"Protest in college football is nearly as old as the sport itself, but change has come slowly. Are the power dynamics finally shifting?" --Alex Kirshner of TheRinger.com
The quote above served as the headnote in a piece this summer titled "The Impact and Evolution of College Football Player Protest". The story outlined the experiences of groups like the Syracuse 8 and relationships to the realities for player activists today.
For the record, the Syracuse 8 — actually nine as the media miscounted — was a group of Black players who boycotted spring practice in 1970 after head coach Ben Schwartzwalder refused to address their concerns and instead barred them from team activities. Players also said Schwartzwalder bad-mouthed them to NFL types. None of the nine played in the league.
Kirshner wrote, "That December, chancellor John Corbally said racism in the athletic department was 'real, chronic, largely unintentional, and sustained and complicated unwittingly by many modes of behavior common in American athletics and long-standing at Syracuse University.' However, Corbally said he saw no reason to make 'personnel changes.' Schwartzwalder stayed on the job until retiring in 1973. Syracuse didn’t apologize to the boycotting players until welcoming them back to campus for an on-field ceremony in 2006, 36 years later."
Flash forward to today
The recent social justice movements that have swept across the nation and globe certainly harken back to those events of 50 years ago.
Kirshner wrote, "At Iowa, former and current players gave testimonials that led to the resignation of the country’s highest-paid strength-and-conditioning coach. At Clemson, players pressured the administration to remove John C. Calhoun’s name from the honors college. At Mississippi State, a player helped spur legislators into voting to get rid of a state flag that incorporates the Confederate battle emblem. Players have also taken stands at Oklahoma State, Florida State, UCLA, Texas, and Texas A&M, among other schools.
"Protest in college football is nearly as old as the sport itself, but players and academics alike believe that today’s athletes have more power than their predecessors from any other era. That may be a reflection not only of how demands for systemic change are resonating throughout America, but of how this sport has evolved in particular."
College football coaches and administrators are certainly well aware of this. Our Monday Prairie State Pigskin story chronicled events that have led to the dismissal of Illinois State's offensive coordinator and the retirement announcement of the school's longtime athletic director.
Being the head coach of a college football program requires a balancing act between running your program as you see see fit while opening your ears and mind to player concerns. And of course, there are the demands and expectations that you must win to keep your job.
Prairie State Pigskin asked the Illinois FCS head coaches to share their thoughts on the growth of player power.
"First of all, it goes back to who you recruit in your program," Western Illinois' Jared Elliott said. "As college coaches we’re fortunate to make our programs look like how we’d want them to look by who we bring in here. I think we’ve done a good job of that. I love our locker room. I love our players. I love the character of our players. We try to recruit those things as much as we do football skills. So when you do that, you’ve got kids that you trust and know what they’re about. I love having the ability for our players to have a platform and a voice. I know that our kids put a lot of thought behind what they say and what they mean. We’ve got a very unified team. We’ve got a team that really does stand together and cares about one another.
"There is a shift right now that we’re seeing, no question, more of a player voice than we’ve ever heard. My approach and my stance is that at the end of the day it’s my job as head coach here to be a decision maker, and we’ll make decisions. We’ll all be behind them whatever that is, but I am in full support of especially the leaders on our team, the guys that have been elevated to the leadership positions. They’ve put a lot into this team to earn that respect and to have a voice. My staff and I are in full support of those guys having a voice."
Sophomore running back DeShon Gavin is one such player in Elliott's program using his voice. The Joliet native who played at Providence Catholic High School has been active in an on-campus voting registration drive.
"I want to encourage a movement, using my platform as a student-athlete to promote real change," Gavin was quoted on the WIU athletics website.
"You have to be reasonable as a coach and the players have to be reasonable," Illinois State's Brock Spack said. "You can have demands, but demands really don’t go very far. It’s expectations that you need to communicate. What are my expectations and how do I get to that? Young people growing up have to learn that if you're going to have that kind of power they have to learn how to communicate their expectations in a way that’s respectful and reasonable. That’s key. Being disrespectful and unreasonable is not going to get you very far. They need to understand that. Coaches are listening, more than we ever have been. At least we are here. We’re trying to be. We get it.
"So that’s where I come from. We have to have middle ground. There has to be understanding there is a chain of command, and you have to understand that. We all have to abide by the protocol of our program, the protocol of the organization because when you go out in the working world and you go outside of the protocol, the rules and the expectations of the organization you’re working and you’re going to find yourself in the unemployment line. I think we have to understand that as players and coaches as well. Your organization runs better when you listen.
"And on the flip side of that, the players should have an opinion and you should listen, but is your opinion reasonable? That’s something we should look at. We can have open dialogue. It’s good to have it, but we’re the adults, we’re the ones that have the experience and that’s what we get paid to do — to make those kinds of decisions. You have to communicate that and make sure the players understand . . . but you as a coach, you as a leader should listen. That doesn’t mean you’ll always agree, but you can explain yourself and why you may not agree."
Open and honest communication
Like many head coaches today, Adam Cushing of Eastern Illinois has a players' council that he and his staff meet with regularly.
"It’s a positive for college football, for the whole society, that people are using the voice and are empowered to do so. In the end, that’s what’s critical," Cushing said. "Listen to what’s being said and get to the why it’s being said. Have open and honest conversation. That’s how we’re respecting everything that is said.
"And then, here’s what our side of that is. I know that’s what you want; here’s why we want to do it this way. Take any example. Here’s why we ran after practice today. We had our eight periods of helmets and non-air work this morning and then we ran. We didn’t run last week because we’re trying to progress them up. But explaining, 'hey we ran you and we ran you really hard because you have to get better than you were last week.' That’s a microcosm, but it’s explaining on both sides. I think truly gone are the days of, ‘Do it this way!’
"There’s more information at their fingertips than anyone of our generations ever had. They absolutely deserve the why. As long as we are continuing to communicate that on both sides, that’s the balance, I don’t know if that’s the right word, but open and honest communication."
Social media is a game-changer
Southern Illinois head coach Nick Hill finished his record-setting career as Salukis' quarterback in 2007, so he's not that far removed from his playing days.
"It's a good thing that the players' voices are definitely being heard," Hill said during his media address Tuesday. "I would say in the last 10 years since I was here (things have evolved). The social media platform has obviously changed in the last decade. When I was a junior Facebook first came up, and you didn't have it on your phone. At any point, now everybody has a platform. How you use that is important. That's probably the biggest thing that has changed.
"Players in sport have always had a platform. It's using it in the right way. It's using it in pursuing that. And recognizing that the window of opportunity that you have as a student-athlete to use your voice and use your platform, connections, those type of things to create change, create a positive conversation. I think that that's always been there, I think more so now with the social media. Those type of things make it easier for their voices to be heard."