It took more time for Yoeli Childs to write his Black Lives Matter-inspired Instagram post describing the racism he experienced while growing up in Utah than it took for the post’s impact to be felt.
For two weeks, BYU’s recently graduated star basketball player crafted his message. He took painstaking measures to ensure it was educational, not attacking. He pored over each sentence, seeking out words like “ignorant” and replacing them with less loaded terms like “not knowing.” Then Wednesday — with some trepidation but also prodded by the deadline of his appearance on Sports Nation the following day — he finally decided it was ready for the world to see.
“With all things I’ve experienced in my life, that are being experienced by people of color and especially Black people across the country, it sparked a lot of emotion in me,” Childs, who graduated from Bingham High in South Jordan, said. “I was very angry and sad and hurt and I thought it was important to express those emotions and do it in a productive way.”
On Friday, two days after posting his letter of protest, Childs witnessed the beginnings of the change he hoped to see. It was happening within his former Cougars teammates.
Coach Mark Pope had asked Childs to read his post during the basketball team’s regular Friday Zoom call. So, the only player in BYU history to surpass 2,000 points and 1,000 rebounds in his career told the other players about how his younger brother once had six police officers point guns at him while he stood for 40 minutes in the cold on the shoulder of a highway as they searched his car, which they said “fit a description.” Then he fielded their questions and listened intently to their self realizations.
“I wasn’t surprised by the questions,” Childs said. “They have really big hearts and are all wondering, ‘What can I do?’”
Pope has been holding these team calls for months, playfully calling them “Storytime with Mr. Pope.” At first they consisted of biographies, but as the social climate changed, so did their focus. Over the past three weeks, Pope has been encouraging his players, the vast majority of whom are white, to closely examine and question their beliefs and their actions, especially when it comes to race.
It’s part team bonding, part civics class.
“We’ve been struggling with this as a team,” Pope said. He added, “We’ve been challenging each other and have been having unbelievable conversations. The guys have been actively trying to figure out things they could do that are productive.”
Childs said his Cougars teammates have never treated him as anything other than one of them. In his Instagram post, however, he detailed an incident that occurred while he was a student-athlete at BYU. He said he was pulled over and had a lengthy exchange with an officer who did not believe the car Childs was driving was his own.
As he grew to be 6-foot-8, 230 pounds, Childs said confrontations caused by his dark skin became less frequent. In his youth, though, he said he was followed in stores and accused of shoplifting, had racial slurs shouted at him and had his life threatened on multiple occasions.
Pope, who is entering his second year at BYU, said he knew nothing of that past. That realization clearly pained the coach.
“Literally, we have shared, like, some of the most intimate, personal fears and worries and ambitions about him striving for his dreams. And the trust that I think we’ve shared together in each other, I think has had unbelievable depth,” Pope said. “And so how does it happen that we have shared that, in all honesty, like a really, really beautifully intimate relationship? How is it we’ve shared that and we haven’t shared this part? Right?
“And I think it speaks to maybe some of this stuff that’s missing in just national dialogue.”
Creating a catalyst for that dialogue, especially in Utah, where Black people and those of mixed race combined make up just 2.1% of the population, was Childs’ intention. The responses to his post reflect its efficacy in that purpose. In two days, it received nearly 17,000 likes and numerous comments, many of which thanked him for bringing his personal history of mistreatment to light.
“Because there are not so many Black people here, it only makes sense that most people here haven’t been around Black people,” Childs said. “They don’t have them in their lives, so it only makes sense they think this happens in other places, it doesn’t happen here. But the way people have been receptive and loving and willing to listen and look at themselves in the mirror has been awesome.”
Expected to be a late first- or early second-round pick in the 2020 NBA Draft, speaking out could hurt Childs’ stock. He said he considered that, but the NBA is more encouraging of its players taking a stand on social issues than other major professional sports leagues. And ultimately, he said he felt he had little choice if he wanted to be on the right side of history.
“It’s one of those things,” he said. “What are you going to be able to tell your kids and grandkids? Did you stand up and speak when the time was right or did you stay silent?”
Those are the same kinds of questions Pope is asking this season’s Cougars. He’s also asking those questions of himself. And he doesn’t want it to stop there. He wants his conversations with his players and staff to lead to them having conversations with their family and friends. He wants them to see the protesters marching through the streets of downtown Salt Lake City every day for nearly three weeks straight and realize their actions resonate as much as any of their chants or signs.
“If we don’t come out of this making progress, shame on us,” Pope said. “If we don’t come out of this individually as families, as a community, as a country making serious, quick, drastic progress, then shame on us. So we need to do it. It’s important.”