USF calls off football practice to join national race discussions after Jacob Blake shooting

USF and Boston College follow the lead of several NFL teams by not practicing Thursday. The Gators practiced but discussed racial issues afterward.
USF football player KJ Sails, front, and coach Jeff Scott are seen during a unifying walk in the wake of George Floyd's death on June 6 in Tampa.
USF football player KJ Sails, front, and coach Jeff Scott are seen during a unifying walk in the wake of George Floyd's death on June 6 in Tampa. [ OCTAVIO JONES | Special to the Times ]
Published Aug. 27, 2020|Updated Aug. 27, 2020

TAMPA — Jeff Scott’s protective mask could shroud his quivering lips, but not the cracks in his voice as he addressed reporters around lunchtime Thursday.

Hours earlier, USF’s first-year football coach briefly met with his team, then with some veterans who form the Bulls’ leadership group. Those discussions prompted Scott to call off Thursday’s practice in response to the latest surge of social unrest following the police shooting of a Black man in Wisconsin.

Related: NBA players make loud statement by turning down the volume

“These are real-life situations that are going on,” said Scott, who had to pause to compose himself while standing at a podium outside the Selmon Athletics Center. “I think as a coach, you always take pride in being able to fix things for your players. … This is one of those situations that, as a coach, you can’t fix for your players.”

Even as Scott spoke, solidarity in the sports world fortified over the shooting of Jacob Blake. A day after action in the NBA and WNBA bubbles came to a momentary halt and a handful of Major League Baseball teams chose not to play, at least nine NFL teams ditched practice. USF and Boston College did, too, while players at Kentucky left the field.

The discussions at Boston College began Wednesday evening, and by Thursday morning, first-year coach Jeff Hafley knew the best thing for his team was to ignore football for a few hours. Their conversations, first in a large group and then smaller ones, lasted longer than practice would have.

“We have a group of people who are hurting, and we have coaches who are hurting, and we have another group of people who are trying to understand and become educated.” said Hafley, a Bucs assistant in 2012-13. “... I do believe we had some really great conversations today, because things do need to change. There’s too much hate, and there needs to be more love.”

In Gainesville and Orlando, practice continued as usual for the Gators and Knights.

But the discussion afterward veered far away from football.

One of Florida coach Dan Mullen’s messages is to eliminate ignorance through education about other races, religions and cultures, even if change is uncomfortable.

“People have to try to get a little uncomfortable, and people have to try to go learn about other people,” Mullen said. “Go expand your horizons. Don’t just look at something and judge other people or don’t look at someone who is different than you and judge them. Go learn about everything.”

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That’s what Mullen has tried to do personally, especially surrounding the Black Lives Matter movement.

Related: How the Florida Gators addressed the Jacob Blake shooting

Mullen said he thought the All Lives Matter response made sense until he learned more about the movements and the issues behind them. He compared it to the Boston Strong shirts that came out after the Boston Marathon bombing.

“Why does it only get to be Boston that gets to be strong, right?” Mullen said. “Of course all lives do matter, but that’s not what we’re talking about right now. We’re talking about this specific situation where we’re seeing racial injustice has happened and we’re trying to draw light to that. We’re not saying other things aren’t important. We’re trying to draw light to this.”

UCF coach Josh Heupel, whose team held an indoor walk-through Thursday, called sports “the greatest platform” to illuminate social issues such as the ones currently percolating.

“We’ve got big, we’ve got small. We’ve got Black, we’ve got brown, we’ve got white,” Heupel told reporters in a Zoom conversation. “But when you come into a team setting, everyone’s treated equally. You’re focused on a mission, a common goal, and you’re ultimately working next to somebody that’s got a completely different background than you do.

“But all of the sudden, you find out that there’s a lot of things that are way more similar than they are different. And to me, that’s the great platform of sports. And ultimately, hopefully sports can help continue to change the dialogue, change the conversation and change society.”

Players across the state and country have been trying to make those changes since George Floyd’s death in May. Racial reforms were among the demands of the Pac-12 players who threatened to sit out earlier this month, before their season was called off.

Florida State star Marvin Wilson threatened to sit out in June after first-year coach Mike Norvell exaggerated his conversations with the team about racial issues. Norvell quickly apologized. The ensuing discussions led to meaningful reform on campus and in Tallahassee, including the formation of Marvin’s Movement, which will help teach children financial literacy.

Players’ voices picked up again during this renewed call for social justice.

“We’re target practice to these cops,” UF defensive lineman Zachary Carter wrote on Twitter. “(T)hey have no remorse or no sympathy. ... It’s heartbreaking.”

“This is a ‘condition’ and this condition does not have a cure so it’s time we hit the root,” wrote USF defensive back KJ Sails.

“I’m a black male living in this world not knowing if I would see the sun the next day,” wrote Antonio Nunn, a Buffalo receiver from Tampa’s Jefferson High. “... I could do everything right and still be Hated or judged. I live in FEAR and most individuals can’t relate because they won’t know what it’s like to be in our shoes.”

On Thursday, such outcries moved coaches to tears.

Whether they move society’s needle remains to be seen.

“And so part of it is just for your guys to know that you love them, that you’re there to support them and that you stand with them,” Scott said. “That’s really what these conversations are about, and then what do we do going forward as a team to try to have a positive impact to such a disappointing and sad situation?”