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Column: ‘In a world filled with Dabos... be a Ryan Day’

This is not a moment for the most highly paid person in higher education to remain silent.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 28 CFP Semifinal at the Fiesta Bowl - Clemson v Ohio State Photo by Kevin Abele/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

On Sunday, Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith released a message in which he discussed a number of ways OSU student-athletes have organically and proactively engaged in social justice causes in recent years, including by creating awareness videos, participating in peaceful protests, and speaking out as individuals as part of the nationwide discussion over police brutality and systemic racism in recent weeks.

Smith ended his statement by confirming that the official position of the Ohio State athletic department is that Black lives matter. He said, “The Ohio State Department of Athletics supports the Black Lives Matter movement. We will continue to support our student-athletes as they participate in driving positive change in America so that every person is respected regardless of the color of their skin.”

Smith is arguably the most powerful and influential African American athletic director in all of college sports, and his unequivocal support for the Black Lives Matter cause, and the student-athletes engaged in the efforts, is incredibly important, and goes far beyond just a simple statement. The most obvious and impactful ramifications of Smith’s conscientious leadership on these issues comes in the form of the individuals that he has hired to lead his department’s programs, especially the most visible ones.

As I mentioned last week when discussing the incredible example that Seth Towns set while being detained in a peaceful protest in Columbus, the full-throated support from his new coach Chris Holtmann is the type of thing that is easy to dismiss as coach-speak, but both Holtmann and his football counterpart Ryan Day have proven themselves to be leaders of true character when so many of their colleagues would rather sweep larger (more important) societal issues under the rug in an effort to get back to doing the only thing that they care about: trying to win games.

Unfortunately for the Clemson football players — especially the Black members of the program — that difference was never more obvious than with the near complete silence from Dabo Swinney this week. Now, I know that in writing this, I am inviting trolls to claim that any criticism from an Ohio State fan of Swinney is just sour grapes born of the last two times that the Buckeyes and Tigers have met on the field, and I admit, those games sucked.

But, if you are willing to summarily dismiss any and all critiques of how the most visible and highly-paid coach in college football addresses the issues of deep seated racism in our country, then perhaps, you my friend, are suffering from the same myopic, selfish worldview that I believe that Dabo does; that winning should be more important than teaching, even for the most public employee in American higher education.

While I was hesitant to put together an itemized list of disagreements that I have with Swinney and his handling of race, it is impossible to illustrate just how uninterested in dealing with this reality that he is without doing so. Therefore, let’s start with Swinney’s press availability from Monday, June 1.

Swinney spoke to the media via a Zoom call in which he offered such generic platitudes as, “It’s not about trying to speak first or something like that. I’ve spent the last week listening,” and, “What I know as I approach everything from a perspective of faith is that where there are people, there’s going to be hate,” and, “We’ve had so much bad news.”

As Sports Illustrated’s Pat Forde noted, Swinney’s statements fell woefully short. Never once did he mention the concerns that Black people in this country are currently risking arrest and their physical safety to voice, nor did he dare to utter the words “Black Lives Matter.”

In light of those mealy-mouthed statements, former Clemson player Kanyon Tuttle tweeted what appeared to be a fairly damning accusation the following day.

The coach in question, Danny Pearman, issued a statement and an apology later that day, whose accuracy was confirmed by the player in question. So, while it’s not a great look by a member of Swinney’s staff, it certainly does not appear to be as bad as it originally sounded. However, the real issue to me is that apparently Dabo did not address the issue when it happened, and he has continued to stay quiet on it throughout this week.

Then, on Saturday, in a series of tweets, former Clemson player Haamid Williams accused Swinney of using the same racial slur multiple times in reference to the music that his players were listening to in the locker room. Unsurprisingly, Swinney has yet to comment on this situation either.

However, amidst his silence, the Clemson coach has been making statements in other ways, including in his choice of wardrobe.

According to a now deleted tweet, Swinney spent Saturday sporting a “Football Matters” t-shirt, reminiscent of those that alternately read “Black Lives Matter.” The shirt is part of a program from the National Football Foundation, and while well-intentioned, the timing of wearing it in public (albeit apparently by the pool) seems tone-deaf at best, especially from a guy who has expressed zero interest in actively leading or even engaging on the difficult subjects of racial inequality and/or police brutality.

All of these micro-aggressions of various sizes are disconcerting on their own, but when coupled with his stated opinions around the very same grievances that thousands are currently protesting worldwide, they become concerning.

In 2016, Swinney was forced to apologize for saying that Colin Kaepernick’s silent protest before NFL games was a distraction, and, “I don’t think two wrongs make a right. Never have, never will. I think it just creates more divisiveness, more division ... It’s so easy to say we have a race problem, but we got a sin problem ... Some of these people need to move to another country.”

Then, as Tuttle mentioned in his tweet above, Swinney actively discouraged players from participating in a sit-in on Clemson’s campus to protest police killings of black citizens because it would be a “distraction;” the same word that he used while also saying that Kap was “wrong” and “divisive” and dismissing the idea that America has a race problem. And, of course, we all understand what is likely to happen when a player disregards a coach like Swinney’s discouragement.

And keeping to tradition, Dabo has not yet commented on this accusation either.

As he nearly always does, ESPN’s Bomani Jones summed up many of these issues into a nice, succinct Parting Shot on “Outside the Lines” last week.

Just to be clear, I do not think that Swinney is a horrible, evil, or racist person (although I do also whole-heartedly disagree with his position on student-athletes being compensated; he said he might rather quit than coach in that environment). What I do believe is that Dabo is very comfortable making $9.5 million per year and contending for a national title every season.

And instead of doing anything that could upset the fans and big-money donors that pay his salary and fund his program, by publicly stating that Black lives matter, he stays mostly silent on the actual issue. But also, as to not upset the mostly African American blue-chip players that he recruits, he voices opaque sentiments that signify next to nothing, all the while abdicating his responsibilities to lead to his 20-year-old quarterback.

Now, I have long been on the record as being opposed to coaches who prioritize winning over doing the right thing, which is why I am so proud to be a Buckeye following the very public, specific, unambiguous statements by both Holtmann and Day.

On the same day that Swinney hemmed and hawed around the topic, Day participated in a student-led video, clearly and without hesitation committing to fighting for change. He then tweeted out the video with the Black Lives Matter hashtag attached.

Since then, the official Ohio State football Twitter account has regularly retweeted statements by players on the topic, and the team virtually brought in former Buckeye C.J. Barnett, who is now a member of the Columbus Division of Police, to talk about the protests, what led to them, and what comes next.

Do I think that the statements made by a college football coach will be what solves racism in America? Of course not. But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t expect them to speak up on topics that have consumed the consciousness of our entire country. Just as we would ever be comfortable with a coach completely ignoring the coronavirus, we cannot be comfortable with one ignoring racism to any degree.

Admittedly, Swinney and I have practically polar opposite opinions on many things far beyond the football field, and that’s okay. But I would far prefer to have a coach who publicly voices support for the heart-felt, deeply personal concerns of his players than someone who consistently prefers to remain silent in moments when his leadership would make a difference.

In other words, as former Kentucky fullback A.J. Nance said on Twitter, in a world full of Dabos... be a Ryan Day.