Dabo Swinney's Statement on George Floyd's Death Misses the Mark

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Dabo Swinney spoke Monday, and it really wasn’t worth the wait. That shouldn’t surprise anyone.

Many of his college football and basketball coaching brethren released statements over the course of what was a terrible weekend in America, which followed a terrible week, which continued a terrible cycle of police brutality against Black people. This time, the kettle of seething anger boiled over—not just in Minneapolis, scene of the killing of George Floyd, but everywhere. From sea to shining sea, the United States was a rolling succession of protests and violent flash points.

The force of these events jarred the eternally cautious collegiate coaching community out of stasis mode and into statement mode. Some of them were eloquent and forceful. Some were trite. Some words seemed to come less from the heart than from a recruiter’s cynical sense of which way the wind is blowing in the Black community.

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But one prominent football coaching voice wasn’t heard until Monday. It was the voice of Swinney, the guy with the $93 million contract, winner of two national titles and a man who has taken the Clemson Tigers to four of the last five College Football Playoff championship games. There was widespread wondering what was taking Swinney so long.

"Sometimes it's better to listen than speak,” he said, when it was time to speak Monday. “It's not about trying to speak first or something like that. I've spent the last week listening."

To his credit, Swinney didn’t opt for the safety of a canned statement that was carefully shined up by the Clemson PR team. He spoke live Monday afternoon on a zoom call with the media—a natural talker who wanted to voice his feelings in real time.

Dabo’s comments were an extension of many of other comments over the years, which reveal him thusly: He’s just a football coach with a simplistic worldview. Swinney is a charismatic man, a self-made man who overcame a difficult childhood, a leader, a winner, and someone I enjoy covering. But if you’re looking for great depth on what’s happening outside the football facility, well, he may not be your guy.

Put it this way: The two most famous outspoken Christians at Clemson both had things to say about the death of Floyd and the subsequent violence, and the 21-year-old quarterback was more willing to speak plainly than the 50-year-old coach.

Trevor Lawrence, on Twitter Friday: “There has to be a shift in the way of thinking. Rational must outweigh irrational. Justice must outweigh injustice. Love must outweigh hate. If you put yourself in someone else’s shoes and you don’t like how it feels—that’s when you know things need to change.

“I’m siding with my brothers that deal, and continuously deal, with things I will never experience. The injustice is clear … and so is the hate. It can no longer be explained away. If you’re still ‘explaining' it - check your heart and ask why.”

Dabo, on Monday: "First and foremost I know that we are all hurting for the Floyd family and our country. I can speak for our entire staff and our team in that regard for sure. We have all witnessed just disgusting acts of evil. That’s really the only word I can appropriately use.

“What I know as I approach everything from a perspective of faith is that where there are people, there’s going to be hate, there’s going to be racism and greed and jealousy and crime and so on because we live in a sinful fallen world. We’ve had so much bad news."

Generalizing the death of a Black man at the knee of a white police officer as a byproduct of our sinful world didn’t exactly hit the mark. You can believe that the devil made Derek Chauvin do it, but a specific acknowledgement that this was an act of police brutality perpetrated upon a Black man in handcuffs would have helped convince the world that Dabo gets it.

There have been previous reasons to doubt.

Swinney has been known to comment—at length—on social issues. This is something that often comes with making millions of dollars and winning some 80% of your games: you become an expert on everything. That tends to be reinforced by people in your orbit who consider winning football games only slightly less important than finding a COVID-19 vaccine.

So, when Swinney was asked in September 2016 about Colin Kaepernick and other NFL players kneeling in protest of police brutality during the national anthem, he delivered what the Charleston Post & Courier said was a 986-word, eight-minute response.

Dabo wasn’t a fan of what Kaepernick did: “I don’t think it’s good to be a distraction to your team.” (Not a surprise, given Swinney’s staunch stance on the evils of paying college players.) He was unwilling to acknowledge the racial divide in the country: “It’s so easy to say we have a race problem, but we got a sin problem.” Nor was he willing to cede any ground to those unhappy with the state of America: “Some of these people need to move to another country.”

Swinney was asked about that love-it-or-leave comment Monday. “That was probably a harsh statement for sure,” he acknowledged.

Like a lot of people in their 50s, Swinney probably dearly wanted to believe that America left racism behind decades ago. We were taught that, to a degree, and many of us swallowed the myth whole. Someone even invented and popularized the term “post-racial,” as if it were a real thing.

It was never true, of course. And events keep reminding us that the children of the 1950s, ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s haven’t finished the job of fully advancing the cause of equality. Progress? Sure. Perfection? Hardly. Light years left to go? Definitely.

It would be great if Swinney, and the other rich men in his profession who lead teams with high percentages of Black males, could really lean into America’s most glaring unfinished job. Not just quoting scripture or Martin Luther King, but creating tangible change. (Texas basketball coach Shaka Smart showed the way Monday, in a post full of excellent starting points.) 

It would be uncomfortable and perhaps alienate some of their fans, but they have the clout (and the financial security) to stick their necks out. If they truly believe in such a cause.

Dabo Swinney isn’t a bad guy. He’s also not the guy who comes to mind as a change agent. He’s a great college football coach—but just a college football coach.