In the days since former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin was caught on camera pressing his knee against George Floyd’s neck for almost nine minutes until he died, Utah football head coach Kyle Whittingham and his staff have addressed the incident in team meetings.
There has been discussion and support, both as a team and individual units, as the fallout from Floyd’s death plays out across the nation in the form of rallies and protests of police brutality. In an interview with The Salt Lake Tribune on Tuesday, Whittingham reaffirmed his love for the togetherness and diversity inside his locker room, which is generally split three ways between African-American, white/LDS and Polynesian student-athletes.
Friday afternoon’s scathing revelation involving Morgan Scalley, in the middle of what is shaping up to be a pivotal moment of civil unrest in the United States, may put all of that to the test.
Late Friday, Utah announced the 40-year-old defensive coordinator has been suspended effective immediately as an outside firm investigates a social media post referencing a 2013 text message to a recruit in which Scalley used racist language.
In a school-issued statement, Utah athletic director Mark Harlan said he has spoken to Scalley, who was contrite, while acknowledging he sent the text message with a derogatory term. In the same statement, Scalley apologized, called the word he used “insensitive,” and accepted the suspension, which is with pay and indefinite while the school investigates.
“We’ve certainly addressed it, with the staff first and then we had a team meeting a few nights ago via Zoom where we talked to the team about it,” Whittingham told The Tribune about the Floyd video, one day before criminal charges against Chauvin were upgraded to second-degree murder, while the other three officers involved were charged with aiding and abetting second-degree murder. “This week, the offense and the defense as individual units are having Zoom calls as well with their groups and further discussing.
“Bottom line is, we want to make sure we’re there to support our guys and that they know we’re there for them. We have a great mental health team here at the University of Utah and just making sure the players use all the resources available to them and know the support is there if they want to reach out. That’s been our main focus since the event.”
Added Utah receivers coach Guy Holliday: “What I see is really a problem allowed to fester and exist for whatever reasons, but it seems to be a fear of African-American men, plus a willingness to intimidate, be aggressive and punish. What we have to recognize is there are good and bad people within all races, it’s not exclusive to men or minorities. We have to have more tolerance and really better treatment of human beings.”
In the wake of Floyd’s death, Whittingham, Holliday and the rest of the coaching staff were already in the middle of a unique and teachable moment. While African Americans make up nearly 50% of all FBS rosters according to multiple analysis done over the last decade by a variety of sources, Whittingham is the head coach of one of, if not the most-diverse rosters in the country.
“It’s one of the things I love most about our program and our team, the diversity,” Whittingham said. “We believe we’re the most-diverse team in the country and not just from an ethnic background, but we also have 18-year-old freshman and 25-year-old returned missionaries. We have various religious backgrounds, so you’d be hard-pressed to find a team in the country in any sport that has the level of diversity that we have. To me, it’s been a blessing. It’s a way for these guys to interact with each other, get along with each other and it’s been a strength of ours. It’s been great to be a part of that for so many years.
“I think it helps prepare them for life in a lot of different ways. To learn how to get along and be part of a team and have so many guys pulling in the same direction that genuinely care about each other and love each other, it’s just great to be a part of.”
In the aftermath, a handful of former players and recruits have come out in support of Scalley on Twitter, which is to be expected. Scalley, 40, is generally considered player-friendly, a strong defensive mind, an effective recruiter and a future head coach. He is viewed by some as the potential successor to Whittingham whenever he decides to retire.
As far as being a head coach, let alone Utah’s next head coach, that situation now warrants long-term attention. If an outside investigation finds this to be a one-time incident, it is survivable, although it may torpedo his chances of being the Utes head coach, maybe anywhere for that matter. Scalley was on UNLV’s radar as its head coaching search cranked up in December.
How things play out in the shorter term will also offer fascination because as rallies and protests persist, Utah players, and young men of color in general, have proven more than willing to use social media to help get their point of racial injustice across.
One Ute in particular, redshirt junior running back TJ Green, has been active on social media in the days since protests ramped up nationwide. Tuesday and Wednesday nights brought protests to the downtown area of Green’s hometown of Chandler, Ariz.
On Tuesday, Green tweeted out a photo of himself with a group of fellow young African-American males. They are holding up a sign that reads “AM I NEXT?” That sentence is sandwiched in between two black power fists. The next day, Green fired off a photo of himself holding the sign at a protest next to a photo of himself in game action at Utah. The accompanying tweet read, “If you do not support me in this field, Then do NOT support me on the field.”
“There’s a right way and a wrong way to do it, but we talk in this program all the time about letting their personalities show through,” Whittingham said. “You get a team of 100-plus players, approaching 120 players, you have a bunch of personalities and you want them to manifest. That also goes for the coaching staff. If you’re on a coaching staff, in a meeting with 12 guys with the same personality and who all think the same way, you don’t need that. We encourage people to be themselves and stand up for what they believe in, but do it the right way. There are ways to do things constructively instead of destructively.”
Holliday added. “I think it’s very important for young people to have a voice. For so long, adults tended to brush over and really don’t acknowledge the opinions and voices of our youth. If you see the protests, they are cross-racial and there is a lot of pain and frustration if you listen to what these young people are saying. We need to listen to what they’re saying, we have to stop dismissing them as not being important.”