support his teammates, especially those of African-American descent, but marching also gave Trotter a chance to inch closer to identifying with the plight of his Black teammates.
“I definitely can’t relate, just because I am white, and they’re both Black,” Trotter said, specifically referencing Parker and Alexander. “That’s something that I strive to understand more, the things that they go through. Being as close as I am to them and them being my teammates, their problems are my problems. I want to go through everything that they go through with them, support them.”
K-State posted two graphics: One featuring quotes from Parker, and the other showing quotes from redshirt freshman defensive back Tyrone Lewis.
Parker’s message relayed the struggles of Black people across the past 400 years, highlighting the fact that only 56 years have passed since Jim Crow laws ended. In the graphic, Parker also describes a time when a police officer pointed a gun to his head.
“I don’t want my children to experience what I’ve been through or seen,” wrote Parker, who later lauded Klieman as a “players’ coach” in a tweet.
Lewis’ post shares similarities, but he chose to illustrate, in his view, the difference between racism and patriotism.
“We don’t want racism to be concealed by patriotism,” Lewis wrote, “because we don’t want to have to feel like we are picking between our culture and our country.”
What Lewis didn’t mention in that graphic were the two times when he was harassed by police officers in his hometown of Hammond, La.
Yet that’s part of what has driven K-State to show support of its student-athletes: Several players and coaches have personal experiences that allow them to relate to the circumstances that led to Floyd’s death.
“I have brothers and sisters who have to see things like that every day,” Lewis said. “I felt like I had to put that out because it’s still happening today. It’s still happening.”
Don’t get Tyrone Lewis wrong. He insists that “all cops are not bad.”
But he was attending high school in Hammond when an encounter with police prompted him to abandon his backup career plan of becoming an officer.
He was sitting in the passenger seat with a friend in a parking lot near his home. Police approached them from behind and turned their lights on.
They approached the two, shining flashlights in their faces. Confused, they asked what the problem was. The officers, Lewis said, responded by telling them to shut up, asking for their driver’s licenses and inquiring why they were in the parking lot.
“And I’m like, ‘We live here,’” Lewis said. “They kept screaming, telling me to shut up. So we just followed their rules and shut up. We gave them our driver’s licenses, and they (were) like, ‘Oh, we thought y’all was someone else. We were looking for someone.’ They were like, ‘Have a good day.’
“I felt like that was a point in time that really scared me.”
Defensive ends coach Buddy Wyatt can offer something similar. In June 1999, a few months after Wyatt wrapped up his two-season stint as the defensive line coach at Northwestern, one of the team’s players, senior defensive tackle Bobby Russ, was shot and killed by police.
“Back then, you didn’t have cameras and body cameras and cell phones with video, so nobody really knew exactly what happened,” Wyatt said. “But I do know how it affected his family, his mom, how it affected our football team at the time. I can help them by understanding how they feel and what they’re going through and (telling them) that’s not going unheard or unseen.”
Here’s another reason K-State officials felt compelled to show such strong support for movements like these: Those around the department who haven’t experienced similar incidents are compassionate toward those who have.
Take Taylor, for example.
It wasn’t until several years ago, he said, that he learned what the term “white privilege” meant. At the time, he thought it had to do with money.
“It wasn’t until I was in a diversity seminar several years ago and I realized when I walk into a store, nobody looks at me funny,” Taylor said. “I don’t get pulled over just because of the color of my skin. People don’t assume something about me just because of the color of my skin. I understood that and I certainly try to be receptive to that and understand that better and listen better.”
Offensive line coach Conor Riley, who coached at North Dakota State from 2013 to 2018, voiced similar sentiments.
For one, Riley said, he’ll never have to teach his children how to interact with police officers.
“Because, ultimately,” Riley said, “we are white.”
Not everyone enjoys those benefits, though. That this applies to teams Riley has guided across his 17-year coaching career has motivated him to educate himself, which helped him realize that racism exists in forms that don’t make national news.
“It’s continuing to learn that racism is not exclusive to the Ku Klux Klan,” Riley said. “There’s so many other different, subtle forms that you learn about and then you have to reflect on your life and ultimately your upbringing about some of the presumptions about the way that you’ve acted around people of color.”
Here, Riley says white people share a sizable chunk of the responsibility — “if not all the responsibility,” he said — of ending the country’s problem with racism. Acknowledging the problem’s existence, he says, is a good step. But it’s only one step.
For that reason, he’s gone further. He’s held what he called “uncomfortable conversations” with Black K-State players and coaches to try and learn about their experiences. In these scenarios, he’ll go in with a couple basic questions.
“How is it impacting you? How do you feel about this?”
“And hearing some of those responses is not very comfortable at times,” Riley said, “because you sit there and tell yourself, ‘I never had to go through this.’ When I get pulled over for speeding, I’m not asked to go back to the police vehicle, but I know there are a lot of young African-Americans in this country who are. When I walk into a store, I don’t have a store clerk following me around the store thinking that I’m going to steal something.”
To Riley, the fact that players around K-State feel comfortable sharing their struggles with him is encouraging enough.
That some are doing so for the world to see tells him something else.
“It’s telling me that we’re recruiting the right types of young people into our program,” Riley said. “They are the type of people that I want to be around, they’re the type of people that we, as coaches, want to challenge out on the football field, and they’re the type of people, quite honestly, that I want challenging me.”
Nobody thinks solving these issues will happen quickly. It might not even happen relatively soon. It’s hard to predict how the university will handle the student’s viral tweet. It’s even harder to predict how the student-athletes will respond to that.
That’s why the people within the athletics department have formulated ways to ensure the lasting impact of efforts they’re making now.
On Friday, when football coaches spent the morning helping players register to vote.
Administrators, coaches and players, Taylor said, can continue to effect change by holding conversations with people of color, learning the injustices some face and acting accordingly.
To K-State assistant head coach and cornerbacks coach Van Malone, it’s about understanding.
“You have to have them understand that this is real. This is real,” Malone said. “These thoughts, these feelings, they’re not made up. Watching that video (of Floyd) showed the country that this kind of stuff is real.
“So to be able to have our student-athletes understand that the feelings that their teammates — that they sit right next to, that they run, that they block with and they tackle with — those people have a different experience than you have. So (it’s important) to be able to respect, to be able to honor that experience, and then, to be able to work together to walk together.”
Other changes the department is making might be around the corner.
K-State Athletics, Jones said, will release a plan in the coming weeks.
“It’ll show what we plan on doing to make sure that this isn’t just a trend,” Jones said, “but it’s something that we’ve ingrained within our athletics department.”
That the players themselves have led the charge says something about their personal convictions, sure, but it also reveals that K-State has designed ways to push for improvements in race relations that draw on its players’ experiences.
“With a lot of universities, you will see that a lot of people want to open their eyes and kind of turn away from it and be like, ‘No, this is wrong. We don’t want to talk about it. Just play basketball,’” Carr said. “But I feel like our university did the complete opposite. They opened their eyes, they educated themselves, they want to know more, and they want our athletes to feel supported through this time. And that, honestly, was a great feeling.”