On August 11, Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren canceled fall sports to keep communities safe amid a pandemic that has claimed 182,000 American lives in the past six months. Twelve days later, Jacob Blake, an unarmed Black man, was shot seven times in the back by a police officer in Kenosha, Wis.
Melissa Hutchinson has decided that one of those issues is worth protesting. According to her son, Michigan defensive end Aidan Hutchinson, she’s planning to lead a protest on the scheduled date of the Wolverines’ season opener with other parents, players and fans, against Warren’s decision to cancel the season.
Let’s get this straight: Parents of college football players have no excuse to not prioritize fighting the injustice facing young Black men in the United States. There are more than 60 Black men on the Michigan football team. Earlier this summer, in the wake of George Floyd’s murder at the hands of a police officer, many of the Wolverines’ Black players shared their harrowing personal experiences with police. On Sunday, Michigan athletes are planning to join Eastern Michigan athletes in Ann Arbor to protest racial injustice.
By choosing to focus their efforts on protesting the cancelation of football without giving the same attention to standing in solidarity with the Black community, Michigan’s white parents are, at best, exposing their selfishness. At worst, they’re redirecting attention away from far graver issues.
That doesn’t mean that those parents can’t be upset about the season being canceled. For many, the decision to cancel football jeopardizes their family’s future financial stability. For nearly all, their lives revolve around football. Anyone would be upset to lose the thing they center their lives around.
But you know what’s worse than losing the thing your life revolves around? Losing your life. And by organizing a protest about football in the wake of yet another senseless shooting of an unarmed Black man, that’s the message those protesting the season being canceled are ignoring.
Take it from some of the Wolverines’ Black players.
On Wednesday evening, receiver Mike Sainristil posted about Sunday’s Black Lives Matter protest in an Instagram story. Thursday afternoon, he tweeted, “Why do we have to wake up with the fear of being killed because of our skin color?” Two minutes later, cornerback Ambry Thomas tweeted, “The leader of this country has been provoking this type of behavior since day 1! I’m not surprised by the behavior but it has to STOP!”
Cornerback Hunter Reynolds, meanwhile, referenced the #WeWantToPlay movement started by athletes around the country in the wake of football being canceled. “If you were quick to retweet and comment on all the #WeWantToPlay tweets from players but chastise the #BlackLivesMatter tweets, then you’re part of the problem in this country,” he tweeted. “We’re humans before we are athletes and we WILL speak on the systematic issues in this country.”
Reynolds, who co-founded the social justice initiative College Athlete Unity, was also involved in the #WeWantToPlay movement. But in an interview with The Daily, he said he’s skipping next week’s football cancelation protest to focus on organizing upcoming Black Lives Matter protests.
“We’re keeping the conversation going and letting people know that Black men and Black women being killed by police isn’t normal,” Reynolds said. “Things shouldn’t just go on as normal.”
Listen to Reynolds. Michigan’s Black players are calling on the community to recognize the gravity of this moment. And that means prioritizing their fight.
Michigan did not make any other Black players available to media this week, but fullback Ben Mason acknowledged the racism many of his teammates have experienced.
“It’s hard for me cause I’m not Black,” Mason said. “I haven’t lived in America as a Black guy, but just listening to all my teammates, what their experience has been like, something in America needs to change.”
Hutchinson, too, recognized the importance of this moment.
“I stand with my teammates,” Hutchinson said. “Those guys are my brothers and I feel for them, whatever they feel, I feel for them.”
It’s hard, though, to not compare that to the conviction with which he discussed the season cancelation.
“At the end of the day, every family has a son in the Big Ten that can’t play this year,” Hutchinson said. “It’s really sad to say that, but that’s the cold hard truth. The families have no say, the players have no say. Yeah, I mean, every family gets hit hard by this if your son is playing college football and their season was cancelled. Everyone’s feeling the same way.”
One of those reads like a corporate PR statement, saying the bare minimum to show your support. The other is a message from the heart.
This isn’t to criticize Hutchinson himself. A Zoom call with reporters is an inherently uncomfortable situation to discuss racial injustice. On his own social media pages, he has retweeted linebacker Cam McGrone’s account of his experiences with police and expressed support for Black Lives Matter on Instagram. Clearly, Hutchinson does care about the issues facing Black America.
But this isn’t about Hutchinson. It’s about the difference in attitude some in the Michigan community have callously shown between the plight of football and the plight of young Black men. And when your response to no football is stronger than your response to an unarmed Black man being shot by police, it’s time to reevaluate what really matters.