A sign of the times: basketball coaches speak up

I recently read an article in the local newspaper. Purdue men’s basketball coach Matt Painter was talking about the difference in how Black Lives Matter protesters were handled versus the insurrectionists who invaded the Capitol. Specifically, he said:

It’s just the double standard more than anything. America needs to see that—especially white America—and see the double standard that’s been going on for years. For that to happen, just makes you sick to your stomach.

This struck me as a significant statement. Not so much for what he said (which I agree with wholeheartedly), but the fact that he said it. I’ve never met Matt Painter. I know very little about him personally. This is probably by design. I don’t remember Painter offering much of a public opinion on anything that isn’t directly related to his basketball program in the decade and a half he’s been at Purdue.

For him to go on record with a statement like this, particularly in a right-leaning state like Indiana, is a sign of how the conversation has shifted. 2020 brought a lot of “hidden” things to the fore. I’m glad to see that basketball coaches, even generally tight-lipped ones, are comfortable making statements like this.

A few hours to the south, the University of Kentucky defended players kneeling for the national anthem in response to the insurrection. In fact, UK coach John Calipari joined his players in kneeling. A local sheriff burned his UK shirts and called for Calipari to be fired. Officials in another Kentucky county unanimously called for public funding to be pulled from the University.

To be sure, there’s an element of self-serving here. NCAA basketball players are disproportionately black, so Painter and Calipari are appealing to their target audiences. But they both coach in states that are both very into basketball and very conservative. It’s likely that a significant portion of fans (and donors) don’t share their views. They are using their privilege to speak up to an audience that may not want to hear the message.

One could certainly argue that these acts are insufficient on their own. I agree and acknowledge that I don’t know what else they may do more quietly. And this won’t solve the problem, but shows that acknowledging racial disparity in policing is mainstream. This is encouraging. We must first recognize problems before we can fix them. Coaches, who generally try to avoid controversy, using their platform to speak up is a good first step.

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