The streets of downtown Auburn were flooded on Sunday, not in standoffs or separation, but in solidarity.
Thousands flocked to Toomer’s Corner, at the intersection of Magnolia and College, masks covering their mouths, ‘Black Lives Matter’ signs risen in the air, to peacefully protest what has been at the forefront of the national conversation in recent weeks: racial injustice and inequality.
Hundreds of Auburn student-athletes were in attendance. Leading them, marching, kneeling and showing their support were the very head coaches at the helm of these major athletic programs. Gus Malzahn, Bruce Pearl and Butch Thompson, among others, all were seen walking and protesting in the streets of Auburn.
Auburn should be proud.
This is what the country needs. If you are in a position of leadership like these Division I head coaches are, and in a position where your voice can affect positive change, it’s a disservice to remain silent. It would be insensitive, especially when you take into account that the majority of the student-athletes are black in this instance, to not use that voice and that platform as a catalyst for change.
Last week Malzahn released a statement addressing the meetings he had with his players and staff, majority of whom are black, in regards to the recent protests around the country.
“It was very emotional, it was very heartfelt, and there were some tears with both groups,” Malzahn said. “Bottom line is I’ve got a team and staff that’s hurting. I think they’re frustrated, and in some cases, they’re scared, and that breaks my heart. This has given me really a new perspective. I wish I would’ve asked deeper questions sooner or before.”
Sunday was the second protest in Auburn, but the first in which the Auburn Athletic Department joined in collectively. In addition to the head coaches, Allen Greene, who is the school’s first black athletic director, showed up walking alongside Malzahn.
Greene spoke last week on the strides that his athletic department has made and the steps they are taking to be a part of the solution. He noted, despite the concern and frustration, that they are coming together.
“We need to come together as a country, and we need to demonstrate that we have the courage to step out and share our thoughts on what’s wrong,” Greene said. “We know what’s right from wrong, right? Someone having their knee on someone’s neck and killing them, that’s wrong; we can all agree on that. Part of the challenge that makes things difficult is trying to explain how we got to this point and how to explain how we move on from this point. That takes a lot more effort and a lot more work. I’m glad our staff is committed to doing that.”
It was refreshing, and necessary, to see an athletic department at all levels empower the very student-athletes that make it up. It seems like that should be a no-brainer, and yet there are still countless tone-deaf responses of hostility that unequivocally miss the mark and show a lack of awareness.
What also shouldn’t go unnoticed is Malzahn’s admission because it’s a very important building block for progress. One of the first steps is to recognize there is a problem but admit that you don’t have all the answers. This transcends sports and it’s okay to say you don’t have all the answers, just be present and receptive.
One Auburn football player held a poster up Sunday, both arms raised in the air and surrounded by his teammates. Written in black and red print, it read, “Don’t support us on the field and kill us off the (field).” It should anger the fanbase to see some of its own speaking out in any other way but support for Auburn’s black student-athletes.
“This is not just Auburn football players and coaches; they’re part of the Auburn family, and we’re here to help them be leaders for tomorrow,” Malzahn said. “I told my team I’m committed to positive change as a leader. I’m not sure exactly what that looks like now, but I’m going to listen and I’m going to learn.”
We can learn from Malzahn, and we need to.
Explanation, justification and defensiveness isn’t the answer. That’s what falls short.
Photo: Sara Palczewskifirstname.lastname@example.org