Iowa athletes use social media platforms to call for racial justice after George Floyd death
IOWA CITY, Ia. — Deon Craig trusted his son enough to let him move 90 minutes from the family’s Indiana home to attend the Culver Academies boarding school.
There, Deontae Craig excelled in football and basketball, becoming a prized college recruit. Deon Craig stayed out of that process, believing Deontae would make the best choice on his own.
So when Deontae Craig arrived at Iowa to begin his football career last month, Deon was surprised to learn that Hawkeyes coach Kirk Ferentz had only recently relented to permitting his players to speak out on Twitter.
“It was odd to me because (Deontae) was on Twitter all the time and nobody said anything to me about it,” Deon Craig said. “He’s up on all current events. He’s a real smart young man.
“Athletes, because they’re such role models, I think they should have a forum to speak up on issues.”
That’s precisely what Deontae Craig has been doing, particularly in the weeks since George Floyd died while in police custody in Minneapolis on May 25, a white police officer videotaped kneeling on the Black man’s neck while he pleaded that he was unable to breathe.
Craig, who is Black, is hardly alone, but his example is noteworthy because for years Ferentz would not have allowed Hawkeye players to speak out about what is happening in the world on Twitter. The head coach, entering his 22nd season, finally changed his policy after Floyd’s death, admitting it had been a mistake.
Richard Lapchick, who has monitored the intersection of athletics and activism for decades, said Ferentz and other coaches of his generation have no choice but to let their players speak their minds. One of the biggest results of Floyd's death, Lapchick observed, has been the way it has roused athletes to use their social media presences to advocate for racial justice in America.
That's a trend he believes is here to stay.
“We’re seeing an enormous breakthrough in terms of student-athlete activism and speaking the truth for the first time,” said Lapchick, who runs the sports business management program at Central Florida and serves as the director of the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport and the president of the Institute for Sport and Social Justice.
“Coaches had better get ready to deal with it, because the door is open and nobody’s going back inside.”
Laulauga Tausaga is a prime example of this. She is the star of Iowa’s track and field team, a senior all-American who is a probable future Olympian in the discus. Tausaga is Samoan, born in Hawaii and coming of age in California. She has long been passionate about social justice issues, but had been a little hesitant to speak up in years past, wondering how it would be perceived.
After May 25, that is no longer the case.
“When the doors kind of got blown off by the protests, I said, ‘It’s time for me to take it up a notch and express how I feel more than I have.’ It basically went from whispering to talking at an appropriate level in a sense,” Tausaga said. “People need to know that I support or don’t support certain things. Because at the end of the day, yes, I’m an athlete for the university, but I’m my own person as well.”
That’s why Tausaga got together with several of her teammates to begin an initiative called “Speak Your Truth.” The result is a committee that seeks to open eyes within Iowa’s track and field teams about what it’s like to be a racial minority in America.
“It’s a safe place, but we’re working to make the track team itself a place where you don’t need safe places. It’s to eradicate the issues so we don’t need this committee anymore, so that everyone gets educated on the injustices that we have as people of color,” Tausaga said.
“We’re going to take the momentum from these protests to amplify our voices, because that’s what needs to be done.”
Deon Craig said he supports his son’s beliefs and his right to express them. Deontae Craig, like all true freshmen in the Iowa football program, is not allowed to speak to reporters.
“He’s a very opinionated kid,” Deon said of his son. “If he wants to speak on something, as long as he keeps it what his true feelings are, I don’t see a problem with it.”
Lapchick is known for providing racial and gender “report cards” to every major professional sports league in North America, apprising them of where they stand when it comes to diversity in hiring. He tracks graduation rates for African-American athletes at all major universities. He said he is invited to speak on about 25 college campuses each year with regards to how to make athletic departments more inclusive.
In Lapchick's most recent report on football, both Iowa and Iowa State fared well, with the Cyclones graduating 82% of their African-American players and the Hawkeyes 81%.
Lapchick told the Register last week he had done 65 media interviews since Floyd’s death. It’s an unprecedented time of racial awareness in the sports world, he said.
“We’re in a new era in sport where athletes are going to have a very prominent voice, not just about collective bargaining and their own status with whatever team they’re with, but about who’s in the league office, who the coaches and athletic directors are,” Lapchick said.
“I think this is a long-term situation. I believe Generation Z and the millennials are much more open and committed to social justice. They have the technology that my generation never had. I think we’re talking today because literally the world watched a man’s last breath being taken.”
Mark Emmert covers the Iowa Hawkeyes for the Register. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 319-339-7367. Follow him on Twitter at @MarkEmmert.
No one covers the Hawkeyes like the Register. Subscribe today at Des Moines Register.com/Deal to make sure you never miss a moment.