The police shooting of Jacob Blake on August 23 sparked another round of social unrest nationwide, and in our own backyard, calls for action from University of Kentucky football and basketball players laid bare some ugly truths about a part of the Big Blue Nation.
Following the football team’s decision to walk out of practice and Keion Brooks’ comments about changing the name of Rupp Arena, social media and comments sections were bombarded by fans criticizing the players for taking a stand and the coaches for supporting them. The backlash was so bad that players, recruits, and their families took notice and both Mark Stoops and John Calipari addressed it publicly. On KSR Friday morning, Stoops told a moving story about his relationship with former Wildcat Alex Montgomery, which opened his eyes to racial injustice and made it impossible not to stand alongside his players, and on Friday evening, Calipari took to Twitter to defend Brooks, urging upset fans to “be unhappy with me, not a 19-year-old who is walking through these difficult times.”
Instead of debating the merits of the Jacob Blake case, walkouts, anthem kneeling, and whether or not Adolph Rupp was racist, I want to focus on the issue that’s been on my mind the past few days: what it means to be a fan, and, similarly, the impact our actions have on the young men and women who represent the University of Kentucky, especially during a pandemic.
To start, let me say that I recognize that the fans who criticized the players online, whether it be directly or indirectly, do not represent the majority of the fanbase; however, they are the loudest. The Big Blue Nation has one of the biggest online presences in sports, for better and for worse. Just as the BBN can show recruits and players love through countless tweets, retweets, and likes, the events of the past several days show just how quickly the tide can turn when players do something that even a small segment of fans dislike. And while it’s not fair to use a small segment to represent the whole, that is unfortunately what is happening right now because, like many of us, the players are stuck inside of their rooms with nothing else to do than scroll through social media because of the coronavirus pandemic. In today’s world, hate too easily drowns out love and it’s increasingly hard to shake off.
We have all experienced changes in our mental health during quarantine. Young people are especially vulnerable, with one of four people aged 18 to 24 seriously contemplating suicide in June according to research from the CDC. Calipari has expressed his concerns about his players’ mental health repeatedly in recent interviews, telling Mary Jo Perino on “BBN Gameday” that his players can’t even congregate in common areas in the lodge due to COVID-19 protocols, adding to the loneliness.
“The issue becomes, what do we do for mental health? You can’t have a 17- or 18-year-old in a room 18 hours a day. Our kids are living in the lodge on the campus, in a room by themselves with a bathroom. The cook downstairs makes the meals, take it up to your room. Go across the parking lot to the Craft Center, lift, condition, training room, basketball. It’s a heck of a bubble, except, you’re in a bubble! We’ve got to do stuff for mental health too. …That amount of time in a room by yourself, everyday for week after week, not healthy.”
That isolation becomes even more difficult to bear in moments like these. Social media is a great tool for sharing news, like the videos of Jacob Blake and George Floyd, but in the same way, it can be impossible to escape. Josh Paschal and Brooks spoke eloquently about the fear and frustration they feel following each police shooting or act of racial injustice. The whole idea for the football team’s walkout came about when players noticed how shaken many of their teammates were by the shooting of Blake. Brooks, a member of the NABC Player Development Coalition and SEC Council on Racial Equity and Social Justice, recalled a moment in which he caught his reflection in his iPhone’s screen and noticed he looked like George Floyd.
“It scared me and it brought a couple tears to eyes,” Brooks said. “It really hit me and made me realize, that could have been me. It could have been my brother, it could have been one of my teammates. When I had that realization, it just made me want to do more to do what I can to help.”
“It’s scary because I’m a black male, and at times, I feel almost like we’re being hunted.”
Keion Brooks Jr. with a reason why he’s joining the National Association of Basketball Coaches Coalition and the Southeastern Conference Diversity Committee through the Men's Basketball Leadership Council ??
Posted by Kentucky Wildcats on Monday, August 31, 2020
Here is where I am immensely proud to be a Kentucky fan. Instead of internalizing that angst or staying silent out of fear of repercussion, Kentucky’s players decided to take action. The football team’s walkout took the headlines, but the team also plans to volunteer and educate Lexington’s youth by creating a dialogue with local youth groups and police.
“Without action, nothing happens,” Paschal said. “It’s just merely a thought. With everything that’s been going on, there’s been a lot of talking on social media, things of that sort, but there hasn’t really been that much action. Action is going to be the thing that takes us to the next level.”
Brooks said the basketball team is also working on a similar call for social justice.
“We discussed some things that we want to do and we want to try to put forward to let people know that we’re not going to stand for these social injustices and to let people who are going through these things know that they’re not alone, that we’re with them. We’ve got some things that we’re working on now and when we get it up and running, it should be here shortly. I’m really excited for people to see what we’re doing.”
When asked about fan backlash, both Paschal and Brooks said they hoped their actions would help fans view players as people, not just athletes.
“It hurts seeing fans who put us down, who see us as just athletes. We are more than athletes,” Paschal said. “When we leave this facility we want our fans to know that we can have opinions that may not be the same as theirs. We want them to see us as humans because we are humans. We are all humans. I respect their opinions and they should respect ours as well. Even with this whole issue right now, I feel like this is a human-rights issue. This is not a political issue or anything like that and I believe that we should all be united in this fight against police brutality. We should all be for it, not half-half or against us.”
“Basketball is something that I do, it’s not who I am,” Brooks said. “Once I leave the basketball court, I’m Keion Brooks Jr., a normal person like everybody else that has opinions, morals, values that I would like to be respected. What we’re going through right now is bigger than basketball. Basketball is a game. I’m talking about people losing their lives to violence.”
The fact that Paschal, Brooks, and the Kentucky Football team took these stands knowing the criticism they would face makes it even more commendable. While negativity seems to always trump positivity online, it was refreshing to see many fans write them in support and their coaches and teammates post messages of solidarity. Now more than ever, our words are being seen and shared as players stay inside in hopes of keeping the virus at bay to play this fall, and, to use their words, entertain us.
Calipari and Stoops have proven they are players first. Wouldn’t it be great if all of our fans were the same?
UPDATE: The Kentucky basketball team just released this. How about that for timing?
We ask you to join us. pic.twitter.com/XYoFVnfHJX
— Kentucky Basketball (@KentuckyMBB) September 1, 2020