IOWA CITY, Iowa – Less than a week after George Floyd died in police custody sparking protests against racial injustice worldwide, Iowa basketball coach Fran McCaffery released a strong statement condemning the treatment of blacks and calling for change. Within it, he used a term that some Americans push back against – systemic racism.
“I am heartbroken over the recent events happening across our country. These events highlight the fact that systemic racial injustice demands change,” he wrote in June 1.
McCaffery plans on taking action. He’s joining the Big Ten Anti-Hate and Anti-Racism Coalition along with his oldest son, Connor McCaffery, a junior on the current Iowa team. The goal of the coalition is to seek tangible ways to actively and constructively combat racism and hate around the world while also empowering student-athletes to express their rights to free speech and peaceful protest.
McCaffery, 61, grew up in a diverse city of Philadelphia running up and down the blacktop courts and warm gyms with black people all around him. He’s lived in Indiana, North Carolina and New York. He watched the riots of 1964 and ’68, the marches and speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the national unrest after police accused of beating Rodney King in ’93 were acquitted. At the time, he was recruiting in Los Angeles, the site of the trial.
That the country still is dealing with racial injustice magnified by George Floyd’s death and those of other black people has McCaffery convinced that racism is systemic.
“Why does this stuff keep happening? At some point, shouldn’t it stop? I saw what happened in 1964. It shouldn’t have happened then and it certainly shouldn’t be happening in 2020. It’s a statement of fact. It’s not like I sat down and I thought to choose my words carefully. It’s just a statement of fact. It’s what we’ve all experienced. And that has to stop happening if we’re going to be better as a society,” he said.
Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren, who took over the job in January, teamed up with McCaffery on the ’81-82 University of Pennsylvania basketball team. He’s dealt with a pandemic and racial unrest in his first six months on the job. He kicked off the anti-hate and anti-racism coalition, and created mental health initiatives for the conference.
“I reached out to Kevin Warren when a lot of this began and told him I was ready to help. Connor was equally motivated. We’re fortunate to be part of this coalition. There are some pretty impressive people in this group,” McCaffery said.
“And I believe in Kevin Warren. He’s the guy that can make this work for change. Not everybody wants to be in that situation, but he does and we’ll get through it.”
Iowa’s basketball roster for ’20-21 consists of seven white players and six black players on scholarship. They’re having discussions on social unrest in the country.
“We had conversations with them right when everything happened. The important thing at that time was to listen and let them talk about how they feel. We all agree that it begins with dialogue. We’ve done that,” Fran McCaffery said.
“Our players are really together and they’re all in agreement. They love each other.”
McCaffery sees the basketball court as a place that doesn’t discriminate based on skin color.
“It’s a smaller group. That’s your brother lining up next to you on the floor and next to you in the locker room. That’s the way it should be in college whether it’s athletics, academics, socially. Having two sons on the team, and knowing how strongly they feel about wanting change, along with a person I have the utmost respect for in Kevin Warren, if we can use this platform to help make things better, that’s important to me,” he said.
Like many Americans, McCaffery has struggled with seeing racial inequities in the country the last several weeks. And it’s something he’s watched throughout his life.
“To see what’s happened recently is just heartbreaking and beyond acceptable. We’re not asking for change. We’re demanding change. I’m 100 percent convinced that change will happen for the better. Hopefully everyone is as committed as I’m going to be to making that happen,” he said.