KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) — Rob Black had been looking forward to June 1st long before a tangible date was given. June 1st became the day Black would be reunited with his team after months of separation as a result of COVID-19.
When he arrived at Bob Black Field, and players trickled in after, there were things he knew he had to address, things like COVID-19 practice policy reminders, workout schedules, and most importantly social injustice. Given recent world events, the latter undoubtedly the most important to Black.
“It’s a responsibility of a coach,” Black said. “A lot of people think we’re X and O guys and that’s such a small part of what we do. It is my job to find out what is the right thing to say to these guys. How can I help them off the field just the same as I do off the field?”
Rob Black was not the only area coach who prepared to have those types of discussions with their team on Monday. Twenty minutes south of Fulton High School, Clark Duncan, like many other coaches, was doing the same.
“We talked about what’s going on in the world and what they see on TV,” Duncan said. “We did share with them that if they ever felt like they needed to talk with somebody that we were here to do so. But that’s something that we don’t tolerate. We don’t tolerate bullying, harassment, intimidating,”
There are facets of the conversation regarding social injustice that, admittedly, many area coaches can’t fully comprehend. West High School Head Football Coach Lamar Brown owned that he was in that group, rather than accept the lack of understanding Brown has engaged in a series of conversations with friends and colleagues of different races, like West assistant coach Chad Brooks, to better educate himself.
“With me being white I will never understand what true racism is and some of the struggles that he’s gone through in his life,” Brown explained. “That (ongoing conversations) helps me understand that it’s not just one incident that happened. A lot of this is a lifetime of frustration right now.”
There is no playbook for coaches navigating the discussion of social injustice with their teams. But in the same way, as coaches challenge their players to be the best versions of themselves on the field, they’re challenging their players to do the same off it.
“I really told them the key is for these guys to make the change,” Knoxville Catholic football coach Steve Matthews said. “Take advantage of the education you’re given at Catholic and become a politician, become a lawyer, become a judge, and make the change because obviously they are needed.”
For now, coaches are focused on communication and listening to their players as they express their thoughts, emotions, and feelings on world events and social injustice.
“I do know that some of them have thoughts and worries every day as they walk out onto the street because somebody judges them by the color of their skin or where they came from or where they live,” Black said. “That’s not right. I guess I feel the responsibility of making those guys feel like it’s a safe place and that doesn’t happen here and they can come to this place without worry.”
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