In wake of racial injustice protests, sports offer a platform for ‘tough’ and necessary conversations

BY CHAPEL FOWLER, News + Record Staff
Posted 7/1/20

CHAPEL HILL — As an athletic director, Dena Floyd doesn’t shy away from communication.

Calls. Texts. Board meetings. Preliminary emails. It’s how she keeps the athletic department at Woods …

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In wake of racial injustice protests, sports offer a platform for ‘tough’ and necessary conversations

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CHAPEL HILL — As an athletic director, Dena Floyd doesn’t shy away from communication.

Calls. Texts. Board meetings. Preliminary emails. It’s how she keeps the athletic department at Woods Charter School in compliance and running smoothly.

Floyd, a Black woman, is much less used to bringing that same level of communication to her personal life. But since late May, when people across the country began protesting in reaction to George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis, she’s found herself in conversation after conversation on police brutality, systemic injustice, white privilege and more.

“I don’t call people all the time to talk about my emotions,” Floyd said. “It’s tiring, but at the same time, I feel like it’s needed, and I’m not going to back away from it. Because this has been going on for such a long time.”

Over the last month, she’s touched base with teammates from the University of Florida, where she was a four-year starter in soccer; coworkers from Stanford and N.C. State, where she previously coached; and administration at Woods Charter, a predominantly white K-12 school just inside the Chatham County line.

Her Facebook page, usually filled with photos of her 5-year-old son, Jase, now includes a mix of articles and videos she’s found helpful — recently, she’s shared a lot of work from Emmanuel Acho, a former NFL linebacker and current TV analyst who started the YouTube series “Uncomfortable Conversations with a Black Man.”

“You might hear some people who are Black saying it’s up to white people to figure it out, to do their research,” Floyd said. “For me, being an educator and being an athletic director, my platform is, ‘Hey here are the resources I’ve used’ — because I don’t know everything either.”

Floyd, 38, isn’t the only local leader who’s touched on issues of race and racism in the last month, but she’s quickly become a prominent one — especially in Chatham County athletics, where coaches and players have also made their voices heard.

The role of sports in all of it? It has a knack, Floyd said, for bringing people together — and that’s the perfect context for initiating talks on police brutality, systemic injustice and more.

“We can have these conversations because we know each other,” she said. “They might be tough conversations, but why not have them?”

'Praying for change'

In nearby Siler City, Jayden Davis is also doing his part.

The 17-year-old rising senior at Jordan-Matthews has gone to both of the area’s major protests. And he’s spent more time talking about race with classmates and his teammates on the football and boys basketball teams than ever before.

“Every little bit helps,” Davis, who is Black, said. “I’ve just been praying about it, too, you know? Praying for change. Doing as much as I can.”

Davis struggled through the cell phone video of George Floyd’s death on May 25, in which Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin (since charged with second-degree murder) knelt on Floyd’s neck for almost nine minutes. The ignorance displayed there, Davis said — especially as Floyd cried out “I can’t breathe” — left him in “so much shock and disbelief.” Activism was an easy decision.

“I wanted to participate because it means something,” Davis said. “This is my family, my people, my culture.”

Davis attended the county’s two main protests: a march at noon in downtown Siler City on June 5, and an afternoon gathering at the Chatham County Justice Center in Pittsboro on June 6. Both of those protests were noticeably diverse — something Davis saw as a good sign and a reminder to Black people that “it’s not just us” fighting for change.

This month, he’s also kept the conversation going on social media, where he’s tried to serve as an educator and listener. When Davis sees hurtful posts from other students or community members — “Black lives don’t matter,” one of them read — he’ll reach out.

“The most I can do is just text them, try to explain,” Davis said. “But half the time, that doesn’t do anything. Half the time they’ll probably just leave it on read, leave the (Snapchat) open. They don’t care.”

He’s quick to note that he’s only referring to “certain people” and “it’s not every cop and it’s not everybody” who’s being racist or prejudiced. Davis said his non-Black basketball and football teammates, who are “like a family,” have stood in solidarity with him and other Black players.

Still, it bugs him that he can only do so much. Racism is taught, Davis said, and the key to dismantling it is taking a serious look at life from a different perspective, such as his.

Davis, who personally has never had a police interaction, admitted he fears such moments “because you never know what’s going to happen.” He has advised his 12-year-old sister and younger cousins on how to act in public (“Don’t do anything off the wall, anything that can risk your life”) and what to do in a police interaction (“Just cooperate”).

A perspective like that, he said, is valuable. He can offer it, but the final step — actually taking it into account and learning — is something he can’t control.

“People aren’t going to change unless they’re willing to,” Davis said.

For that, he prays.

‘Felt wrong not to speak up’

At Northwood High in Pittsboro, boys basketball coach Matt Brown and baseball coach David Miller, both white men, have voiced their support for the Black Lives Matter movement on the team Twitter accounts they manage.

Miller, 46, said it was the first time he’d spoken out publicly as an ally. After George Floyd’s death, he spent a few weeks listening to Black people’s personal experiences with racism and police brutality — through articles, podcasts, tweets and more — to better inform himself.

“The more I listened and learned, it just felt wrong not to speak up,” he said in an email. “I wanted the young people that I lead to know where I stand.”

Floyd, the Woods Charter athletic director, said uncomfortable conversations — like the ones Miller is now seeking out with his family, friends, neighbors and coworkers — are necessary for growth.

In recent weeks, she’s rehashed to colleagues how implicit racism has affected her life, detailing a lack of Black women in soccer for her to look up to as a child; micro-aggressions such as comments on her hair and body as she grew up in predominantly white Midlothian, Virginia; and the time a white person asked her father how much he was being paid to mow the large lawn of the house he’d owned for years. As a mother, she’s already starting to worry about her son, too.

“That’s what goes through the back of my mind,” Floyd said of her 5-year-old. “He has to be perfect, you know? He has to get it together … he’s going to be considered a threat (when he’s older and taller) even if he does everything right.”

Deeply ingrained issues like that and their roots aren’t quick fixes, she said, and the last month has been a tiring one for her. But she’s also been motivated by some of the small, tangible steps made in her circles at Florida, Woods Charter and beyond.

“At the end of the day, you need to have these conversations,” Floyd said. “It’s best to be open about it.”

Reporter Chapel Fowler can be reached at cfowler@chathamnr.com or on Twitter at @chapelfowler.

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