Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, July 3, 2020

UT football: Pruitt works to get ahead of racial unrest

One way UT will ‘create change’ is helping players register to vote

UT coach Jeremy Pruitt, his son Flynt and players Marquez Callaway (1) and Jauan Jennings (15) after the team’s win in this year’s Gator Bowl. - Photo by Bob Self | AP

As a white male, Tennessee football coach Jeremy Pruitt can’t possibly understand what his Black players live through on a daily basis.

He doesn’t know what systematic challenges they face just because of the color of their skin.

But Pruitt can listen to them, he can learn from them and he can empower them.

Pruitt has tried to do all of those things since the killing of George Floyd at the hands of a white Minneapolis police officer sparked protests nationwide against racism, police brutality and raised social justice issues.

In the immediate aftermath of the unrest, Pruitt met with his team through a Zoom call to let his players discuss how they were feeling.

He wanted to know about their experiences with racism and what they wanted to do to help make changes in the world.

“I like to talk about things and I like to put it out there,’’ Pruitt says. “I don’t know how you can’t be angry right now on what’s going on in our country.

“If you’re not angry, then something’s probably wrong with you, if you just watch the news every week,’’ he adds. “There’s been senseless murders across our country over the last two or three months, and it’s not like this is something that just started happening. It’s been going on for a long time.”

Sports has been at the forefront of supporting the Black Lives Matter movement.

Colin Kaepernick led the way in the NFL, protesting for social justice and against police brutality by kneeling during the national anthem.

Reaction to his efforts were far from supportive, and he has not played in the NFL since the 2016 season. Since the recent nationwide protests, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has said he is encouraging a team to sign Kaepernick.

NASCAR announced it would remove the Confederate flag, a symbol of slavery and systemic racism, at all of it racetracks.

Ole Miss football coaches and players joined lobbying efforts to remove the Confederate emblem from the state flag, a resolution passed in both state houses Saturday began that process.

University of Alabama players, as well as coach Nick Saban, created an anti-racism video. Written by offensive tackle Alex Leatherwood, the video makes the statement, “All lives can’t matter until Black lives matter.’’

The University of Florida announced its “gator bait’’ cheer will no longer be used as it involves “horrific historic racist imagery’’ of Black people, including children, being used as bait for alligators.

As leaders of programs composed predominantly of Black student-athletes, college football coaches have been expected to publicly denounce racism and support their players.

This generation of athletes is more empowered to use their platform to speak out on important issues that impact their lives. Many have taken to social media to try and enact change within their own programs or schools.

Some have called out coaches for their treatment of Black players or shined a spotlight on their university’s racist history.

Tennessee’s players have largely praised Pruitt for his approach and understanding.

Beyond just words, Pruitt has taken action to showcase his support and help advocate for the Black community.

Pruitt took part in a peaceful protest with his players in early June, showing up unannounced and walking alongside them. Once the march reached Market Square in downtown Knoxville, Pruitt and a few players spoke to the protestors.

“This is leadership. This is doing it the right way,” Pruitt told the crowd through a megaphone. “I want to thank everybody for coming out here today. You’re talking about courage, these guys stepping up, everybody out here - this is what we have to do, and we have to do it together.”

Athletics director Phillip Fulmer issued a statement in the aftermath of the George Floyd killing saying, in part, “Vol Nation, let’s rise to the challenge to meet a new standard. If you’re going to support our Black student-athletes when they compete, please have the courage to support them and their families in their daily pursuit of peace, happiness and equity.”

Pruitt announced the Vols have established a “Culture Committee” to devise ways the program can continue advocating for the Black community.

The small group of players and staff members is being led by passing game coordinator and receivers coach Tee Martin.

“We sent out a voluntary text message to players saying you’re not going to be made to do anything you don’t want to do. If you want to be a part of it, join. Every player on our team, it was a really good response of Black players, white players, staff members, all together, decided that they wanted to be a part of the committee,” Martin said on the Swain Event morning radio show hosted by former Tennessee wide receiver Jayson Swain.

“We had a couple meetings and out of that came just hearing what our players are thinking and what they’re experiencing at the University of Tennessee, good and bad. How can we make that better?”

Pruitt told reporters on a Zoom conference call that the program is helping players register to vote and will bring in speakers throughout the season to discuss relevant topics.

“I think in my lifetime, this is the first time I can ever remember, with all the things that are going on, that not only from our country, but from really our world, there’s conversation of how to put measures in to create change,” Pruitt explains.

“Absolutely, I want to be an advocate for that, support our players and use our platform at Tennessee to help create that.”

If the season is played as scheduled amid the coronavirus pandemic, the Vols are planning to wear their black jerseys against Kentucky and auction them off, with the proceeds going to organizations that support the Black community in the Knoxville area.

The players came up with the idea to use the uniforms as a way to give back, and Pruitt was supportive of the initiative. Although not surprising to Martin, he’s been heartened to see how much Pruitt has invested himself in helping the Vols use their platforms for social change.

“It’s easy to release a statement and then go back to living your life like you were before,” Martin points out.

“But never sitting down with your players, never giving them an opportunity to talk, never seeing the human side of guys - we sit in the living room, you were recruited by several schools, and everyone came out to your house and told you what they were going to do, all these promises and all that stuff.

“Well, we can sit in your living room and talk about how we’re going to look after you and how we’re going to be in their lives, help them become men one day. All of these things.”

There is no game plan to follow for college coaches when it comes to important societal issues like racism. But it’s a major test of their leadership, and Pruitt has demonstrated to his players that he values their worth far beyond what they do on the field.

He may not be able to relate to what they are experiencing, but he can support the changes they want to see made in the ongoing quest for equality.

“I said it the other day, the young people are ticked off, the old people are mad, the Black people are mad, the white people are mad, everybody’s mad,” Pruitt acknowledges. “I was talking to my dad about it, and I just told him I’m glad my grandfather’s not alive to see this. But it’s something that we’ve got to use our platform at Tennessee and it’s something our players have passion about and the coaches on our staff.”