It’s a simple question, but the answer forces some hard truths. Does the average fan truly understand what it’s like to be a black athlete at Texas?
“Absolutely not. No. No way,” Texas coach Tom Herman told the American-Statesman on Monday.
“Well, one, if you’re white, we can’t (understand),” Herman said. “I will never know, you will never know, none of us will ever know what it’s like to have that genuine fear. When I make an illegal U-turn and get pulled over, I fear about what the cost of the ticket is going to be. I don’t fear that I’m going to get dragged out of my car and maybe killed because of something I said or did. And that’s real for them.”
Herman said the Longhorns had a three-hour virtual team meeting on Monday after a weekend full of nationwide protests and riots. There was virtually no football discussed. Herman opened the floor to a group of mostly black athletes who were frustrated and angry over policy brutality, senseless killing and what it’s like being black in politically divided America.
Asked to describe the emotions of the meeting, Herman said, “All over the place. Some guys were were rightfully angry and wanted to vent. Some guys were more tempered in their tone and maybe more pragmatic. But, you know, it certainly ran the gamut of not only emotions, but the thoughts and ideas of how do we best unite as a team to create real change.”
Herman, 44, rarely gets credit nationally for his progressive mindset. He believes college athletes should be compensated and supports NCAA reform — so long as everyone complies equally. He doesn’t want Oklahoma to get something Texas can’t have, for example.
Away from Royal-Memorial Stadium, it’s known that Herman has donated to local non-profits and took a stand against domestic violence. Most fans judge him on his win-loss record, and to be fair, that’s his primary job at Texas — win football games.
But Herman, like all football coaches, must be a father figure, armchair psychologist and whatever else is required for 85 scholarship athletes who are between 18-22 years old coming of age in an intense fishbowl. Describing the job takes far more than the 30 minutes he spent with a reporter Monday afternoon.
Herman was one of the first major college football coaches last Friday to announce he was “sickened by the death of George Floyd.” A white Minneapolis police office was videotaped putting his knee on the back of Floyd’s neck for almost eight minutes. Floyd, who was black, later died. Officer Derek Chauvin was fired and faces third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter charges.
Other coaches, like Texas A&M’s Jimbo Fisher and Oklahoma’s Lincoln Riley, made statements as the weekend unfolded. All of them have a locker room full of black athletes who are celebrated on Saturdays but may have a rougher time Sundays through Fridays.
“Can the average fan relate? No, they can’t,” Herman said. “There’s a double standard maybe a little bit. We’re going to pack 100,000 people into DKR (Darrell K Royal - Texas Memorial Stadium) and millions watch on TV that are predominantly white — not all of them certainly, but most of ’em white. We’re gonna cheer when they score touchdowns, and we’re gonna hug our buddy when they get sacks or an interception.
“But we gonna let them date our daughter? Are we going to hire them in a position of power in our company? That’s the question I have for America. You can’t have it both ways.
“And if you’re going to cheer them and love them for three-and-a-half hours a Saturday in the fall, you better have the same feelings for them off the field, because they’re human beings. They deserve the same amount of respect and human rights that all of us do in this country when we agreed on the social contract to be a member of the United States.”
Austin is far and away the most liberal city in the Big 12. That’s long been one of UT’s recruiting advantages. But UT itself was also slow to integrate. The 1969 national championship team was college football’s last all-white championship team. Julius Whittier was a freshman but not eligible to play in ’69, per NCAA rules. He became UT’s first black letterman in 1970.
Herman said parents of black recruits do not ask him whether Austin is safe for their sons. “I don’t think Austin has a stigma attached to it as a city in itself of being dangerous for minorities,” the coach said.
Still, it’s understandable that players would believe their voice is not being heard. When they look into the stands, they see mostly white fans.
Herman said he spoke to players Monday about “changing the system from the inside out.”
“Sheriffs, district attorneys and mayors, they’re all elected officials,” Herman said. “So we’re going to do a better job of educating our guys on not only the importance of voting but how to do it and how to educate yourselves on particular candidates. So I think I wanted to get across to them that, you know, that change isn’t gonna happen overnight.
“If you’re interested in law enforcement, go be the sheriff and make sure that nothing like this ever happens on your watch,” Herman added. “If you don’t like the rules of society on what you’re supposed to wear or what you’re supposed to look like, then go be the CEO of a company and let everybody dress the way they want to dress and wear their hair the way they want to wear it. Start changing the rules, changing the system from inside out.”
Herman admitted that getting players to open up can be tough, at least tougher than it was for him as an assistant coach. Assistant coaches are usually pro-player while the head coach is normally the heavy. Herman loved being an assistant, and he rattled off a long list of well-known players that he considers close friends.
“Now as the head coach, it feels like a lot of times that they see my office as the principal’s office,” Herman said. “That it’s uncomfortable to come talk to me. And I just don’t want it to be that way and I’m trying so hard for it not to be.”
Herman said it’s his job to teach UT’s current assistant coaches how to develop better relationships with players so they feel comfortable speaking up.
As for speaking out, Herman said the coaching staff spent almost no time going over social media with players. In a statement, athletic director Chris Del Conte said athletes’ opinions needed to be part of the dialogue.
“We really didn’t even touch on it, other than I got your back,” Herman said. “I think it was more maybe implied over the last 72 hours that myself nor any of our staff attempted to censor anybody.
“I mean, say what’s on your heart,” Herman added, stressing the point. “You’re a minority football player at one of the biggest brands in the country. You have a voice. Use it. And you know, I support them in that. So no, we haven’t told (them) anything. Post away. I think we’ve done enough in educating our guys on the pitfalls of social media in the average climate in our country.”
Herman is right; nothing is going to change overnight. But he said the main takeaway from Monday’s team meeting — at least for him — was that the players were heard.
“That is important, too, I think,” he said. “it kind of at times deviated to fixing some issues within our team, too, which I thought was cool. How do we become even closer as a family? So I thought that part was great. And then, it’s where do we go from here? That is the hardest question, because as a middle-aged white guy, I don’t know the answer to that.”
Follow the Austin American-Statesman's Brian Davis on Twitter @BDavisAAS.